August 19, 2012

Russian Court Puts Pussy Riot in Crucible for Punk Hooliganism

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The upcoming film production of Anna Karenina clocks in at a little over two hours, an impressive achievement considering that Tolstoy took more than 800 pages to tell his story. It seems that in Russia, it’s not only the master novelists who are long-winded. Marina Syrova, the judge in the trial of the female punk band Pussy Riot, took three hours to deliver her verdict last Friday. The crime and punishment are both clear: The three 20-something band members (two of whom are mothers) will each serve two years in a penal colony; they turned the altar at a Moscow cathedral into a makeshift music video set for their protest-as-prayer song “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away” this February.

As the length of the verdict suggests, what exactly the women were found guilty of is more complicated. The charge was hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. The term hooliganism might invite a few wry smiles or laughs, which was exactly the reaction of the women from the glass cage they were confined to for the duration of the trial. The whole scene mildly resembled the Salem Witch Trials more than three centuries ago. Hooliganism is not poorly translated Russian but an actual crime that was codified in 1960.

Judge Syrova defined hooliganism as open disrespect and defiance against the communally expected norms and the tastes of others and driven by acts of hatred or degradation of any given social or national or religious group, as translated by the Guardian. The lyrics to “Punk Prayer” are indeed sacrilegious: “Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!” Perhaps that’s bad editing or a feminist jab, because primarily, the band is protesting Putin and secondarily, the politicization of the Russian Orthodox Church that has been a boon to Putin’s hold on power. Another line from the song, “The head of the KGB, their chief saint/Leads protesters to prison under escort,” refers to Putin and Kirill I, the church patriarch, and guesses at the band’s own fate.

This is a point Pussy Riot’s supporters have picked up on. In Kiev, a topless activist with FREE RIOT written on her chest felled a wooden cross with a chainsaw and hurriedly said, “No institution, even such a successful one as the church, has the right to violate women’s rights,” before fleeing the scene because “We don’t have freedom yet.”

Judge Syrova found offense in the vague feminist message of the lyrics: “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist.” She acknowledged that gender equality is upheld by the Russian constitution but insomuch that Orthodox Christianity does not support feminism, the protest was deemed a hate crime because it made one political movement superior to another.

The judge is certainly right in saying that the incident sparked enmity between punk feminists and members of the Church (the women visiting or working at the cathedral were stunned and mortified by the scene) but to arrest and imprison the women is to place the Church above the law and the people. The verdict essentially reinforces Pussy Riot’s point that the Church has become a political actor with passes from the president and judiciary to violate the constitutional rights of citizens.

The women themselves fully realized the corruption of the trial. In her closing statement, translated by Chto Delat News, Yekaterina Samutsevich accepts personal losses for the band members but celebrates a win for the cause because “the system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial.” The Guardian reported that the judge ruled out the band members’ testimony as false because it was an attempt to evade justice, and the New York Times reported that the defense was denied expert witnesses and eyewitnesses, while the prosecution was allowed witnesses who had viewed the incident only by video.

Even more incomprehensibly, Judge Syrova charged the band with broadcasting their demonstration to the public through media outlets and bloggers. What protester wouldn’t try to crank up the figurative or literal megaphone? The judge is celebrating their victory when she complains that they added insult to injury.

Indeed, Pussy Riot garnered attention and support throughout countries in Eastern Europe and the Western World, with protesters donning balaclavas — ski-masks, usually neon, sometimes DIY — in solidarity. Music megastars Madonna, Paul McCartney, Bono and Yoko Ono are among those who have sung in support for these women, their talent notwithstanding. As expected, state officials, foreign embassies and human rights organizations have also chimed in. The band has succeeded in drawing international attention to the growing suppression of dissent that has befallen Russian activists in the wake of Putin’s re-ascendance to power.

In December, tens of thousands protested Putin’s September announcement that he would seek a third term as president, and in May, tens of thousands protested again against his inauguration. The increasing use of force against protesters, including outside the courtroom of the Pussy Riot trial, and especially against those who are peaceably demonstrating makes hooligans out of the police.

Taken together, the crackdowns, followed by a new law against unauthorized demonstrations, followed by the disproportionately harsh sentence for an offensive but harmless protest spell a trend toward less leniency for political dissenters. Putin told reporters in London that he thought “the girls” shouldn’t be judged too severely, but the verdict is out. And, now many more eyes are on Russia, which is a good thing for emboldened writers, musicians and activists, who may not all have foreign celebrities backing them.

Jing Jin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at jjin@cornellsun.com. Ringing True appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Jing Jin

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