The Kremlin has hijacked Orthodox Christianity and turned it into a propaganda prop for the regime, which is why the secular authorities are now punishing feminist band Pussy Riot for their “punk prayer” in a church, arrested band members said on Wednesday.
“We dared to mix Christian culture and protest culture…and so the authorities decided to protect society from our way of thinking,” Yekaterina Samutsevich said from a defendants’ glass cage in a Moscow courtroom.
The eighth day of the Pussy Riot trial, which marked the end of its main phase, leaving only the verdict due on August 17, was reserved exclusively for the group’s final speeches.
It was also their first chance to speak in public in five months since their arrests, and they have seized the chance, turning their speeches into political indictment of President Vladimir Putin, whom they accuse of masterminding their trial.
Each defiant speech was followed by a burst of applause from a crowd of some 50 journalists and supporters squeezed into a packed courtroom of Moscow’s Khamovnichesky District Court.
The first two rounds of applause were cut short by the judge and a court marshal, respectively. “You’re not at the theater!” Judge Marina Syrova snapped, losing her inscrutable look for a moment.
The third round, however, went uninterrupted, scoring a minor victory for either freedom of expression or unruly behavior, depending on the perspective.
Group members also received a standing ovation as they were led out from their glass enclosement, the sound of furious clapping sending a police dog into a frenzy.
Three Pussy Riot members could face up to seven years in jail on hooliganism charges over an anti-Putin song they performed in a Moscow cathedral in February.
The group members insist the event was a political performance, but the prosecution claims they were inciting religious hatred.
Putin denied influencing the process when confronted by journalists last Thursday, but denounced the stunt. Church head Patriarch Kirill has refused to speak out until the trial is over.
Putin has also called for a milder punishment for the Pussy Riot members last week. Five days after his statement, the prosecutor only requested three years’ jail for them, four years less than the maximum possible sentence.
In their final speeches, the three young feminists underscored the political nature of their “punk prayer,” which followed Patriarch Kirill endorsing Putin’s presidential bid.
By relying on religion, the Kremlin capitalized on the universal respect for Christianity in Russia left from Soviet times, when the embattled church had to survive ideological and administrative pressure from the atheist regime, Samutsevich said.
But the plan failed to work because a growing number of believers support Pussy Riot, group member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said in the courtroom.
The speeches came laden with philosophical terms and a lengthy list of references including, but not limited to, Montaigne, Pythagoras, Joseph Brodsky, the Bible, religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev and avant-garde art group Oberiu from the 1920s and 1930s.
All group members said they expected their “sham trial” to end in conviction, but were ready to face it.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Maria Alyokhina, the third defendant, said with a shake of her bush of hair. “You cannot take away my inner freedom.”
Defense lawyers shared the pessimism. “They’ll be convicted for sure,” Violetta Volkova told RIA Novosti on the sidelines of the trial.
But the authorities are undecided on how hard to punish the group members, whose case has enraged the Russian “creative class”, or young educated urbanites who were the driving force of the recent anti-Putin protests, and damaged Putin’s reputation worldwide, Volkova said.
The list of Pussy Riot’s supporters includes Faith No More, Madonna and Red Hot Chili Peppers, while Amnesty International rights watchdog has recognized them prisoners of conscience.