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Putin, the Patriarch and Pussy Riot: what’s behind the trial of Russia’s punk rockers

Manuel Barcia
pussyriot 300x224 Putin, the Patriarch and Pussy Riot: whats behind the trial of Russias punk rockers

Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samusevich (EPA)

When Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samoutsevitch climbed on stage at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in early March and had a go at President Vladimir Putin, they could not have imagined the rollercoaster ride they were about to embark on.

The three young women, members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, challenged both the State and the Russian National Orthodox Church by asking the Virgin Mary to help them get rid of Putin, and by implying in one of their songs that senior bishop Patriarch Kyrill’s loyalties didn’t lie with God but with the Russian President.

Before long these three brave young women were arrested andcharged with hooliganism, and have spent their days behind bars ever since. Defying the powers that be in Russia, as we know by now, is not something one should undertake lightly.

Over the years Putin’s government has exhibited a happy-go-lucky attitude to taking advantage of circumstances in order to repress internal dissent. Since the late 1990s when he first came to power, Putin has been accused of putting aside, in one way or another, most of his political opponents.

What makes the case of the Pussy Riot different is the involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose role evokes the times when “mad monk” Grigori Rasputin was calling the shots in Moscow and getting dirty in Russian politics.

Although the Pussy Riot girls have likened their trial to those of the Stalin era, in reality this event has more of a Holy Inquisition flavor to it. While the official script has attempted to present them as perpetrators of an act of religious hatred, in reality they are being punished for daring to defy the power of the State and the Church. A much offended and unforgiving Patriarch Kyrill called them “blasphemous”, while the Russian prosecutor in charge of their case, Alexei Nikiforov, called them “abusers of God”.

By taking on Putin and the Church the Pussy Riot girls have succeeded in highlighting the tight connections between the two. Twelve years into the 21st century Muscovites must feel like they’re stuck in the Middle Ages, with feudal lords benefitting from the complicity of religious leaders avid for power and political influence.

Of course, this follows a dispiritingly familiar pattern. As shown by whistle-blowers Gleb Yakunin and Vasili Mitrokhin, even during the communist era the Russian Orthodox Church collaborated, albeit in secret, with the KGB, to the point that Yakunin, a priest himself, argued that it was “practically a subsidiary, a sister company of the KGB”.

As a matter of fact the closeness of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government is so apparent that earlier this year one of their spokesmen had to go public and deny, in categorical terms, that the Church and the Russian State were about to merge.

While reading some of the nonsense surrounding the story of the Pussy Riot one can’t help but think of 17th century Spanish America, where the Holy Inquisition, a religious institution backed by the governments of the time, took it upon themselves to police human behavior, to torture, and to decide what was best.

Actually, the trial of the Pussy Riot girls has followed, almost to the letter, the template of the Spanish Inquisition trials set out by Fray Tomas de Torquemada and his successors. First, there were the denunciations and accusations; then the arrests and imprisonment of those who displayed dissenting behavior. Finally, and after a good dose of torture – one step the Russian courts have been forced to skip – there was the sentencing.

In addition to all this, from those whose lives were spared, inquisitors would expect a confession of repentance known as auto-da-fe, by which they would admit their guilt and ask for the forgiveness of their sins from the Church – something the Pussy Riot girls have already done.

Women, of course, were frequently at the sharp end of the religious zealots’ trials, whether in Spanish, Portuguese or English America, or in Europe. They were accused of virtually anything imaginable, from poisoning wells to transforming themselves into animals and organizing Walpurgis nights.

The moral guardians of the faith have almost universally been men who decide how women can behave and who, as often as possible, have done everything they can to reaffirm their masculinity – and by masculinity read power – over them. Supporting a male-dominated status quo in which women have traditionally been discriminated against and abused, is something the Church, whether Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, has always excelled at.

Not surprisingly all three, Kyrill the Patriarch, Putin the President, and Nikiforov the Prosecutor are, yes, you guessed right, men.

Ultimately, the case has put the spotlight on Putin more than anyone. He now has the chance of appearing magnanimous and “making things right” by granting a pardon or allowing a lesser punishment to these three “troubled and naïve girls”. In fact he has gone on record stating that perhaps their punishment shouldn’t be too hard.

What is strangest about this story, however, is the fact that modern Russia is faced with a situation in which intransigent communists of old, like Putin, have now turned into modern inquisitors concerned about possible offenses to a God they didn’t even believe in a few years ago.

Of course, the inescapable truth is that these three women are young, rebellious, and daring, and they are so in a form that shouldn’t be surprising in the 21st century. Sadly enough neither their president nor their religious leaders seem to believe that three girls speaking freely is a threat that can be ignored.

One thing’s for certain – by now Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samoutsevitch will have found out that they are living in a world of great hypocrisy, ignorance and corruption. As Alyokhina herself pointed out during their defense, “in a healthy society this wouldn’t have happened”.

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  • maias

    ” a church is no place for protests”
    You might wish to reconsider your view bearing in mind the impact this protect in a church has had on Russian and world opinion, compared to other protects which fizzled and died

  • William MacDougall

    I very much doubt it will have a positive political impact in Russia – it certainly hasn’t so far – but the risk of imitation makes exemplary punishment all the more necessary.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gregory-Carlin/1372040965 Gregory Carlin

    The band was named after a voina action assaulting poorly paid fast food workers with live cats.
    How would the establishment or ordinary people, have reacted to a band singing “f*** the Queen” from the business end of St Paul’s?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gregory-Carlin/1372040965 Gregory Carlin

    That is it, the entire thing, in a nutshell. Pussy Riot are the soundtrack of primitive sectarian savages attacking Aleppo.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gregory-Carlin/1372040965 Gregory Carlin

    Yeah, violation of Article 18 UDHR. The right not to have Pussy Riot polluting one’s church. Amnesty are making a complete nuisance of themselves annoying the Russians about Article 19 without responding to requests from the Russians to explain why Article 19 UDHR cancels out Article 18 UDHR. The Russians think it is not just Pussy Riot on mind altering drugs. President Obama issued a statement supporting a bunch of thugs who think attacking poorly paid workers using live cats as projectiles is some kind of art statement.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gregory-Carlin/1372040965 Gregory Carlin

    Churches are being attacked across Russia in copycat crimes. They fully deserve the two years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gregory-Carlin/1372040965 Gregory Carlin

    They violated the Article 18 UDHR entitlements of the people @ church,and so 2 years is about right. They are just low-life criminals. If they said the same thing about the Queen in the street in London, a few weeks ago, they would have lynched.

  • http://z13.invisionfree.com/Broken_Future Zuiyo Maru

    Just because an act is illegal doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s why our Constitution has freedom of speech.

    And, furthermore, religion should not in any way be further protected from criticism, no matter how “filthy” or “low-life.” I’ve sworn at least that much in my life, and insulted just as many people, and yet no one has called me a criminal


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