Pussy Riot and the Farce of Russian Justice

By IndepthAfrica
In Europe
Aug 20th, 2012
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It wasn’t a trial but a farce. Following a courtroom saga that made a mockery of Russia’s judicial system and aroused global condemnation, the three female members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot have been sentenced to two years in jailfor the crime of protesting the government of President Vladimir Putin.

To be sure, their official transgression is “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” But there can be no doubt that this charge is little more than political cover for what is essentially an act of political retribution by the Putin government. In February, the band staged an anti-government guerrilla protest in Moscow’s main cathedral when they donned colorful balaclava masks and proceeded to belt out a “punk prayer,” which they titled “Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!” Government prosecutors later called the song blasphemous, but it’s clear from the lyrics that the target is not religion or even the Russian Orthodox Church per se, but rather its subservience to Putin. (“The head of the KBG is their patron saint.”) The entire performance lasted less than a minute.

The band members’ ordeal is set to last far longer. In March, they were detained and jailed without so much as a hearing. For the past few weeks, they have been forced to watch on as the government staged what might be generously called a kangaroo court. While the band members’ defense attorneys were prohibited from calling witnesses to testify on their behalf, the prosecution was allowed to parade dozens of “victims” of the band’s performance, each more ludicrous than the last.

One witness testified that the women of Pussy Riot hated Russian Orthodoxy, as evidence for which she cited their use of curse words. Among the curse words she found offensive was “feminist.” Yet another alleged victim insisted that the band members were guilty of “imitating Satanic movement with their hands.” In a spectacle marked by absurdity, arguably the most surreal moment came when the prosecution called an expert witness whose sole qualification was having seen a YouTube video of Pussy Riot’s performance and read an interview with the band. It was a crude satire of justice, laughable if not for the fact of its outrageous outcome.

Of the many ironies of the trial, the most poignant may that it has confirmed Pussy Riot’s indictment of both the Putin government and the culture of crushing conformity and political obedience that it’s authoritarian rule has solidified both in Russia’s religious institutions and in society at large. As band member Maria Alyokhina put it in a powerful closing statement, Russians

have a sense of themselves simply as the automated masses. They don’t feel that the forest belongs to them, even the forest located right next to their houses. I doubt they even feel a sense of ownership over their own houses. Because if someone were to drive up to their porch with a bulldozer and tell them that they need to evacuate, that, “Excuse us, we’re going raze your house to make room for a bureaucrat’s residence,” these people would obediently collect their belongings, collect their bags, and go out on the street. And then stay there precisely until the regime tells them what they should do next. They are completely shapeless, it is very sad. Having spent almost half a year in jail, I have come to understand that prison is just Russia in miniature.

As if to emphasize the point, the judge in the Pussy Riot concluded her verdict by charging that the band showed “open disrespect and defiance against the commonly accepted norms and tastes of others.” In essence, it was a chilling confirmation that being different, that refusing to conform, were now crimes in Russia, punishable by jail time.

Pussy Riot’s jail sentence should finally put paid to the idea that the Russian government is responsive to global opinion. As the government’s persecution of Pussy Riot and the deficiencies of the trial became increasingly obvious in recent weeks, commentators rushed to speculate that the government’s handling of the case was a “PR catastrophe.” Surely, the fact that Pussy Riot’s cause had been embraced by celebrities as big as Madonna and Paul McCartney would make Putin think twice about handing down a severe sentence.

In the end, none of it mattered. The government made clear that if it wanted to punish its political opponents, however innocent or harmless, it would — world opinion be damned. Just to underscore the point, immediately after the jail sentence was handed down police rounded up and arrested over a 100 protesters outside the courtroom, among them the former chess champion and pro-democracy activist Garry Kasparov. The message to Russia’s nascent political opposition rang loud and clear clear: When it comes to political dissent, you have the right to remain silent, and that right will be strictly enforced.

Jacob Laksin is a senior writer for Front Page Magazine. He is co-author, with David Horowitz, of The New Leviathan (Crown Forum, 2012), and One-Party Classroom (Crown Forum, 2009). Email him at jlaksin@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at

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