Hard Line Could Backfire: Kremlin Sows Hate with Harsh Pussy Riot Verdict

A Commentary by Uwe Klußmann

The three members of Pussy Riot on trial in Moscow have received sentences of two years in jail. With the harsh verdict on the harmless artists, Russian President Vladimir Putin has committed a serious mistake: He is provoking the opposition to more aggression toward the state.

A protest in support of Pussy Riot in front of the Russian delegation to the European Union in Brussels on Friday. Zoom
REUTERS

A protest in support of Pussy Riot in front of the Russian delegation to the European Union in Brussels on Friday.

The outcome was exactly what had been feared. On Friday, a Moscow district court found three members of the punk band Pussy Riot guilty. They were each sentenced to two years in prison. It was a verdict that surely would not have been delivered against the will of President Vladimir Putin.

The public debate in Russia over the handling of the three musicians -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina -- was passionate and controversial. Writers, artists and intellectuals expressed their solidarity with the defendants.

The trial drew no shortage of criticism on the uncensored radio station Echo Moskvy, which is sympathetic to the opposition, and other radio stations, as well as in daily and weekly newspapers. The debate was a far cry from what would have been the case in a totalitarian society. Compared to the Soviet Union of the 1980s, a state without freedom of speech or freedom of travel, today's Russia has come a long way.

That, however, is little consolation in the light of current events in Moscow. Russia's powerful seem to be unaware of the degree to which the politicized trial of Pussy Riot is a symptom of the deep crisis that currently afflicts Russian society.

Doing Themselves a Disservice

It was inevitable that the stunt by the punk band in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior would provoke objections. By entering the altar space and insulting the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church as a "suka" ("bitch") in their song, the band hurt the feelings of many believers.

The performance, with its "blasphemous words which insult Christians," had deeply shocked "the faithful of all religious communities," read a statement by the Interreligious Council of Russia, which was also signed by the Federation of Jewish Communities.

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Some Orthodox Christians also separately called for the activists to be severely punished. One arch-abbot even went so far as to write, in a Moscow weekly paper, that "the country will go under if you do not punish profanity."

The court has now ruled that the three women had been "motivated by religious enmity and hatred." But those in power seem not to understand that the Church and state are doing themselves a disservice by locking up the three young women, two of whom are mothers of small children.

Rejecting Corruption and Abuse of Power

The judgment against Pussy Riot will likely not only cause problems for Russia at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Above all, the hope of those in power that the judgment will contribute to the stability of society could prove to be a false belief. The trial has divided Russian society deeper than any other incident in the Putin era.

There were voices that called for moderation during the legal proceedings even from within the ruling United Russia party. The leader of a United Russia district party organization in Putin's home city of St. Petersburg wrote a sympathetic letter to the three defendants saying that, even though their stunt had been "bad," the threatened punishment was completely unreasonable. "I am sure," he added, "that the majority of my party colleagues think the same way."

That means that, despite the authoritarian tendencies of supposedly strong men, Russia will not become a totalitarian regime again. And the closing argument of defendant Maria Alyokhina, who said that "Russia as a state" has for a long time resembled "a thoroughly diseased organism," reflects an opinion that is shared by many state officials, even including longtime colleagues of Putin's in the security services. There, too, there is opposition to policies that have allowed corruption and abuse of power to grow.

'War and Blood'

The opposition Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov, who like Putin is a KGB veteran, is one of those who are calling for the rule of law in the parliament and at opposition rallies. Gudkov is not a revolutionary, but a moderate social democrat.

The powers-that-be reacted harshly to Gudkov's criticism. A company he founded was shut down and several hundred employees lost their jobs. Now the Moscow authorities want to impeach him for "illegal business activity" and even strip him of his parliamentary immunity.

By turning basically harmless artists into criminals, the regime has transformed the trial against Pussy Riot into a political time bomb. With its hard line against the oppositional civil society, the state is conjuring up a scenario that Olga Allyonova, a journalist with the liberal Moscow newspaper Kommersant, warned of in March.

If a hard line drives the opposition to "hate and malice," Allyonova wrote, it will not lead to peace, a just social order or an honest state power. Instead, she concluded, "it will lead to revolution and to war and blood."

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1. Not only Putin is disgusting
Inglenda2 08/19/2012
We can hardly criticise the shameless actions of Mr. Putin, when Britain is proving itself to be no better. That a country such as Ecuador is granting Mr. Assange political asylum, because the current and previous governments have apparently lost all respect for freedom of thought and word, is a reason for disgust by every true Briton.
2. Hypocracy
ChubbyCat 08/22/2012
I agree with Inglenda2, in that there seems to be a double standard by which those in the west criticize other nations and leaders for freedoms that have been largely under pressure. Unfortunately, there are cold war winds emerging. Nations should be more careful in engaging in other nations internal policies. Social media avenues seem to be the new tools in delivering foreign policy propaganda. Every globally engaged government surely monitors these developments and adjusts its internal security policy based upon the relative threat; however, I have not seen any discussion about this in western media. I wonder why ...
3. What's new
symewinston 08/22/2012
Well, two wrongs don't make a right. The British government has not silenced the press, on the contrary it works hand in hand with press barons such as Murdoch. The UK, the same as Australia and many other countries, is just a lackey of the USA and therefore is doing its utmost to deliver Asange into American hands. The New York Times published and OpEd today written by Oliver Stone denouncing the complicity of England and Sweden in this attempted 'rendition' of Asange to the USA. The Australian government of course has done all it can not to help Asange. It is a shameful, revolting situation, but what can you expect from the USA ? It has a sorry history and a sorry present and future.
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