11:52 GMT +3 hours22 November 2014
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Analysis & Opinion

‘Holy Sh*t’ in the Courtroom: A Look at the Pussy Riot Trial

Analysis & Opinion
(updated 18:28 28.10.2014)
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There was loud music, lemon-colored masks and young ladies dancing next to sacred icons, church janitor Yelena Zhukova said in the courtroom.

There was loud music, lemon-colored masks and young ladies dancing next to sacred icons, church janitor Yelena Zhukova said in the courtroom.

“What kind of music was it?” asked defense lawyer Violetta Volkova.

“I don’t know,” Zhukova admitted. “But it wasn’t a Christian sound.”

Zhukova finds her religion sensibilities offended by a short political sing-and-dance number that three balaclava-ed members of the female punk band Pussy Riot staged in her Epiphany Cathedral at Yelokhovo in downtown Moscow in February.

Three days later, Pussy Riot repeated it in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Now they’re facing seven years in prison over the stunt.

The case polarized Russian society, where radical conservatives champion it as an attack on traditional values, while skeptics – including many believers – insist it is revenge on behalf of the authorities outraged by the mockery of those church hierarchs who explicitly endorse President Vladimir Putin.

The trial of three young feminists implicated in the case is in full swing in a Moscow district court starting this week, and it looks like nothing if not dredging the depths of the nation’s subconscious – set to end with a jail term, the defense says.

Don’t Sit, Don’t Smirk, Don’t Ask

The daily session at the Pussy Riot trial begins with a bench, which court marshals use as a roadblock for reporters.

“Don't sit on the stairway, it's dirty,” a beaming marshal offers by way of a conversation starter to a young female reporter with a pixie cut.

He goes on to inform her that he does not believe in American conspiracy. America is just muscles, England's the real deal – remember how the queen purged the world of rival royalty, including the Romanovs, he insisted.

He would not be smiling when the two-hour wait is over and the courtroom is packed, barking at reporters to never dare laugh and swallowing his “fu—”s as the end of the phrase.

His call goes unheeded: there are plenty of opportunities to smirk, starting with the defense’s request to remove Judge Marina Syrova from the trial over her alleged bias in favor of the prosecution. The request, the fifth in four days, is to be reviewed by Syrova herself, and, predictably, ends in the dustbin.

Legal quirks permeate the Russian justice system: a recent complaint by whistleblower Alexei Navalny against Investigative Committee Chairman Alexander Bastrykin had to be filed with Bastrykin. No one batted an eyelid – except for Bastrykin, who promptly had an old case against Navalny reopened.

Navalny was set to appear at the Pussy Riot trial on Thursday to testify as a witness for the defense, but from inside the courtroom the prospect seemed like waiting for Godot while listening to the defense and prosecution trade veiled offenses, the judge snapping “question disallowed!” every two minutes and eventually banning Navalny from testifying.

The high point of the day is a prank bomb call that gets everybody kicked out in the street, where a rugged man with a grey beard shouts: “Our women are free! Putin’s female slaves are not!” A bomb-sniffing dog that dozed its way through the trial gets a minute in the spotlight, but produces no surprises, and the crowd lines back for entry, complete with a bag search that fails to intercept someone’s hip flask full of warm whisky.

The Balaclava Offense

Navalny has nothing to do with Pussy Riot, but the trial grew in scope beyond all expectations, almost like a carcinoma.

Hooliganism is both an administrative and a criminal offense in Russia, depending on the gravity of the offense. Pussy Riot supporters say the three girls – educated feminists in their 20s, two of them with children – only qualify for a smaller penalty.

But the prosecution insists the women were fanning religious hatred by dancing in the church and shouting, “Holy sh*t” and “Mother of God, expel Putin!”

Dancing in a temple in masks is a violation of church rules, janitor Zhukova, a witness for the prosecution, told the court in a quiet voice of a Christian martyr at her own trial.

She failed to specify the rule, possibly because there is none, and the only universal ban of the kind in Orthodox Christianity prohibits women from going to church bare-headed – something obviously ruled out by the balaclavas.

Pussy Riot members said they meant no offense to believers, and their show was purely political – a claim that Navalny was meant to prove.

But prosecutors sought to downplay the political angle and highlight the blasphemy, overriding the defense’s objections with the help of Syrova’s many “question disallowed!”

“Do you believe it acceptable to say ‘Holy sh*t!’ in the church?” a prosecutor asked a father of one of the defendants in the courtroom.

The man denied it, pointing out Russia’s ancient tradition of skomorokhi – traveling actors afforded the degree of freedom of speech that apparently exceeded that allowed to Pussy Riot. Of course, the skomorokhi sometimes faced burning at the stake, but this was not mentioned at the hearing.

The prosecutor’s reasoning also included “so-called feminism” and “so-called modern art” as grounds for the defendants’ alleged misbehavior. He was apparently not into the topic, calling prominent art critic Yekaterina Degot an artist, but no one in the courtroom pointed out the mistake.

Blame Men in High Towers

Fifty-eight percent of the populace believes a jail term for the Pussy Riot girls is excessive punishment, compared to 33 percent who endorse it, according to a nationwide survey held by the independent pollster Levada in late July. The poll covered 1,600 respondents and had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

The list of the group’s foreign supporters swells by the day, boasting figures from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the London Mayor Boris Johnson, from film director Terry Gilliam to the U.S. State Department.

But defense lawyers and most political analysts unanimously predict a guilty verdict, which they say is decided in the Kremlin, not in the Khamovnichesky District Court.

The Kremlin has been tightening screws on politics since May, when Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as president despite months of street protests against his return to power. His presidential bid was endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Kirill, who refused to speak out on the Pussy Riot case until the trial is over.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in March that the president took a negative view of the group’s “disgusting” stunt, which fueled pundits’ allegations that the case is a message by the Kremlin to its political opponents that open defiance would not go unpunished.

“This is the kind of court we’ve got,” Pussy Riot lawyer Nikolai Polozov told reporters sardonically outside the court building during the wait for the bomb that never was.

The judge refused on Thursday to hear any of the witnesses invited by the defense. Meanwhile, an unnamed witness for the prosecution fled the building for unspecified reasons while waiting for her turn and never returned.