Three members of Pussy Riot, an all-female punk band, were sentenced Aug. 17 to two years in prison for staging a guerrilla performance of an anti-Putin protest song in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, an important holy edifice of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The defendants were charged with hooliganism. They will be sent to correctional facilities if their appeal is rejected.
Was this an example of appropriate judicial proceedings or just political repression?
The criminal trial drew international attention, as Madonna, Paul McCartney and other artists of global fame called for the trio's release. The controversy distinctly symbolized the current political situation in Russia, where Vladimir Putin was reinstated as president in May.
Hundreds of citizens and reporters, and TV relay vans from stations both home and abroad, surrounded the Khamovnichesky district court in central Moscow. I photographed the three defendants in a glass-walled cage--24-year-old Mariya Alyokhina, 30-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich and 22-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova---after the judge took about three hours to read the ruling aloud. The quiet smiles on the women's faces appeared to reflect the firmness of their beliefs.
The trio consistently pleaded not guilty during the court proceedings.
"We committed ethical errors, but that doesn't constitute a crime," they argued. "It was an artistic expression."
The Russian Orthodox Church has requested a pardon, but the defendants reportedly said they wouldn't accept a pardon even if they were offered one.
"Holy Mother, Virgin, drive Putin away / The KGB head, their (the Orthodox Church priests') chief saint / Takes protesters to prison under convoy / Shit, shit, the Lord's shit / Patriarch Gundyai (Kirill Gundyaev) believes in Putin / The bitch had better believe in God."
These are excerpts from the lyrics of the song that the trio partially performed, guerrilla style, after stepping into a forbidden area outside the altar with their heads wearing balaclava masks on Feb. 21. The Russian presidential election of March 4, where KGB veteran Putin was expected to be reinstated to the presidency, was only days ahead.
A succession of anti-Putin rallies--the largest in post-Soviet Russia--were being held and led by the swelling urban middle class. The women's act was a provocative, political performance that jumped on that bandwagon.
The harsh treatment of the trio, already in custody for several months, was called into question by the middle class, which now includes one-third of all Russians, with its penchant for European standards. These citizens likened the procedures to medieval religious inquisitions.
Putin put Russia back on its feet from the post-Soviet chaos and restored order and stability, but the liberals are feeling choked by the solidifying of the power hierarchy.
Many denounce the Russian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Kirill, who is close to Putin, for lending support to Putin's regime.
"The verdict is a result of Putin's political decision," a member of the defense said following the ruling.
"Putin is stirring up the flames of revolution," The New Times magazine quoted Tolokonnikova's husband as saying. "Only revolution will save my (young) daughter, wife and all others." He meant the ruling would stir up flames.
There is no denying the possibility that movements to support Pussy Riot will take over the DNA of the dying anti-Putin rallies and form an axis of efforts to bring down the Putin regime.
Alexey Navalny, a popular blogger and a dissident leader, also attended the trial.
It remains to be seen whether Putin was directly involved in the court proceedings. But some do point out that Putin's remarks may have affected the psychology of concerned parties.
"I don't believe they have to be tried so rigorously," Putin told reporters when he toured the London Olympics in early August, around the time criticism of the trio's prolonged detention was mounting in the West.
While hooliganism is subject to up to seven years of imprisonment, prosecutors later demanded only three years of incarceration. The ruling cut another year off that.
The verdict was delayed more than a week from the initially scheduled date. There is persistent speculation that the court was consulting the Kremlin to find common ground.
According to a survey carried out Aug. 10-13 by private polling agency Levada-Center, however, 44 percent of the respondents said they found the court procedures "just, objective and impartial." Only 18 percent expected the ruling would be delivered at "the behest of the superiors."
Experts believe conservatives, who make up the bulk of Russians, took Pussy Riot's act as an insult to society.
Conservatives who hold respect for the Russian Orthodox Church and tradition are said to account for two-thirds of all Russians. Putin won 64 percent of the vote in the March presidential election. Given that situation, opposition forces cannot expect to tap into larger public support by emphasizing their support for Pussy Riot.
"I don't understand that as art," Alyokhina's mother told reporters of her daughter's guerrilla performance, although she finds the punishment too harsh. "(My daughter) didn't have to do that."
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was dismantled in 1931 amid Josef Stalin's repression on religion and was revived only in 1997 under President Boris Yeltsin following the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was in the country studying Russian when reconstruction was under way, and I donated money to the ongoing efforts.
As I think about how fervently followers pray in front of holy icons, I can't but feel sheer disgust at what Pussy Riot did.
What matters is the extent of punishment. The authorities may have intended to use the case as a lesson for all to hold dissidents in check.
But Yuliya Kalinina, a columnist for the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, presented a more nuanced view.
"From the very beginning, our regime was facing two paths: to punish the Pussies as a warning for all and turn into a world laughingstock for doing so, or to forgive the Pussies and reduce their 'punk prayer' to a childish prank and make sure the world elite will relate to it (the Russian regime) in at least a tolerant, if not respectful, attitude," she wrote. "Our regime chose the first path, and that was not the right choice. Not right, because the consequences will turn into a result that the regime least expected. Instead of becoming a horrifying example of punishment, Pussy Riot will turn into an 'icon' of dissidents."
The issue rekindled the age-old antagonism between Russia and the West over freedom of expression and basic human rights.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow called the ruling "disproportionate." Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said she was "deeply disappointed." Civil protests for freedom were staged in more than 40 cities in the West and elsewhere, and renowned figures expressed their support.
But in Russia, Alexander Lukashevich, director of the Foreign Ministry's Information and Press Department, accused Western human rights organizations and the media of taking advantage of the controversy.
"There is an impression that, for some human rights structures and media, the future fate of these young women is less important than the opportunity to create another scandal in the anti-Russian realm," he said.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explained there is heavy punishment for sacrilege even in nations of the European Union.
On Aug. 19, young supporters of Pussy Riot disrupted a service in a Catholic cathedral in Germany. The cathedral dean, while admitting it is legitimate to protest the verdict in public, told a local newspaper: "The right to freedom of demonstrations should not be set above the right to religious freedom and the religious feelings of the congregation."
More anarchist acts came under the guise of the freedom of expression. Some Pussy supporters in the Ukraine and Russia went as far as taking chainsaws to crosses in protest.
Alexander Rar, a German-born expert in Russian politics, called the latest Pussy scandal a "battle of civilizations."
"Tensions will rise between the West, which does not understand Russia, and Russia, which rejects preachings of the West," he warned. "The conflict of civilizations will also disturb the young, post-Communist Russian society."
Rar also noted the irony: "During the Cold War, the West criticized the atheist regime in Russia for annihilating religion, but it is now denouncing the Russian Orthodox Church for excessive fundamentalism."
Even if an appeal is dismissed and the trio are sent to prison, the issue will heat up again when they are freed in spring 2014.
Twenty years into a born-again Russia, the middle class is gradually on the rise, but civil society is growing on more conservative soil. The West has to accept that Russia cannot transform itself all at once.
But how long will we have to wait until the walls of stereotypical Cold War thinking are brought down?
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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