President Vladimir Putin has finally weighed in on the ongoing trial of the Pussy Riot punk rockers, which has dominated Russia's Twittersphere and blogosphere all week, and has offered his opinion that the three young women accused of profaning a Russian Orthodox altar with an obscenity-laced "punk prayer" should not be punished "too harshly."
"There was nothing good about that [Pussy Riot's alleged performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior last February]," Mr. Putin told reporters in London, where he is attending the Olympic Games. "Nevertheless, I don't think they should be punished too harshly. I hope they will draw some conclusions themselves."
"It's the court that must issue the final decision," Putin said. "I hope the court issues a correct decision, a well-substantiated one."
Putin's remarks have greatly encouraged sympathizers of the Pussy Riot women, who face up to seven years imprisonment for an act that may have been blasphemous in the eyes of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, but has legal experts scratching their heads to find any corpus delicti, or evidence of an actual crime, under the terms of Russia's secular Constitution.
Many experts say that the Kremlin's attitude – rather than the facts of the case – will be decisive in determining the outcome. Hence Putin's sudden talk of leniency suggests that authorities may be rethinking the wisdom of keeping three young women in pretrial detention for five months and then staging a high-profile trial that has visibly unraveled over the past five days into what sometimes looks like a cross between a circus and a medieval religious tribunal.
"This case is a shame and a disgrace," says Genry Reznik, chairman of the Moscow Bar Association and lawyer for one of the Pussy Riot women. "For a wrong song, sung in the wrong place at the wrong time, these young women have been kept in intolerable prison conditions for five months, treated like dangerous criminals, and threatened with more Draconian prison sentences than many truly serious criminals ever face? This is straight out of the Middle Ages."
Major Russian media have largely steered clear of reporting the courtroom details, and the judge has severely restricted access for reporters.
But Russia's freewheeling Internet has taken up the slack. Several blogs, Twitterfeeds, and online news agencies, including the prestigious Russian Legal Information Agency (which provides a running summary of the trial in Russian and English), have focused public attention on the unfolding spectacle, which has included raucous daily demonstrations outside the Khamovichesky District Court for and against Pussy Riot.
The case has attracted growing international attention and levels of solidarity with Pussy Riot that can't look good from the Kremlin's point of view. Over recent days many global musical celebrities, including Sting, Pete Townshend, the Pet Shop Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Franz Ferdinand, and Faith No More have voiced their support for the group. British writer and actor Stephen Fry, who boasts 4.6 million followers on Twitter, called on them to do everything they can to "pressure Putin" on behalf of Pussy Riot.
Splitting Russian society
The trial has visibly split Russian society.
More than 43,000 people have signed an Internet petition calling for the women's release and more than 100 leading public intellectuals, artists, and cultural personalities recently endorsed an open letter arguing that "the criminal case against Pussy Riot compromises the Russian judicial system and undermines confidence in the government institutions on the whole."
This week, 26 conservative Russian writers and poets, including the famous novelist who extols traditional Russian values, Valentin Rasputin, signed an open letter that described Pussy Riot as an "extremist" group and demanded a tough prison sentence for the women.
"It's clear there are two groups of people in Russian society: those who hate Russia and another that loves it," says Alexander Dugin, head of the rightist Eurasian Movement.
"The Pussy Riot case has become a litmus test for these groups. People who love Russia, its traditions and symbols, took [the cathedral performance] as a dire insult. But those who hate Russia will celebrate any opportunity to spit in Russia's face. The majority are Russia-lovers, but they are passive, humiliated, speechless. This struggle may help them to awaken," Mr. Dugin says.
Although the vast majority of Russian society appears to have been scandalized by Pussy Riot's church performance, the trend of public opinion appears to be inexorably softening as the Pussy Riot women's ordeal continues.
A running opinion poll conducted by the independent Levada Center in Moscow shows that the number of Russians who think the projected punishment of two- to seven-years imprisonment is "adequate" declined from 46 percent in March to 33 percent in July; those who think it is "too harsh" grew from 35 percent to 43 percent, and those who do not believe the women should be criminally prosecuted at all rose from 9 percent to 15 percent.
"The focus of public concern has shifted away from the act they committed to the fact that they've been in jail for 5 months, that they've been deprived of food and sleep, that this trial is turning into a marathon," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.
"In this context, Putin's apparent hopes for leniency are noteworthy. Though he formally said it's up to the court, he did express his opinion. You can hear a subtext in his remarks that say 'I am Russia's boss, and it's up to me.' No one has the slightest doubt that the verdict will be decided not in the courtroom, but somewhere else."