The past year has seen an inspired stirring of political opposition in Russia, as thousands of young and middle-class Russians have poured out onto the streets to protest the country's regressive slide into authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin. For sheer novelty and provocation, however, no protest action quite matched the spectacle that took place this past February, when the members of all-female punk rock band Pussy Riot commandeered the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral and, clad in multicolored balaclava masks, proceeded to belt out a protest song titled “Virgin Mary, Redeem Us of Putin.” (A YouTube video of the impromptu performance shows security guards vainly trying to corral the air-kicking punk rockers while puzzled parishioners look on.)
An increasingly rare piece of political blasphemy, the song assailed the Russian Orthodox Church for its uncomfortably close ties to the Russian president. That subservience was exemplified by the Church patriarch’s devout assessment prior to the presidential election this spring that Putin’s democracy-trampling 12-year rule represented nothing less than a "miracle of God.” In mocking the Church, Pussy Riot’s lyrics proclaimed that the “head of the KGB is their chief saint.”
The church was not amused, the Russian government even less so. After their performance, the three members of Pussy Riot were arrested and charged with “hooliganism.” That was in March. Since then, they have been held without trial in extended custody. Last Friday, their detention was extended by another six months until next January. If the band members are found guilty, they could be imprisoned for seven years.
While the government response is undoubtedly excessive, it also seems calculated. The message seems to be that such limited license as the government was prepared to extend to opposition and protest views has now been totally revoked. Plainly discomfited by this winter’s mass anti-government protests, the powers that be have decided that enough is enough. Thus, Putin marked his swearing-in ceremony in Moscow this May with a citywide crackdown on demonstrators in which some 400 were arrested. Some reports suggested that young demonstrators were issued military draft notices in reprisal. The trumped-up prosecution of Pussy Riot is only the latest sign that the government is taking a zero-tolerance approach to political dissent.
On the legal front, too, there is a burgeoning government effort to outlaw opposition. Last month, the Russian legislature, dominated by Putin’s United Russia party, passed a law that would impose ruinous fines of up to $9,300 for those who participate in unsanctioned demonstrations and double that for protest organizers. Since few Russians could afford to pay such penalties, and since the government is not eager to sanction opposition protests, the law amounted to a de facto ban on opposition protests and demonstrations.
And the government was just getting started. Last week it passed a raft of new and vaguely worded laws whose overall effect would be to undermine criticism of the government officials. Among the laws was one criminalizing libel that included a special provision for libel "against judges, jurors, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials," -- in short, those responsible for upholding the country's corrupt security state. Another law would create a blacklist of websites that all Russian Internet search engines would have to block. The government claimed that such a blacklist was intended to protect children from harmful content, but given the virtually limitless discretion to decide which websites qualify as harmful it is easy to see how the notoriously censorship-prone Russian authorities could use the law to quash disfavored speech. Each of the laws, in short, is ripe for abuse, and that seems to be the point: Having concluded that it can't suppress all opposition openly, the government wants to force critics into silence.
Hence the government's insistence on throwing the book at a trio of feminist punk rockers. The case against Pussy Riot rests on the dubious charge that they incited "religious hatred." The government has even found ten witnesses who have come forward to claim that they have suffered “moral damage” as a result of the band's performance. Interestingly, the Russian Orthodox Church was prepared to forgive the band, initially calling for merciful treatment for the arrested members. But as soon as Putin's press secretary called their protest “despicable” and vowed to pursue the band “with all the necessary consequences,” the church fell into line. It too is now urging harsh punishment, inadvertently proving Pussy Riot's point about the church's obeisance to Putin.
Fraudulent trials are nothing new in Russia, of course, dating back to the Soviet era. More recently, there is the case of Mikhail Khadorkovsy, the former oligarch and oil tycoon who is rotting in a penal colony in northern Russia after being sentenced on trumped-up charges of fraud for violating tax laws that were not in place in the 1990s. Then there is Sergei Magnitsky, the whistleblower lawyer who exposed how Russian government officials had defrauded foreign companies only to be imprisoned without trial. Within a year, he was dead under suspicious circumstances. Pussy Riot, alongside at least a dozen demonstrators swept up in the recent May 6 protest, may be looking at a similar fate.
If there is any hopeful news, it’s that they could still avoid it. Public reaction to the band's stunt was initially harsh in Russia, but has become sympathetic in light of the government’s overreaction. Last month even some of Putin's allies signed a petition warning that the case against Pussy Riot “compromises the Russian judicial system and undermines trust in the authorities.” The band has also drawn high-profile attention from human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and major-label bands like the Red Hot Chilly Peppers, whose singer Anthony Kiedis sported a Pussy Riot shirt during a recent performance in Moscow. With the world watching, there is at least a possibility that the band won't be disappeared into the darkness of the Russian legal system like so many others before them.
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