Russian Judicial Decision on "Pussy Riot" a Riot

On August 22, 2012, Russia was to join the World Trade Organization (the WTO) after almost two decades of negotiations and failed attempts. It was considered the last major economy to be left out of the WTO but the U.S. Congress was not rushing to pass permanent normal trade relations with Russia. For once, I supported the glacial pace of our Congress’ decision-making. Of course Russia should be a part of the WTO, but it should also have a fair legal system and above board politician. However, not every wish comes true.

The famous poet Tyutchev’s quote “Russia can’t be understood with the intellect” remains an apt description. The mock of a trial over three members of the Pussy Riot punk-rock band, which ended with a two-year prison sentence for each, instead of the three petitioned for by the prosecutor. It was handed down on August 17, 2012, almost six months after they were arrested for “hooliganism driven by religious hatred.” It is a curious case reeking of human right abuse and dissident crackdown, regardless of the form in which the performance was delivered.

The band members were arrested in February for performing a prayer to the Virgin Mary to expel Vladimir Putin. Their performance took place in the Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior (rebuilt in the 1990s), and it was clearly intended to shock the audience as well as protest candidacy of Vladimir Putin running for a second first, or simply his third term as Russian President. (For the video of the performance, see, Youtube clip).  The arrest and the subsequent trial, based on a newly minted law, left some bemoaning the fate of Yekaterina Samutsevich (30 years old), Marina Alekhina (24 years old) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (22 years old). Many were asking why other performers, Russian and Western, were not speaking up on behalf of the arrested women. Many more were gloating and calling for punishment, as they basked in righteous indignation over the venue chosen for the Pussy Riot performance. Ultimately, many public figures began to make statements and comments in support of the performers, these included such public figures as outspoken journalists (Artemii Troitskii), Western pop stars, including Madonna and Kate Nash; other activists and dissidents: Yevgenia Chirikova, the Russian chessmaster Garry Kasparov and the jailed businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and business people and expats, including Google’s Sergey Brin.  Putin himself was quoted as saying he did not wish for a tough punishment for the performers.

The acceptance of China into the WTO and its receipt of the coveted Most Favored Nation (the MFN) label in 2001 also emphasized poor treatment of dissenters and stark violations of human rights. Then nd now, visual and performing artists suffer from the hands of the corrupt Chinese officials no less than the Pussy Riot performers. Therefore, withholding the MFN title from Russian businesses and consumers would be unfair.

Few would argue that the form that the message of Pussy Riot took when it was delivered in a church also left much to be desired, not in the least of which were their lack of respect and sensitivity to the sacred place they invaded. However, there is a difference between assigning community service to someone behaving in a vulgar and disturbing way the band members did, and sending them, liberal arts students and activists to prison for two years simply for putting on a public performance.

On the bright side, Zamutsevich, Alekhina and Tolokonnikova should be out in time to protest Putin’s run for another term.

Select Sources: Detroit Free PressEcho MoskvyNBC News.; Huffington Post; BBC News.

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