Punk and Putin


IT’S LIKELY that if three young women in balaclavas marched up uninvited to the altar of the ProCathedral to then perform a crude punk ballad lambasting the church and the Virgin Mary there would be calls for their prosecution. Disturbing the peace, blasphemy . . . Such appeals might well have prevailed a couple of decades ago. Not so, one hopes, today. We have as a society developed an understanding that the sometimes-uncomfortable price of democracy and free speech is the tolerance of speech of which we may disapprove, which may offend, which may be blasphemous – we’re even thinking of removing the offence from the Constitution.

Not so in Russia. The trial opened yesterday of three young women members of the punk band Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina (24), Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (22), and Yekaterina Samutsevich (29). Their offence, an “unsanctioned” performance on the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February when they called on the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out!” and castigated the Orthodox Church for its support for and close links to him. The three, two of whom have small children, have since spent four months in jail and now face the possibility of up to seven years inside.

The prosecution, which alleges that the performance incited religious hatred, is a result, it appears, of an irate response to the protest by the head of the church, Patriarch Kirill. Disappointingly, it has found wide support in society, including, only this week, from a group of conservative Russian writers who on Monday called for tough punishment. The performance had crossed the line that separated political speech from blasphemy, Andrei Damer, an Orthodox missionary and one of the many demonstrators outside the courthouse recently, insisted, reflecting a widely held view.

To make its case the church, which accuses the trio of being Satanists, has assembled 10 “victims” to give evidence. They include, for example, a cathedral security guard who “had trouble sleeping after the crime in the cathedral,” according to his lawyer.

But the deplorable decision to allow the prosecution to proceed must be seen in a wider context. The cathedral event came at a time when up to 100,000 people were on the streets protesting against Vladimir Putin’s re-election as president. The latter’s nod to the prosecuting authorities over Pussy Riot was also very much at one with the regime’s paranoia about dissent, and will be seen as a test case over how Putin intends to rule in his second term. He does not come out well.

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