President-elect Vladimir Putin described on Wednesday a protest at Moscow’s largest cathedral by all-female punk group Pussy Riot as “unpleasant for all believers,” but made no mention of possible lengthy jail sentences faced by two alleged band members.
“If the girls disturbed the peace of the cathedral, then this is unpleasant for all believers,” he said. “I hope it will not be repeated.”
Putin demonstrated a very “negative” reaction when told about Pussy Riot’s performance of what they called a “punk prayer” on the altar of the downtown Christ the Savior Cathedral on February 21, his spokesman said earlier in the day.
“We don’t know anything about the content of the song,” Dmitry Peskov told the independent Dozhd (Rain) TV channel. “We do know, however, of course about this disgusting incident.”
Despite his past as a KGB officer in the officially atheist Soviet Union, Putin presents himself as pious believer and is often shown in state media at church services.
Four members of the group, clad in bright balaclavas, bowed and crossed themselves as they sang an acapella version of a song entitled “Holy Sh*t” at the cathedral. The lyrics included lines such as “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, chase Putin out!”
The group said the act was a protest against public support for Putin by the powerful Orthodox Church’s head, Patriarch Kirill, who took up residence in the Kremlin last year.
Pussy Riot first hit the headlines in January, when they raced through a musical diatribe against Putin on a snowy Red Square, calling for “Revolt in Russia!” and chanting “Putin’s got scared” before being detained by police.
Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were detained on March 4 as Russians voted in presidential polls that handed Putin a third term after a four-year hiatus. The cathedral performance came amid ongoing anti-Putin protests in Moscow and other cities.
The two women were remanded in custody on Monday until April 24 and could face up to seven years behind bars on hooliganism charges. Both deny their involvement and are on hunger strike to protest the decision to refuse them bail. Alekhina has a five-year-old son and Tolokonnikova a four-year-old daughter.
“Information suggests that the patriarch urged the authorities to take such a great and cruel revenge,” Marat Guelman, a former Kremlin political advisor told Rain TV.
Guelman went on to accuse the patriarch of “provoking” the performance in the cathedral with his “very active participation in the recent polls.” He also suggested that Putin had been helped greatly by the Church during his election campaign and had “decided to answer in kind.”
Patriarch Kirill praised Putin as Russia’s “savior” during a televised meeting during the election campaign, and also advised believers to stay at home and “pray” instead of going on anti-government rallies.
“We don’t have any direct evidence that Putin or Patriarch Kirill ordered the opening of the case,” Alekhina and Tolokonnikova’s lawyer, Nikolai Polozov, told RIA Novosti. “But it’s obvious some levers were pulled.”
Polozov added that the case against his clients was opened with unusual haste after the initial complaint. “It took a few hours, when the process usually takes a couple of weeks – or even a month.”
He also said he could not rule out that his clients could be jailed for seven years, citing the case of opposition activist Taisiya Osipova, the diabetic mother of a five-year-old girl, who was handed a ten-year sentence on drug charges late last year. Osipova’s sentence was annulled in mid-February after President Dmitry Medvedev intervened. She remains behind bars while a new investigation is carried out.
“But even a couple of months would be absolutely too much for what they did,” said Polozov.
A number of religious figures have urged leniency for Alekhina and Tolokonnikova, including senior Church official Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin.
“It’s wonderful that the police have been serious about their investigation into this crime,” he said on Wednesday. “But leniency should be shown…there is no need to jail them.”
He called however for a “serious” punishment for the accused for “insulting the feelings of believers.”
Russian blogger and opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny also called for Alekhina and Tolokonnikova to be freed.
“Their actions in the Christ the Savior Cathedral were idiotic and there is nothing to argue about here,” he wrote in his Live Journal blog. “But are their crimes so dangerous for society that the woman should be kept behind bars? The answer is obvious – no.”
Russia’s increasingly politicized Internet community has come out against the jailing of the women, with over 3,000 people having singed an online petition urging the patriarch to “petition the court to close the case.”
“I honestly don’t understand why they are knocking Patriarch Kirill over the supposed violation of the Constitutional separation of the church and state,” the patriarch’s spokesman, Vladimir Vigilyansky, told the Rapsi news agency. “This is unacceptable.”
“The Church cannot ask the state not to fulfill its state functions,” he went on adding, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s – and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Supporters of the accused plan to picket the headquarters of the Moscow police to demand Alekhina and Tolokonnikova’s release on Thursday – International Women’s Day.
The group’s action have also inspired a poem by Russian “people’s poet” Dmitry Bykov that contains the lines “The group Pussy Riot strode out, Not one shameless girl, but three. ‘They are trampling our freedom down, From Putin, O God, set us free.’”