Russia (Update): Pussy Riot Trial Concludes

Posted on August 10, 2012

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Feminist punk group Pussy Riot perform during a 'flashmob'-style protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.Remember, we wrote about Russia’s all-girl punk band Pussy Riot way back in March, when they had just gotten arrested – three of them anyway – for performing an unauthorized “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.  The song was a political protest  in response to Patriarch Kirill’s public statements that people should not go out and protest during Russia’s pre-election period, but should instead go home and pray silently.  Although the band mainly protests about political subjects, Pussy Riot has also criticized the church’s position on women’s roles in society.

Pussy Riot’s modus operandi has been to quickly set up in public spaces such as storefronts, pedestrian zones, or in the Moscow Metro system, belt out a song or two consisting of sharp political criticism, and then to bundle up and depart the scene, hopefully before getting caught.  On several occasions, some of the women – the band has a fluctuating number of performers, totaling about 30 – have been briefly detained and fined on the spot.  But not after the performance in the church; that was going too far for Patriarch Kirill. Strange how the women criticized Putin numerous times without suffering any ill consequences, but ended up in jail – illegally, some observers say  – when they ran afoul of the church.  It is just one more symptom of the church’s ever-increasing grasp for power in these post-Soviet years.

Pussy Riot’s experience with the Russian legal system is instructive to outsiders.  The case against them is largely built on emotion and outrage, not law.  Kirill is certainly not the only offended party; among the Orthodox faithful, there is a sharp division between those who think the women were offensive, but not criminals, and those who think the women should be harshly punished.

But punished for what, exactly?

The women are charged with “hooliganism,” which, according to the Russian legal code (Article 213, specifically) includes violence and destruction of property, neither of which occurred in any of the Pussy Riot performances.

And then, in violation of the Russian legal code as it pertains to – no, should pertain to their case, the women were kept incarcerated pending their trial.  They were initially scheduled to be released on 24 April, but their bail has been repeatedly denied, and the Russian public has taken notice.  Amnesty International has declared them prisoners of conscience.

There is the issue of politics and powerful church figures influencing the case, and then there is the fact that emotional, irrelevant arguments are driving the prosecution.

Michael Idov wrote an excellent piece in The New York Times describing the trial:

“[The trial] is unfolding amid universal disregard for the letter of the law. A case that should pivot on a specific legal question (“Does a violation of church protocol rise to the level of religious hatred?”) instead hangs entirely on emotions, including those of Patriarch Kirill I and President Vladimir V. Putin, that the judge and the prosecution appear to be trying to divine. The debate about the trial has also been full of pointless syllogisms: What if it was your daughter up there? What if they tried doing this in a mosque? What if someone came into your house and defecated on the carpet?”

For all its apparent progress in the post-Soviet era, Russia is nothing resembling a democracy.  Oh, they hold their elections, there is something resembling voting; but the whole conduct of the Pussy Riot pretrial confinement and the trial itself shines a light on how the system – if you can even call it that – really works.  There are laws, but they mean nothing.  Political power is the real currency of Russian justice.

Pussy Riot’s  verdict is due next week.  The only hope they may have is the fact that their case has incited so much popular outrage, and even celebrity support*, as people react to the obviously disproportionate punishment the women have already endured.  They have been imprisoned for about six months for actions that probably don’t even amount to a real crime.  One can hope that Patriarch Kirill and President Putin might float a hint to the court that they would rather not stir up further unrest over the case.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed for whatever the Russian equivalent is for “time served.”

* Madonna gets special mention here for showing her support during her Moscow concerts.

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