Pussy Riot: Vladimir Putin Turns Punk Rockers Into Political Martyrs

A trial is underway in Russia that will likely redefine the limits of speech and expression in that country.

Five months after their arrest, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina – members of the feminist Russian punk collective known as Pussy Riot – are finally getting their day in court. Pussy Riot became an internet sensation in Russia during the past year for their guerrilla street performances, where the women, clad in colorful balaclavas, would rip through brief songs critical of the Russian state and Vladimir Putin. Videos of their performances racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and Russian social media sites.

Last February, Pussy Riot staged one of their impromptu performances, charging into Moscow's famous Cathedral of Christ the Savior to offer what they called a “punk prayer”: a plea to the Virgin Mary to “drive Putin out!” Despite the high-profile location, there was no immediate official reaction to the performance. But on the eve of the March 4 Russian presidential election, Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina were arrested.

Arrests among Russia's increasingly vocal political opposition are not uncommon – former chess champion-turned Putin critic Gary Kasparov has himself been arrested on numerous occasions; typically opposition figures are released soon after their arrest and payment of a small fine. The harshest jail sentence often is just a 15-day detention for disturbing the peace. But from the outset, things were different for Pussy Riot. Rather than the standard charges of staging an illegal protest, the three women were instead charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility,”or to put that in terms of the American judicial system: a hate crime, and a crime that carried with it a possible sentence of seven years in prison.

The severity of the charges has led to the conclusion that Putin himself is directing the prosecution of the women. Ironically, the Pussy Riot trial, which began on Monday, is being held in the same courtroom where former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced following his trial on tax evasion charges that came about after he dared to politically challenge Putin. The three women have refused to plead guilty to the charges, even though it is rumored that they have been offered far lighter sentences if they plead out. Pussy Riot contends that their performance did not break the law. In a letter read by their attorney, Alyokhina apologized if the punk prayer offended anyone.

Two factors are likely behind the severity of the charges. The first is personal; that Pussy Riot chose to attack the link between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. Since taking power in 1999, Putin has sought to build strong ties between his government and the Orthodox Church as a way of promoting his brand of Russian nationalism. This has led Putin to strike up a close personal relationship with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill. The Patriarch also was the target of online protests earlier this year when a $30,000 watch he was wearing was photoshopped out of an official Church portrait. It was noted online that the watch is equivalent to about two years' salary for the average Russian. Pussy Riot has said that part of the reason for their performance was to draw attention to Kirill directing Orthodox Russians to vote for Putin.

The second factor is that the Pussy Riot prosecution is designed to have a chilling effect on the Russian opposition movement, which has become emboldened following massive street protests over allegations of vote rigging in last December's parliamentary elections that skewed the results in favor of Putin's United Russia party. Rallies in Moscow brought more than 100,000 people out into the streets in the middle of the Russian winter. The opposition has made extensive use of social media sites like Facebook, YouTube and Russia's Vkontakte to organize and promote their anti-Putin agenda. As noted, sites like YouTube are what made Pussy Riot a national sensation. The internet is also the one portion of the Russian media space that remains stubbornly beyond Putin's control. The prospect of years, rather than days, in jail for acts of protest then is meant to make Russians think twice about speaking out against the government.

Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich, and Alyokhina have received support from around the world, with Amnesty International calling for their release and marking them as “prisoners of conscience” for their political beliefs. There have been numerous rallies in Russia to offer support to the three women and condemn the proceedings as a modern version of a Soviet-era show trial. Even the normally Kremlin-friendly Russian news channel Russia Today published a largely favorable story about Pussy Riot on Monday. Ultimately though, public opinion will likely matter very little. Russian criminal trials seldom end in acquittal for the defendants. If the Pussy Riot prosecution is being directed from the highest levels of government, it is almost certain that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina will wind up serving long prison sentences.

In her letter to the court about her prosecution, Alyokhina included these words: “I thought the church loved its children. It turns out the church only loves those children who believe in Putin.”