Russian opposition looks to move forward after Pussy Riot trial

Pussy Riot graffiti in Moscow. By Alexey, via Flickr.

The anti-Putin dissent that has been brewing inside Russia for the past year finally reached the global mainstream last week when three women from the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were convicted of “premeditated hooliganism … motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison. Suddenly, international media outlets were not only taking interest in a radical feminist art collective, but also the current state of Russian politics.

Despite the justifiable outpouring of support for these women, there has been little discussion of their impact on the larger opposition movement, which has grown steadily from social media sites to massive street protests in recent months. While many Russians were outraged by the Soviet-era trial and its harsh verdict, Pussy Riot’s provocative action still remains a point of contention.

It all began on February 21, when a nun at the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow saw Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samoutsevitch cross themselves, bow and approach the altar. They then started singing and praying for the Virgin Mary to “drive Putin away,” while also indicting the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church for worshiping Putin instead of God. It took guards less than a minute to appear and remove them from the building, but their performance, which is being called a “punk prayer,” was recorded and has been widely distributed on YouTube.

While media coverage has largely focused on Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin stance, the group is protesting far more than the Russian president. They stand against the discrimination of sexual minorities and the anti-gay law excluding displays of homosexuality that could supposedly influence children; the general dysfunction of the education and healthcare systems; and the gradual secularization of the Church through its businesslike behavior.

Given such stances, the group was destined to face not only the swift and brutal hand of the Russian law, but also intense scrutiny from the general public. According to the Levada Center, which is responsible for carrying out major omnibus surveys in the country, approximately 44 percent of respondents tended to support the trial against Pussy Riot and considered it quite reasonable, while 17 percent did not.

As human rights activist and journalist Maxim Trudolubov told me, “No other case has ever attracted so much attention and caused such controversy among Russian citizens and the world public — and it’s due mainly to the unprecedented social split.” The so-called “punk prayer” and the government’s reaction have divided the public into two irreconcilable camps, either fearlessly supporting the young feminists or furiously accusing them.

Critics of Pussy Riot claim that the notorious trio crossed the line of morality and ethics when they walked onto the holy altar. As one archpriest argued, “They could have expressed themselves in the streets, municipalities and even the Kremlin, but not in the House of God. Obviously, they have demonstrated a complete lack of respect for hundreds of Orthodox Christians and believers.”

Opposition leaders have not overlooked this fact either. As Alexey Navalny recently explained, “I seem to have missed the initial goal of the whole protest action. Some prefer calling it a piece of art. I’d rather characterize their performance as a misstep.” Another leading oppositionist, Oleg Kozlovsky, said “It’s very dangerous when one fails to see the limits.”

It should be noted, however, that the women claim to be religious and had no intention of inciting religious discord. They saw their act as a politically and socially-motivated protest. As such, they have found many supporters within the country, particularly in educated circles. For instance, Russian historian and human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva — who is one of the few still active veterans of the Soviet dissident movement — criticized the trial for being politically motivated, biased and based on pure emotion. “The Russian court,” she said, “was not in line with the law, common sense or mercy.”

While attracting publicity to Pussy Riot’s cause, the action may have also given the opposition movement new energy by drawing a considerable number of new people to get involved in Russian politics. On Saturday, August 18 — the day after the verdict was announced — a March for Democracy was held in Moscow, in which hundreds of people turned out to commemorate the nonviolent defeat of a coup d’état that hastened the 1991 Soviet collapse, in which three men were killed. In the words of opposition leader Lev Parkhomenko, “We are grateful for those young guys who chose to risk and even sacrifice their lives for the future democracy that we are morally obliged to fight for.”

Next comes September 15, which is being planned as a day of nationwide protests. Hundreds of thousands of people will have an opportunity to express their discontent with the undemocratic steps taken by the government, such as imposing huge fines for unauthorized demonstrations, classifying international NGO’s as foreign agents, reviving the notorious Soviet libel law, and opening a politically motivated criminal case against Navalny and other “public enemies.”

Whether or not the fallout from the Pussy Riot trial will help these efforts remains to be seen. As the eminent sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya recently said, “We need some more fuel to light the fire, but Pussy Riot may have harmed the opposition by taking away some of its moral high ground.”

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.