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What does Russia think of Pussy Riot's sentence?

Fred WeirThe Christian Science Monitor

One day after three young members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a penal colony for profaning a Russian Orthodox altar, the controversy over what they did and how the Russian state reacted to it shows every sign of growing.

There seems little doubt that the trial and the harsh sentences handed down to the women will worsen the image of Russia in the West, and particularly the credibility of Vladimir Putin, who has just completed the first 100 days of his third term as president. Many governments, including the United States, have condemned the sentence as disproportionate, and celebrities from Paul McCartney to Madonna have weighed in with their support for the group.

But international opinion can often have a negative impact in Russia. How the trial and its outcome have affected Russian public opinion may play a much bigger role in coming months, as the anti-Putin protest movement returns to the streets after a summer hiatus and the political season begins anew.

Public opinion has remained rather staunchly anti-Pussy Riot since the women were arrested in March. The latest poll, released last week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, shows little change.

According to the survey, 55 percent of Russians did not have their views of the judicial system altered by the trial; 9 percent said it diminished their trust in courts while 5 percent said it increased it, and 12 percent said they have no faith in the courts to begin with. About 36 percent thought the verdict would be based on the facts of the case; 18 percent thought the verdict would be dictated "from the top." Interestingly, when asked what they thought the punk band's goal was in staging the protest, about 30 percent of respondents said it was "against the church and its role in politics"; 13 percent thought it was "against Putin" and 36 percent said they could not discern the purpose.

More worrisome, from the Kremlin's point of view, is the effect the trial has had on Russia's more educated and influential social strata. Of course the usual suspects – opposition leaders, artists, liberal intellectuals – have popped up to protest the treatment of the women, who were kept almost six months in pretrial detention and now face more than a year in the harsh conditions of a Russian penal colony.

But unease over a prosecution that carries such obvious political and religious overtones appears to be spreading far beyond Russia's small liberal and opposition circles.

Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, a longtime member of Putin's inner circle who was fired by then-President Dmitry Medvedev last year, wrote on his website that the verdict deals "yet another blow to the court system and citizens' trust in it.... The country's image and its attractiveness in the eyes of investors have suffered an enormous damage," he wrote.

Tina Kandelaki, a popular TV personality who has usually been reliably pro-Putin, penned a bitter blog arguing that Russian authorities are repeating past mistakes by using harsh criminal penalties to punish a minor and largely symbolic challenge.

"The Russian authorities have a nearly unparalleled knack for being unable to show properly what they do well, while letting examples of what they do badly be blown completely out of proportion – to the extent that not only the whole of Russia, but the entire world starts paying attention," Ms. Kandelaki wrote. "Pussy Riot may have no talent whatsoever, but the Russian authorities possess the exceptional talent of making something from nothing. No one else could have managed to create Russia’s most popular band at a time when the country is terribly short of heroes. Be assured that there are Western producers falling all over themselves to help promote the group. The 'Pussy Riot behind Bars' show is broadcast all over the world now, and the world isn’t willing to miss a tiny bit of it," she added.

Putin himself, answering questions from journalists in mid-trial, suggested the women should not be punished "too harshly" – a possible acknowledgement that the Pussy Riot prosecution was generating more damage than the Kremlin had expected. And on Saturday a leading Orthodox cleric insisted that revenge on behalf of the church was not a motive behind the trial.

"The church has been sometimes accused of not forgiving them," Tikhon Shevkunov, who heads Moscow's Sretensky Monastery, and is reputedly Putin's own spiritual counselor, told journalists. "We did forgive them from the very start. But such actions should be cut short by society and authorities."

The three women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were picked up outside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior last Feb. 21, after entering a priests-only section of the church and performing a 40-second "punk prayer" that called on the Virgin Mary to expel Putin. Police initially just took down their names and let them go, probably because the church was largely empty at the time, no one was hurt, no property damaged, and the women had left voluntarily when asked to do so.

The women claim their song was a political protest targeting Orthodox Patriarch Kirill who, in the midst of an election campaign, publicly described Putin as "a miracle of God," thus allegedly violating Russia's strictly secular constitution (Article 14).

The lyrics of their song (English translation here) might well be seen as offensive on many levels, but do appear mainly directed at the moving political targets of Putin and Kirill.

Prosecutors, and in the end the court, saw things otherwise. They chose to view it as a conspiratorial "hate crime" motivated by anti-Christian loathing and directed at Russian Orthodox believers.

The verdict against the women reads in part: "The Pussy Riot singers colluded under unestablished circumstances, for the purpose of offensively violating public peace in a sign of flagrant disrespect for citizens.... The women were motivated by religious enmity and hatred, and acted provocatively and in an insulting manner inside a religious building in the presence of a large number of believers," it said.

According to court testimony, the church was almost empty at the time. But the Pussy Riot performance, filmed by a cameraperson, subsequently went viral on YouTube, and it was only after about two weeks – and, most experts believe, as a result of political intervention – that the women were rearrested and the stage was set for a controversy that shows every sign of enduring.