Unbelievable… I wish. Unfortunately it’s all too believable: three members of the Russian band Pussy Riot have been jailed for two years, for an impromptu performance of an anti-Putin “punk prayer” in the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Officially, their crime was “hooliganism” motivated by religious hatred – “in other words, a grave violation of public order,” said Judge Marina Syrova.
The case against the three defendants – Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich – has been dressed up as a “hate crime” against the Russian Orthodox Church. In her three hour summing up before verdict and sentencing, Judge Syrova said she had convicted the women of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and that the act had been one of blasphemy, not politics. She refuted the claim that the protest was political in nature, calling on the people to stop Putin from becoming president of Russia for a third term (which he achieved two weeks after the performance). The punk prayer was certainly obscene, but was a “brief, obscenity-laced performance, which implored the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out” – which Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill said amounted to blasphemy.
This was the prosecution’s strategy from the start, representing the performance as one of religious hatred rather than politically motivated. Even though the punk prayer clearly called for Putin to go, the government, politicians and members of the Orthodox hierarchy have repeatedly described it as blasphemy. Critics of Pussy Riot have been quoted by the BBC as saying it was “an insult to the Russian Orthodox Church”. “Shouting and screaming and spreading hate in Church is unacceptable and is contrary with Christian ethics,” posted one critic online. One protester outside court in Moscow simply shouted: “Let Pussy Riot and all their supporters burn in hell.”
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said in a letter to supporters ( written before the verdict and passed to them by her lawyer), “I hold no spite. I have no private spite. But I have political spite.”
Our being in jail is a clear and distinct sign that freedom is being taken away from the whole country,” she wrote. “And this threat of destruction of the liberating, emancipatory forces of Russia is what makes me angry
Putin’s Russia has long been a dictatorship in all but name. Putin stood down as prime minister, but immediately became president. And dissent has always been met with strong-arm tactics. Even a brief anti-Putin performance in church has been punished in a way that does not reflect the “crime”, and the government has been careful to concentrate all attention on the “religious” aspect of the affair, so many people see it as an insult to their faith.
There have been protests internationally, with many well-known people lending a voice: Ex-world chess champion Garry Kasparov was among several people arrest said ed outside the court in Moscow including opposition politician Sergei Udaltsov, while other protests have been attended by well-known people such as Paul McCartney, Madonna and Bjork. Protests have been held internationally, such as in Paris, where demonstrators in Igor Stravinsky square chanted “Freedom”, and in Kiev, where women protesters sawed down a wooden cross in a central square, Belgrade, Berlin, Sofia, London, Dublin and Barcelona. Of course, there have also been anti-Pussy Riot demonstrations, attended by Orthodox worshippers who have been tricked by Putin and his henchmen. It’s all been a wonderful distraction for Putin’s people to put into effect various anti-democratic steps, such as the series of laws targeting demonstrations, non-governmental organisations and the internet, and the charges recently been brought against opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
“Our imprisonment serves as a clear and unambiguous sign that freedom is being taken away from the entire country,” wrote Tolokonnikova in her letter written before the verdict.
“Whatever the verdict for Pussy Riot, we and you have already won,” she wrote. “Because we have learned to be angry and speak politically.”
Unfortunately, Russia has excellent, ruthless agents and troops inherited from the Communist age, and ex-KGB thug Putin won’t be standing down any time soon.