Alexander Pope’s question — “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” — is as compelling as ever in the wake of the two-year sentences handed down Friday by a Russian court to three young women convicted of hooliganism.
The three are members of Pussy Riot, a punk rock band and performance art group that staged a protest against President Vladimir Putin in Russia’s main Orthodox cathedral. The over-reaction to this stunt — and that is all it was — demonstrates not strength but fear. It is ironic that Mr. Putin, for all his macho posturing, appears intimidated by childish pranks.
Pussy Riot is a collective of 10 women, backed by 15 technical assistants, who make impromptu performances, in brightly colored dresses and balaclavas, at unusual locations.
In February, they sneaked into Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and filmed a video of them dancing around and singing a “punk prayer” to the Virgin Mary to rid the country of Mr. Putin. Security guards quickly stopped the performance, but the video was completed with footage filmed at another church.
Three of the women, Ms. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Ms. Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Ms. Maria Alyokhina, 24, were arrested two weeks later and charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. They were sentenced last week to two years in a penal colony.
The trial was more joke than justice. Arrested in early March, they were formally charged June 4, after spending three months in jail. On July 4, they were informed that they had just five days to prepare a defense in response to a 2,800-page indictment.
The trial started July 30; the women were sentenced Aug. 17. At the trial, the defense team could not call eyewitnesses to the performance while the prosecution paraded witnesses who had seen only the video. Defense lawyers were sometimes denied the right to object. The judge reportedly admonished those lawyers that they had no rights, only responsibilities.
The defendants apologized when the trial began, saying they had not sought to offend the church but instead were making a political statement against Mr. Putin and the support he was given for a third term by the church’s leader, Patriarch Kirill.
The judge dismissed the plea, noting that political comments were added to the filmed footage, implying that the real motivation for the act was religious hatred. She argued that the women “imitated demonic attacks,” and were “motivated by hatred and religious enmity.”
The defendants “committed hooliganism — a grave violation of public order”— posed a danger to society and had committed “grave crimes” including “the insult and humiliation of the Christian faith and inciting religious hatred.” In another revealing comment, the judge criticized the women for their feminism.
For those crimes, the defendants were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, less than the three years demanded by prosecutors and the seven-year maximum term the judge could have imposed.
The Russian Orthodox Church applauded a decision that punished actions that were “blasphemy and sacrilege” and offended “millions of people” but called on the government to show leniency toward the women in hopes that they would change their ways.
Others were less pleased with the verdict. Supporters of the defendants protested outside the courtroom. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the sentence “excessively harsh” and “not compatible with the European values of the rule of law and democracy to which Russia, as a member of the Council of Europe, has committed itself.”
The European Union’s top foreign policymaker Catherine Ashton said the sentences were “disproportionate” to the crime and added to the intimidation of opposition activists in Russia. Amnesty International said the sentences showed “that the Russian authorities will stop at no end to suppress dissent and stifle civil society.” That last conclusion seems inescapable.
Mr. Putin has shown no tolerance for disagreement since he reclaimed the presidency earlier this year. He has urged new laws monitoring nongovernmental organizations, investigated media organizations that challenge his policies and individuals who question his rule, and cracked down on the Internet. All are intended to stifle opposition to his rule.
The cynical nature of his return to the top office in his country — swapping the prime minister’s office with that of the presidency in a deal long suspected but only confirmed before the vote — rightfully infuriated many Russians, who felt they were mere spectators in the Russian political process. Pussy Riot was voicing those sentiments, albeit in a more aggressive and offensive form than most.
The government’s effort to make an example of this group only amplified its voice and message, turning a colorful punk protest into an international cause celebre. In a show of support, the pop singer Madonna donned a balaclava during a recent Moscow concert, and Pussy Riot supporters have promised events across the world to protest the sentencing.
Mr. Putin and his spokespersons have insisted that they have no say over the judicial process, but that claim is as fantastic as is the prospect of the Virgin Mary’s intervention in Russian politics.
Last week’s decision is as political as Pussy Riot’s “art.” Ms. Tolokonnikova said in her closing statement at the trial, “What Pussy Riot does is oppositional art or politics that draws upon the forms that art has established.
“In any event, it is a form of civil action in circumstances where basic human rights, civil and political freedoms are suppressed by the corporate state system.” Mr. Putin’s denials are as substantial as a butterfly’s meanderings.