The Russian judiciary capped its summer – made sunnier by the harsh stare of the international media spotlight – by issuing a verdict that harkened back to the Middle Ages. Three members of now-infamous Pussy Riot have been handed two-year sentences for performing an Anti-Putin “punk-prayer” at the Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the Yelokhovo Cathedral.
Though many conservatively-minded Russians praised the initiative to put the punk rockers on trial, the outcome is really a lose-lose deal. Or more accurately, an “everyone-you-can-think-of-loses” deal. Vladimir Putin comes out looking authoritarian and personally insecure. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) appears as a pack of reactionary bureaucrats that happen to wear robes. The incredibly corrupt Russian judiciary is never again to be confused with an independent branch of government, or at least not while Putin remains in power. The list of losers goes on: the members of Pussy Riot get to spend two years in Russian prisons, the children and loved ones endure the separation and fear for their health and safety, and Russia’s opposition gets a chilling reminder of the price you pay for dissent.
So with no apparent benefit to anyone involved, how would this mess start in the first place? Well, in a dysfunctional state like Russia, politics can be stranger than fiction – I couldn’t have made this up if I’d tried:
Back in February, the members of a feminist punk band, scarcely known outside of opposition circles, walked into two different Churches wearing balaclavas and carrying guitars. Both appearances were brief, as Pussy Riot did not actually perform with sound, but only managed to video-record themselves shouting, dancing and spooking a few nuns before the guards escorted them out.Then on March 3, the eve of Russia’s presidential elections, a montage video premiered on YouTube. The song urged Saint Mary to banish Putin from his throne while Pussy Riot could be seen causing harmless chaos at the Church. Daring, juvenile, silly, and insensitive were some of the adjectives used to describe the action – but the video’s appearance did not have any impact on the March election or the image of the ROC.
Even prior to the YouTube premiere, the ROC argued for legal action. Protoiereus Vsevolod Chaplin, the official spokesman for the ROC, fumed as he blogged about Pussy Riot’s transgression of Christian canons and further pointed out that the band may be liable under Art. 5.26 of Russia’s Administrative Code. So a priest calls for an equivalent of a parking fine, cool? Not quite. Chaplin was also “convinced that this norm needed to be transposed to the Criminal Code … and the politicians who would not ‘condemn,’ [the actions of the band] may stop relying on the support of Orthodox Christians.”
That Chaplin, funny guy, but Russia has a secular Constitution. Self-respecting prosecutors (of which there are few) would dismiss any such initiative with a mere reference to the principle of Separation of Church and State. Surprise! The unintentionally ironic Moscow city officials picked the Orthodox holiday of “Forgiveness Sunday” to announce the filing of criminal charges against the band. Preserving a semblance of legality, the prosecutors did not make up a new charge to please the ROC, but they did the next best thing and found a criminal statute that sort of seemed like it could maybe possibly fit.
The prosecutors charged Pussy Riot with hooliganism “based on … religious hatred.” The hooliganism law they relied upon was so unsuitable in this action that Russia’s [equivalent of] solicitor general publicly ridiculed the legality of the charges on several occasions. In the case at hand, the prosecutor needed to prove that Pussy Riot members have 1) committed an act that was 2) motivated by religious hatred and 3) was offensive to the public. There are no arguments as to elements one and three – Pussy Riot did something that sure offended a whole lot of people – but the state never really established Pussy Riot’s motives.
Luckily for the prosecutors, Judge Marina Syrova offered a helping hand and found the motive on her own. It didn’t matter that Pussy Riot’s actual aim was to call for Putin’s resignation and to highlight the ROC’s close to ties the executive. Syrova just did her own thing. She denied testimony of several key defense witnesses and in issuing her verdict, she imputed the motives of religious hatred onto the members of the band.
The sentencing day paid tribute to the absurdity of the entire case. From her bench, Judge Syrova read a two hour and forty minute verdict as the three band members stood handcuffed inside a glass cell (See unofficial version of the verdict).There were three Rottweilers and a Spetznaz crew policing the courtroom. Meanwhile, outside the courthouse, two camps of supporters were awaiting the verdict. As the crowd got louder, police started indiscriminately detaining members of both #TeamPussyRiot and #TeamROC. Gary Kasparov was one of many not-so-lucky bystanders.
At the conclusion of this mess, if we are indeed at the conclusion, Russia’s judiciary looks like a funnel for ROC’s and Putin’s grievances and vendettas.
Meanwhile, one wonders if Putin himself ever wished for this outcome? After the drawn-out and clumsy revenge, he looks vulnerable and increasingly irrational in the face of any critique – a shade of his impervious self in the early 2000s. Putin also faces the challenge of mending an increasingly polarized and disgruntled society. This trial may speak to how cool, calm, and collected he really is.
Aleksey Babics is a law student studying the Russian Legal System. A printable (.pdf) version of this article can be found here.