Russian punk blasphemy trial shows a powerful, and political, Russian Orthodox Church

August 8, 2012

Nataliya Vasileva, Associated Press and Worldview


Russian punk band Pussy Riot spent less than a minute performing a "punk prayer" to the Virgin Mary in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral this February, but the protest / performance could cost them three years in jail on charges of "religious hooliganism."

Prosecutors on Tuesday called for three-year prison sentences for the feminist punk rockers whose impromptu performance in Moscow's main cathedral called for an end to President Vladimir Putin's rule, asking the Virgin Mary to "Chase Putin Away!” before being hustled out by security guards.

Their February stunt was part of the protest movement that gathered strength over the winter and has come under increasing pressure since Putin won a third presidential term in March.

"I thought the Church loved all its children, but it turns out it only loves those children who love Putin.”
- Maria Alyokhina

Prosecutors portrayed the proposed three-year sentences for the women as lenient, since the hooliganism charges they face carry a maximum sentence of seven years. Prosecutor Alexander Nikiforov said the recommendation takes into account that two of the defendants have young children and that they have good character references.

Closing arguments for the defendants — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23; Maria Alekhina, 24; and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 — began today. The judge's ruling could come as soon as this week.

Putin said last week that the punishment should not be "too severe," triggering speculation that the Kremlin was hoping to resolve the case without appearing weak or causing further anger on either side. The case highlights the increasing political power of the Russian Orthodox Church, and its close ties with President Putin. 

Julia Ioffe is a reporter living in Russia, she wrote an article on the first two days of the Pussy Riot trial for The New Republic, covering the procedings' descent into parody. Prosecutors claimed the band  had shaked "the spiritual foundations," of the nation, defense councilors live-tweeted the procedings, and questioning of witnesses delved into examinations of how devils might dance, and whether "feminist" is a bad word (it is in church, one witness testified.)

Despite the farcical nature of the trial, the charges are serious, and the case highlights issues of protest, freedom of speech, Putin's approach to dissent, and the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian life - Julia Ioffe helps us understand the procedings, and what they say about church and state in Russia.