The trial of three members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot began in Moscow this week. They are charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after performing a protest song at the altar of one of Moscow’s major Orthodox cathedrals in February.
Initially the band were allowed to go free—but the authorities changed their minds in March, arresting and charging the three. They face a possible seven years in jail.
The rest of the group has gone into hiding. Those arrested, two of whom have young children, have been detained and refused any contact with friends or family.
It’s clear that the decision to do this came from the top. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has strongly condemned the band and called for harsh punishments.
Their protest came as the government was cracking down on the opposition movement that had exploded onto the streets in December last year after Russia’s parliamentary elections.
Pussy Riot was formed in September 2011 after Vladimir Putin announced he would be running for president for a third term.
They staged impromptu musical protests wearing neon coloured dresses and balaclavas to conceal their identities. This did not elicit any reaction from the authorities—until the cathedral protest.
Many Russians have been shocked by the harsh treatment the band has received. Opinion polls show a clear majority oppose the trial.
Pussy Riot are the most visible symbol of Putin’s crackdown. On 6 May, the day before Putin’s inauguration, police attacked a massive anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow, beating hundreds and arresting dozens.
Since then the government has constructed a case against 14 of the arrested. It plans to stage a show trial to intimidate activists and put a stop to the protests.
While the government has been using the police and the law to crack down on dissent, the Russian Orthodox Church has been providing Putin with ideological support.
Since the end of the Soviet Union it has become increasingly powerful and close to the government, effectively becoming a state church in a country that is supposed to be secular.
The church has repeatedly exhorted its followers to support the government and condemned protesters as anti-Russian. The government for its part is keen to cultivate support for the church as part of its wider attempts to promote conservative, xenophobic nationalism.
The outcome of both trials is likely to have been already decided by the government, as the courts make little pretence at being independent. But this approach is likely to backfire.
The government is not strong enough to launch a decisive crackdown—and repressive measures like this are likely to only increase opposition and anger.
Rather than being intimidated, Russian protesters will look on the victims of these show trials as martyrs. They will take to heart the words on one of the Pussy Riot defendant’s T-shirts in court this week: no pasaran!