In Russia, a Return to Bad Habits

There was a brief moment in time, back in the early 1990s, where the idea of Russia becoming a real democracy did not seem ridiculous. By now, that illusion has passed. Corruption passes for governance, civil society functions albeit under strict scrutiny, and elections are less than free and fair. Needless to say dissent is not looked highly upon, so much so that earlier this year Russian officials declared a “rally” of “protesting” toys an illegal “unsanctioned public event.” The absurdity is good for a quick laugh, but actually just highlights the reasons why Freedom House found Russia to beconsolidated authoritarian regime in its Nations in Transit 2012 report.

There have been those who have fought against this slide. Numerous journalists have attempted to unveil the reality of the Russian government, with Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova probably being the best known and who were murdered in 2006 and 2009 respectively. Major protests broke outin December 2011 against Putin’s consolidation of power and the elections that cemented in power. But nothing has quite captured the same level of attention as Pussy Riot, a little known Russian punk performance group, before the Russian establishment declared war or them.

The cardinal sin in the Pussy Riot saga is a “punk prayer” they put on at Moscow’s Church of the Christ Savior. While the prayer only lasted about 40 seconds before they were thrown out, the real problem laid in the purpose of the performance which wasn’t made fully clear until an edited version – with an actual soundtrack – was released on YouTube. There, in an attempt to highlight the close relationship between the church and the state, the group sang a song calling upon the Virgin Mary to cast Putin out of office. Such an act of rebellion, albeit short and not really worth noticing, could not be ignored by the government. So of course three of the women involved were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

In other words, their act of rebellion against the establishment constituted a hate crime in the eyes of the state.

To the outside world, the unfolding drama seemed a bit absurd. Inside Russia it is a little more complicated. Russia is a conservative country where feminism is not highly looked upon, and the Russian Orthodox Church currently enjoys a return to their close relationship with the government since the end of communism. The act itself was very offensive to many people who felt that it mocked the church, the faithful, as well as the government. But the question still remained what cost should be paid for merely being offensive.

This is where the Pussy Riot story actually took off. In most Western countries, a similar act may still constitute a crime (ie: trespassing, disturbing the peace, etc.), but a fine would be far more likely than jail time. But in Russia, the crime of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred carries a minimum prison sentence of two years and a maximum of seven. Is seven years an appropriate punishment for a 40 second stunt? Is two years? Does the act call for any punishment at all?

Answering these questions was the supposed purpose of the trial, but the trial itself was a charade. After being repeatedly denied bail and spending five months in prison, the trial of Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova opened and soon became a showcase of Orwellian justice. While the women were confined in a large glass prison cell, the defense was denied the right to present most of their evidence while the prosecution focused on the brightly colored dresses the women wore, their art from when they were in kindergarten, and the importance of Orthodox faith for the testifying witnesses. Even in Russia where politics routinely invade judicial proceedings, the Pussy Riot trial gave a new meaning to “show trial.”

The end result was Friday’s verdict: two years imprisonment. No one was surprised as it was clear from the beginning that the conviction was ensured. As international human rights groups, foreign governments and celebrities rushed to condemn the sentence, outside the courthouse pro-Pussy Riot protesters clashed with police and others who showed up to demonstrate solidarity with the Orthodox Church. While the womens’ legal team announced their intention to appeal the decision, no one harbors any illusions that the verdict or sentence will change.

This is big news this week but the group’s importance is larger than their own story. Without a doubt, the feminist punk angle and celebrity attention the women received created a good hook that Western media outlets happily exploited. Some observers have expressed discomfort with this exploitation, and more precisely the level of attention Pussy Riot has received over other victims of Putin’s Russia and the commercialization of the group’s image. That is a fair criticism, but ultimately misplaced. In the end the power of Pussy Riot isn’t in their punk art or their feminism, but rather in who and what they represent in Russian society. They are not alone in suffering the consequences of Russia’s slide back to authoritarianism. Journalists, artists, activists, civil society groups and many others brave enough to publically stand up for their rights and speak out against the government have suffered accordingly with financial ruin, imprisonment, torture, and even death. The sentiment behind the street protests of last December was a pushback against this growing siege mentality. But movements need faces and empathetic stories in order to get widespread recognition. I don’t know if it was Pussy Riot’s intention to give the world just that when they walked into the Church of the Christ Savior in February, but it was clear in the moving closing statements of Samutsevich and Alyokhina that they recognized this new role and spoke for more than just their own situation. For the first time in a long while, the world is paying attention to the state of human rights in Russia. And for Russia, like Pussy Riot, the verdict is not good.

Originally published on August 20, 2012 at www.foreignpolicyblogs.com