What’s happening in Russia right now is just a (Pussy) Riot

July 31st , 2012 is a mid-summer fest in Russia: The group Strategy 31 has staged its regular thirty-first-of-the-month demonstration promoting the Russian Constitution’s Article 31 on freedom of assembly (see also here); anticorruption activist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been charged with embezzlement by the Investigative Committee of Russia, which is headed by Alexander Bastrykin, who was recently exposed by Navalny for scandalously holding a residence permit and real estate in the Czech Republic; and the trial of the punk girls group Pussy Riot for ‘hooliganism’ continues into its second day.

The trial is the sleeper hit of the summer. It is being reported in newspapers all over the world. Celebrities are jumping on the #FreePussyRiot bandwagon: Sting expressed outrage in his recent Moscow concert; Peter Gabriel wrote a letter of support; Stephen Fry tweeted to his follоwers to “pressure Putin” about Pussy Riot (which was covered in the Russian newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets). In some ways, it seems as though Putin’s tolerance is on trial more than Pussy Riot’s hooliganism.

If you haven’t yet heard of Pussy Riot, time to catch up; this is a loose collective of young women who use feminist punk performance art, deployed flash-mob style, to express dissent against Putin’s leadership of Russia. Clad in bright-colored miniskirts and balaclavas, members of the group have popped up in guerilla performances in places such as Red Square and on the roof opposite the Moscow detention center where many protesters were being held after one of the December street demonstrations.

But the performance that landed three members of Pussy Riot in jail was the one they staged in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in central Moscow on February 21 of this year. This one targeted the too-close-for-comfort links between the Russian government (in the person of Putin) and the Russian Orthodox Church (in the person of Patriarch Kirill, who endorsed Putin shortly before the recent Russian presidential election).

Pussy Riot chose to communicate their message by slipping incognito into the cathedral and up onto the raised platform in front of the iconostasis (a sacred space called in Russian солея – Pussy Riot could be said to have misread this space as a stage). Throwing off their coats and donning their balaclavas, they launched into their punk protest song, which last about 40 seconds before they were removed from the church by a security guard. Video footage of the stunt was later combined with music and additional performance images and released on You Tube with the title “Punk-Prayer, Virgin Mary Drive Putin Out” (Панк-молебен, Богородица Дева Путина прогони), a song that includes a chorus of “holy holy holy shit!” (срань срань срань господня). Shocking stuff – but that is the intent: to shock observers into paying attention to their political critique.

But Pussy Riot are not on trial for political subversion; they are on trial for disorderly conduct. Their indictment reads that their crime was “hooliganism, that is, gross violation of public order carried out by a group of persons by prior conspiracy, expressing a clear disrespect toward society, motivated by religious hatred and enmity, and motivated by hatred toward a particular social group.” The text of the indictment is taken from Article 213 of Russia’s penal code, and the portions of the article selected are those that carry the harshest sentence – up to 7 years in prison.

What makes this trial bizarre is the indictment for religious hatred. The article of the penal code also allows an indictment for politically- or ideologically-motivated hooliganism (also interpreted in the code as a form of ‘hatred’), but such an indictment would have resulted in a trial that draws attention to Pussy Riot’s real goal: political critique of Putin. The trial that is unfolding traverses an entirely different sort of terrain and is being described by those witnessing it as ‘absurd’ and ‘surreal’, with comparisons ranging from Kafka to the Spanish Inquisition to Soviet-era show trials to burnings at the stake to the trials of Vladimir Vysotsky and Joseph Brodsky to sixth-century canon law.

The trial is an odd mix of liberality and repression. It is open to the press, but held in such a small courtroom that most of the hundred or so journalists who showed up at the courthouse could not fit inside. Most of the first day was broadcast via livestream on the court’s website, but judge Marina Syrova shut down the feed when she started calling witnesses to the stand – thereafter, journalists were not even allowed to take photographs in the courtroom. But no one prevented them from bringing in their smart phones, and play-by-play coverage was provided by an impromptu tag-team of tweeting journalists – one could follow them directly on Twitter, or could monitor the ticker-tape of tweets conveniently assembled on the TV Rain website. Even the defense lawyers’ tweets could be followed – and many of them were cris de coeur of exasperation at the way their lines of questioning were constantly blocked by the judge, who was finally dubbed Marina “Question Withdrawn” Syrova (Марина ‘снят вопрос’ Сырова) by journalist Julia Ioffe. (In that sense, the tweets are an important historical record of the trial, containing the text of questions that will not be found in the official court transcript). The prosecuting lawyers received very different treatment from Judge Syrova.

Many tweets also commented on the irony that Judge Syrova often chided the defense team for making the court proceedings into a ‘farce’ or a ‘circus’, when the circus-like flavor of the trial was a pure production of the prosecution. The defense was allowed no witnesses; the only witnesses in the first two days of the trial were the eight ‘victims’ of the crime assembled by the prosecution: four Cathedral ‘altar boys’ (men), three ‘candle-sellers’ (women), and one security guard. It was in the question-and-answer with these ‘victims’ that the trial took on its surreal quality, and indeed gave followers the impression that they had stumbled into the transcript of a medieval inquisition or a witch trial. For example, this exchange followed testimony about the “demonic jerking” (бесовское дрыгание) of the girls during their performance:

Defense to victim: “Were they possessed?”
Judge Syrova: “Question withdrawn, he doesn’t have a medical degree!”

Or this one:

Defense: For you as an Orthodox believer, is the word ‘feminism’ offensive?
Victim: Yes. It’s obscene.
Defense: Do you understand the meaning of the word ‘feminist’?
Judge Syrova: Question withdrawn!

 And at one point the trial became embroiled in the question of Christian forgiveness: The members of Pussy Riot admitted that, although they had not intended to cause harm to believers in the church, they realized they had made an “ethical mistake” and were sorry about that; what would it take for the victims to forgive them? At one point this exchange occurred:

Victim: “I consider their apology insincere and I do not accept it.”
Pussy Riot member (allowed to directly question witnesses): “What should a sincere apology look like?”
Victim: “Everyone decides for himself. Beat yourself, or go away to a monastery, for example.”

In the end, none of the Cathedral employees said they forgave Pussy Riot, except for the security guard. And regardless, how can the group be convicted according to the charge? The way the law is written, the conviction would not be based on any damage caused by the hooliganism, but rather on the motivation for it – which is claimed to be religious hatred. Pussy Riot have claimed – with evidence from their entire short career as punk performance artists – that their motivation in all acts is consistently political. And the entire court proceedings have revolved around Russian Orthodox conceptions of the sacred and the blasphemous – clashing with observers’ expectations that the Russian court system is, after all, a secular one.

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