The controversy over the provocatively named Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot, which profaned an Orthodox altar by singing an obscene anti-Putin “prayer” in Moscow‘s most important cathedral, notched up this week when a court refused to grant bail to three of the female band’s alleged members.
The women will be held until a court date is set for their trial, which will not happen until at least July 24.
The band members were arrested and charged with “hooliganism” for their performance inside the church in February, although no one was hurt and no property was damaged. They could be imprisoned for two to seven years if convicted. The women, two of whom are mothers of young children, have been incarcerated in a Moscow pretrial detention center for almost six months. Amnesty International recognized them as prisoners of conscience in April.
The issue has divided Russian society into two camps. The first group thinks that their song represents an insult to the religious sensibilities of the majority, which ought to be a criminal offense punishable with jail time. A significantly smaller group — concentrated among Russia‘s intellectual and artistic communities — argues that while the women may be guilty of bad behavior, their actions should not be considered a serious crime in any secular society. Legal experts now agree, warning of a decrease in public confidence in the Russian judiciary and government institutions.
Some 35,000 people have signed an Internet petition calling for the women’s release, and last month more than 100 prominent Russian artists, musicians and public intellectuals signed an open letter to the Kremlin that declared “the criminal case against Pussy Riot compromises the Russian judicial system and undermines confidence in government institutions on the whole.”
Some liberals insist that the surprisingly harsh prosecution of the women is being pushed by the Kremlin at the behest of the Orthodox Church, which has grown in political power in recent years and increasingly takes public stands on social matters such as the way Russian women dress and anti-religious artistic expressions. The church denies any direct involvement in the case.
The bizarre stunt carried out by the punk group last February in a priests-only section of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior — a punk prayer “to redeem us from Putin” — might have passed almost unnoticed at almost any other time.
But it happened as Vladimir Putin launched his successful but controversial bid for a third term as Russia’s president, amid a rising street protest movement calling for democratic reforms, and just as unprecedented exposes were appearing in the media about the luxurious lifestyle of the powerful Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.
A poll conducted by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center in March found that 46 percent of Russians agreed that a potential seven-year jail term was “adequate” punishment for what the women did. Another 35 percent thought it was “too harsh,” while just 9 percent believed the group’s actions should not be subject to criminal prosecution at all.
“The majority of people are negative toward what Pussy Riot did, with elderly people more so than younger ones,” says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center. “Most people do not perceive their action as simple hooliganism but as a profanation of sacred values, which calls forth feelings of anger and indignation.”
But those numbers may not be as comforting for the Kremlin, or the church, as they may seem. When Russian legal experts are consulted, they tend to express concern at what they see as an abuse of the law.
“There’s no question the Pussy Riot women behaved outrageously, not as decent people should,” says Yury Kostanov, a former prosecutor and an expert with the Independent Judicial Expertise Council in Moscow. “But there is no corpus delicti [evidence of a crime having taken place] here. Not every instance of disgraceful behavior can be prosecuted as a crime, and this one is extremely dubious. The length of time these women have been kept behind bars already is cause for extreme unease.”
Valery Borshchev, chairman of the Russian Ministry of Justice’s own public oversight commission, says that the three women are clearly not dangerous, nor can the two mothers be regarded as serious flight risks, and therefore under the normal workings of Russian courts they should have been released by now.
“It’s hard to avoid the impression that this is a case of open revenge, with unusual imprisonment the instrument of obtaining public emotional satisfaction rather than justice,” he says.
“In my personal opinion, the way this case is being carried on is a response to the personal offense felt by the Moscow Patriarchate. This is not wise, because it’s leading at least a section of society to question the authority of the Church. These women might be convicted in the end, but in the eyes of the public the authorities will lose.”
According to Andrei Titushkin, deputy press secretary of the Moscow Patriarchate, officials of the Orthodox Church will not be giving any comments on the case until the trial is over. Three months ago, however, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a top church official, did speak to the Monitor at some length about the issue.
Even Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev, a professor at the church’s Moscow Ecclesiastical Academy and one of Russia’s top Orthodox academics, says he feels increasingly uneasy about the way the case is being handled.
“Every day these women spend in detention is another blow for our church,” he says.
“My religious feelings are insulted over the fact that they are kept in jail. I think our church leaders might already be sorry that they allowed this to happen. A pastor should never stir up hatred in a crowd.”