When on February 21 several young women from a provocative but little-known punk band Pussy Riot rushed into Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow and for what now looks like an interminable minute performed a chant “Holy Mother of God, chase Putin away!” they hardly thought they'll be designated prisoners of conscience by human rights groups and become international celebrities in whose honor rock-stars like Faith No More will perform. At a recent dinner party in Copenhagen, a Danish diplomat friend of mine said: “If the three girls get out of jail, they could have political asylum anywhere in the EU for the asking.”
But for now, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina remain in detention and see the end of the first week of trial on charges of hooliganism that could carry up to a seven-year jail sentence. What started as a provocative and ultimately insulting but harmless performance turned into an international cause celebre that split the Russian society and created lasting reputation damage to the Kremlin in the West and to the Russian Orthodox Church among the intellectual class in Russia itself.
Although Vladimir Putin voiced an opinion recently that the three women “should not be punished too severely,” most people believe that without a direct order from the Kremlin, neither the arrest nor the trial could have happened.
It is interesting that very few people in Russia, even among those who call for the release of Pussy Riot members from detention, think that what they did was a good thing. Performing on the roof of a jail or on the Red Square, as they did before, is OK. Holding radical feminist beliefs is no sin (although hardly a crowd puller in an essentially conservative country). Disliking Vladimir Putin is OK. But intruding in a church with a punk performance was unnecessarily offensive to simple believers. Still, this looked like a case for an administrative fine that would be quickly forgotten – until the end of February, when the three punk activists were put into pretrial detention – which, bearing in mind Russian specifics, amounts to a jail term before the trial even starts.
The arrest changed everything.
Firstly, the Russian intelligentsia and the majority of Westerners interested in Russia view the court proceedings in Moscow as a show trial – a demonstration of the state’s power to coerce and punish opposition activists at will. With Russia's justice system being just an extension of the executive authority, everyone is convinced that the outcome of the trial will be decided not in the courtroom, but in the Kremlin’s corridors. Hence the heightened attention to what president Putin is saying about the trial.
He finds himself in a difficult situation. Giving the three defendants real jail terms would make martyrs out of them and create acute international embarrassment. Releasing them on bail after all that happened is impossible. The most likely result is conviction for a term that would correspond to time spent in pretrial detention. But this will only serve to ignite more opposition anger and will hardly deter the activists for whom a stint in jail has become a kind of badge of honor. So the final sentence remains unpredictable.
Secondly, the Pussy Riot trial has severely undermined the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, which failed to ask the authorities to release the three women from detention pending trial. Instead, the church's official spokesmen engaged in an exercise in creative theology. They claim that forgiveness can only come as a result of repentance. As Pussy Riot members never explicitly asked for forgiveness, it is claimed, the church doesn't have to ask the secular powers for clemency. This is a new interpretation of Jesus Christ's “Sermon of the Mount,” which calls for unconditional forgiveness of one's enemies.
The case has split the believers and clergy into a majority that demands vengeance against the punks who committed sacrilege, and a minority who defend clemency and forgiveness. A flurry of open letters and appeals in recent months called on Patriarch Kirill to side with one of the two camps. The primate of the Russian Orthodox Church declared “non-interference” with the judicial process, but is markedly leaning toward the majority position. He already branded those priests who called for clemency “traitors in frocks.” There is in fact an internal cleavage that goes through the Orthodox community in Russia.
Since the Pussy Riot case came into the public spotlight, the church's flawed relationship with the Russian state revealed itself to the full extent. Officially the church is independent of the state, but in fact it follows in the wake of whatever the Kremlin decides, to the extent that it is increasingly seen as a department of the presidential administration. This serves Putin well, as he was always suspicious of the church as the only entity in Russia that has a significant independent support base and can mobilize it fairly quickly. The Pussy Riot case has created a pretext for the Kremlin to test the Orthodox hierarchy's loyalty to the political regime. The hierarchy passed the test with flying colors, so to say, at the expense of losing the support of Russia's intelligentsia and tightly tying its own future to the future of Putin. This may look as a good bet in the short run, but clouds on the Kremlin's horizon are gathering and Russian politics looks increasingly volatile.
Thirdly, and finally, the Pussy Riot trial shows that the Russian society in itself is split. The minority that wants change in the country is small, but becomes better and better organized. The majority prefers the status quo, but is passive. It'll have a harder time organizing itself. This divide is not going away any time soon, and will only deepen in the years to come.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.