After the Pussy Riot Trial

By Denis Bochkarev

Coverage of the Pussy Riot trial has been widespread.  For those unfamiliar, the punk band/performance artists lip sank an original “punk prayer” entitled “Mother Mary, chase Putin out” from the alters of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.  Police arrested three of the five performing members in the days that followed and they have been imprisoned ever since.  Their trial was nothing short of a judicial farce leaving many observers to describe the formality (and consequential sentencing) as “medieval.”  The three members on trial were found guilty of “hooliganism to incite religious hatred” and will remain in prison for an additional nineteen months.  While the sentence surprises no one familiar with the Russian judicial system, what comes next?

  1. For the Pussy Riot.  Like many other Russian activists, the two members at large have fled the country and pledge to continue their cause.  The lawyers for the three sentenced members have begun the appeals process.  To receive an official pardon would require an admission of guilt, an admission which they object to on principle.  Remaining group members have since recorded a new song, signalling that the collective remains undeterred, and representatives of the group begun trademarking the name “Pussy Riot.”  One would expect the non-incarcerated members plan to take advantage of their recent popularity.
  2. For the Russian Opposition Movement.  Much like Russian society at large, opinions of the punk prayer vary tremendously within the Opposition Movement.  While some of the most visible opposition activists have offered carefully chosen words of support, the Opposition Movement does include many socially conservative organizations, such as a variety of nationalists groups and members of the Communist Party.  Nationalists who fly the Imperial Russian tricolor (black, white, and yellow) are unlikely to contradict the position of the Russian Orthodox Church and support a feminist cause.  Though some commentators have raised the possibility of an Opposition schism over the subject of Pussy Riot, I believe such an outcome is unlikely.  Any given Opposition demonstration likely includes neo-nazis, anarcho-socialists, Communist Party officials, gay pride activists, nationalists, members of the Pirate Party, anti-immigrant activists, and countless unaffiliated individuals marching in common cause against Putin and the ruling party, United Russia.  Disagreement and contradiction over any single issue hasn’t derailed the movement yet.
  3. For the Russian courts.  Reform is unlikely.  While their trial proceeded in a manner that few Western observers would describe as “just,” no one expected otherwise.  The vast majority of cases tried in Russia result in guilty sentences.  The notion of “innocence until proven guilty” simply doesn’t exist.  During their own trial, defendants sit within a small glass cell likened to an aquarium.  These small glass cells replaced barred cages following conditions set forth by the European Convention on Human Rights.  Discussion of Russian judicial reform rarely appears in the English-language news sources I have been following on the subject of the trial.
  4. For the Russian Orthodox Church.  By definition, orthodox religions purposively avoid change, yet the Church will likely find its political actions and positions vindicated by the trial’s proceedings and outcome.  The Church may experience some loss in support, membership, and political favor, but its status as the nation’s most powerful organized religion is in no jeopardy.
  5. For the rest of the world.  Solidarity protests, demonstrations, and performances have sprung up in most Western countries.  The story, wardrobe, and ethic of Pussy Riot has served as an inspiration for feminists and democracy activists globally.  While it remains to be seen if such interest is sustainable, the group has unequivocally succeeded in drawing international attention to the cause of civil liberties in Russia.

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