On Friday, 3 August 2012, three men wearing bright balaclava masks climbed onto a building across from the windows of the Khamovnichesky Court in Moscow, Russia. They waved flare torches and chanted “Free Pussy Riot” in a protest against the trial that was occurring in the Court at that moment. The men were eventually detained and the court proceedings continued despite the chaos.
The trial, which is expected to conclude in the following week, is of three young women who allegedly performed a “punk prayer” begging the Mother of God to rid Russia of Putin. The incident, which occurred on 26 February 2012, took place in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, in the center of Moscow. Four women, dressed in short dresses and colorful balaclavas barged into the Cathedral and danced around at the altar to a punk-rock song. The song criticized the link between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government with lyrics such as “the head of the KGB is their main saint” and “Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin. It would be better if he, *****, believed in God.”
The young women had previously conducted political protests through street performances on top of a detention center and a bus. Although several of the group’s members had been detained on those occasions, they only received fines for their antics. This time, however, the punk prayer touched a nerve. Several days after the performance, three young women were arrested: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (22), Maria Alekhina (24), and Ekaterina Samutsevich (29).
The trio is accused of hooliganism, but the women face up to seven years in prison due to the additional accusation that their act was motivated by religious hatred. Since the arrests in early March, the women have been kept in pre-trial detention, with the Khamovnichesky Court extending the detention several times. In late June, as Russian celebrities began a petition in support of Pussy Riot, the Court called an unscheduled session and decided to limit the time period during which Pussy Riot’s defense could familiarize themselves with their case.
Observers believe that the case of Pussy Riot is politically motivated; an attempt to send a message to all who want to demonstrate against the government. It has also sparked a debate about the uncomfortably close relationship of the government to the Russian Orthodox Church. But while Russian opinion is split, Pussy Riot has steadily gained followers both in the former Soviet Union and beyond.
Celebrities, politicians, NGOs and regular people have expressed concern and support for the feminist punk group. Many supporters of Pussy Riot have commented that they do not necessarily approve of Pussy Riot’s act, but they consider the authorities’ reaction to be disproportionate.
As Pussy Riot’s trial began on Monday 30 July 2012, the popularity of the group became undeniable. Everyday, news outlets release the latest updates from the court proceedings, describing and quoting the absurdity. In the transcripts from RAPSI News (Russian Legal Information Service), the judge mostly sides with the prosecution and has restricted the access of the defense’s witnesses into the Court several times. Furthermore, while it was the judge’s decision to limit the time period during which the lawyers could prepare for trial, she reprimands them for their lack of preparation.
According to members of “Russia Behind Bars,” a social movement advocating for rule of law and human rights, the Pussy Riot case is a typical example of the unprofessionalism that reigns in the Russian justice system. The publicity devoted to the case has brought problems of the justice system as well as the political situation in Russia to the forefront. If the Russian government wanted to make an example out of Pussy Riot, it seems that Pussy Riot has successfully made an example out of the government.
Unable to avoid the debacle, reporters asked Putin about the trial after a meeting with David Cameron in London on 2 August. “I hope the Court will issue the correct, justified decision,” stated Putin. He further indicated that if the young women had pulled something similar in Israel or the Caucuses, that they would face strong consequences. “But I don’t think that the young women should be judged so strictly for it. I hope they will draw their own conclusions,” expressed Putin.
Whether or not Putin’s statement foreshadows the Court’s decision, the three women are unlikely to be acquitted. Less than 1% of cases are acquitted in Russia, according to a 2009 report by the Center of Political Technologies. It is possible, however, that the public attention devoted to the case will affect the outcome.
But with the end of the trial only days away, Pussy Riot’s media domination is unlikely to continue beyond the verdict. So what will become of the punk feminists after the trial? In an e-mail interview, the group indicated that the battle will continue, regardless of the Court’s decision.
If the girls are released, Pussy Riot will carry on their political activism, specifically in the form of actionism (art protests).
However, in the event that the girls are not released, I asked the group if they have plans to fight the justice system itself. Pussy Riot explained that, “the group will definitely take action. We are waiting for the sentence and then we will begin. The justice system is not independent from the government, which why is there is a fight against it [the government], as well as a fight against the prison and judicial systems.”
When asked about the predictions for the political situation in Russia in the nearest two years, the group’s outlook was grim: “KGBzation of the country and the Belorussian scenario: no health, education, prison, or judicial systems.”
The sentiment is reflected among many opposition leaders who are demanding a “Russia without Putin.”
(Photo © AFP)