Pawns of the neo-Putin era

by Andrey Borodaevskiy

After the May 7 inauguration of Vladimir Putin, the re-elected Russian president rapidly began taking revenge on those who caused him anxiety from December to March. Of late, he and his henchmen have demonstrated a sharp stance against dissent and opposition in general.

A law introducing high fines for practically any public action directed against the “power” was quickly put in place, the OMON (special detachments of the police) are flexing their muscles and tuning up the engines of their avtozaks (new armored cars for carrying prisoners). Society is going through a vacation period while people look forward to autumn, with its revival of political life, and new confrontations that are certainly in store.

As a rule, August is a tough month for Russia. Many grave events have happened during this month (the 1991 putsch, the 1998 financial default, the 2008 war against Georgia, to name a few).

This month seems to offer no exception if we count the otherwise routine criminal trial of three young women for “hooliganism” and “blasphemy.”

The first information on the Internet about this event, which unexpectedly acquired grandiose and international dimensions, was headed “Unholy rock shock in Moscow’s main cathedral.”

In brief, “visitors to Russia’s main cathedral got more of a sight than they bargained for, as a masked feminist punk band broke into impromptu blasphemous song — right at the altar. Dressed in luminous outfits, the Pussy Riot band yelled out their irreverent number before being marched out by security.

“The girls are known for their illegal gigs in public places, their rebellious stance and shocking lyrics. Since Pussy Riot formed last year, some 30 young women have been involved in its rampages. Its members have often been detained and fined.”

Not this time!

Instead of administrative measures such as short-term detention with up to 15 days of public service work and/or a fine, three girls who participated in the performance Feb. 21 were kept in custody and subjected to persuasive questioning.

Charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility” under the criminal code, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Ekaterina Samutsevich, 29, faced up to seven years in prison if convicted. And convicted they were — each sentenced to two years’ detention in a female penal colony. The court decision was read by Judge Marina Syrova on Aug. 17.

This was a politically motivated court decision, all right! As if by magic, the three indefatigable and ungovernable girls, who had rehearsed their anti-Putin song for some days and presented it for about 40 seconds in a not quite proper place, were transformed into political prisoners and martyrs of a sort.

Sure, their “punk prayer” featuring profane language outraged some Orthodox believers across the country. Sure, what happened in the Christ the Savior cathedral may be regarded as regretful. But was their offense deserving of treatment they got in a criminal court? That is very doubtful.

Why then the trial, which inevitably hurt the reputation of the president, the government, the judicial system, Patriarch Kirill (who uttered the word “mercy” only after the court decision was announced), the Russian Orthodox Church and the Moscow Patriarchy?

The only rational explanation might be in the overall inclination of the powers that be to frighten and intimidate people — from political oppositionists to free-minded artists and young people simply annoyed by the lack of opportunities, universal stealing and corruption, and the lies and cynicism of the establishment.

Basically, it was an artistic carnival-like performance of a kind that can be widely seen around the world. Opinions concerning its quality and punk culture in general may differ, but there seems to be nothing that should have made it a criminal affair. That’s why so many members of the international artistic community have been offended by this mock trial.

The aim of the Pussy Riot group was clearly political — to rally against the candidature of Putin in the presidential election that was to come. The time of the performance was chosen accordingly.

In the song “Virgin Mary, Mother of God” figured as the holy force aimed at helping society to “send Putin away.” Where else, if not in a Russian Orthodox church, could such politically loaded “prayer” be aired?

In their last words, the three members of the punk group expressed regret for having offended the feelings of believers and assured the court and the public that it was not their intention. They pleaded not guilty to “abusive actions motivated by religious hatred,” but conceded that what they did was an ethical mistake. Finally, they underlined in quite clear terms the political motivation for their actions.

If it couldn’t deliver a “not guilty” verdict, the court should have at least been satisfied with a term of, say, six to eight months so that the girls could rejoin their families, which include little children, before winter comes. Fat chance.

“To restore social justice and to prevent further crimes, the defendants must be punished with a jail sentence, which they will actually serve,” the judge said before announcing the sentence. The court “did not believe” the defendants’ claims that their actions were not motivated by religious hatred.

In this connection, deacon Andrey Kurayev, well-known for his sensible attitudes toward public events, aired his opinion that through such a stance the judge usurped the function of God — because only God can know the true feelings of the defendants.

On the day the sentence was read, the patriarch was in Poland — the first such visit to this mostly Catholic country. There, His Holiness called for “mutual forgiveness” between the two peoples and for tolerance in dealing with delicate religious matters. The coincidence of these events might have led one to believe that a mild sentence from the Chamovniki court was in the making. Fat chance again.

A week after the sentencing, a copycat case was reported in Cologne, Germany. Since then the Russian mass media have been repeatedly stressing that the three young persons involved are going to land behind bars for three years — even longer than the “original” offenders. There is suspicion that the whole affair may have been staged with a quite obvious political aim in mind.

Andrey Borodaevskiy (annabo36@mail.ru), an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka, from 1994 to 2007.