The Pussy Riot Trial: How Should the World Respond?

Will Mascaro

Pussy Riot; Photo by Denis Bochkarev

Just a few blocks south of the Kremlin, devoted members of the Russian Orthodox Church sat in silence as their evening mass began at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. The Cathedral, the largest place of Christian Orthodox worship in the world, was veiled in a silence barely disturbed by the quiet recitation performed by the priest standing on the altar. Before the mass could get under way, however, a group of masked women entered the back of the church, and, blaring music, ran towards the altar. Once there, they began playing choir music that quickly turned into anti-Putin song laced with lyrical venom targeted at the Russian President. What seemed an unidentifiable amount of young women protesting would only be stopped once police officers arrived in the church and arrested the women, finally bringing their song-filled protest to an end.

The protest left the entire church, and eventually the entire international community, teaming with questions. But the first was simple: who are these women? Enter Pussy Riot, an underground punk-protest band stationed in Russia. Founded just in 2011, the band has served as a voice of dissidence towards Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. When Putin was gearing up for an election campaign that would see him become the country’s president for the third time – an election widely considered somewhat illegitimate – the group formed in order to voice their concerns with the President’s return to power. Dressed in bright neon spandex, faces masked by stereotypical burglar garb, the girls sing their own original songs filled with hatred and contempt towards Putin and his administration.

The group was relatively unknown until February of this year when they successfully staged the Christ the Savior protest. Though they were arrested shortly after the protest began, they suddenly found themselves international superstars, bringing more attention than they could have imagined to their message. As the world heard that three of the women would be sent to trial on the charge of “hooliganism”, their popularity soared, and as the date of their sentence drew near, the band only continued to receive more press. From Madonna to Paul McCartney, celebrities across the world threw their weight behind the punk band, complaining that Russia was wrong for bringing them to trial.

But if they thought they were famous before the ruling, they had no idea what was going to happen after. In early August, when the Moscow-area court room was filled with reporters, the judge carefully read out the sentence. Each woman would be serving two years in prison for the crimes they had committed. The entire world was shocked. These women (two of whom have young children) will now spend an enormous amount of time behind bars for a relatively petty crime. Legal advisor to the Kremlin Vladmir Lukin, ironically appointed by Putin, has said that he might choose to challenge the ruling, explaining that, “this was a serious misdemeanor, not a crime. The equivalent in any other modern democracy would have been a heavy fine and a slap on the wrist, not a two year jail sentence.” While it is clear they were inappropriate and disrespectful towards the Orthodox faith, the punishment simply does not fit the crime, so something more has to be involved.

Many were not surprised that Vladimir Putin has received enormous, overwhelming support from the Russian Orthodox Church. He polls well with the group in major elections, receives large donations from members of the faith, and has been publicly supported by church clergy in an unprecedented manner. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch himself, Patriarch Kirill, has gone so far as to publically declare Putin as “God’s miracle” to Russia. If Putin ever had to take a serious stand against dissenters, risking the loss of support from a major voting block, this was the time. Mansur Mirovalev, columnist for the Associated Press, explains that, “in Russia, the rules of modern day free speech dictate that you can say something without causing concern, but if you put those words into action, you will find yourself running into trouble with the government,” an explanation that seems to fit what happened to Pussy Riot. Before this particular protest, the group had been making some noise, but nothing serious. But now the group has angered the Orthodox Church, potentially jeopardizing the support Putin receives from them if he does not respond swiftly and firmly. Thus, it is clear that the arrests were politically motivated and the sentence lengths morally wrong.

So, what should the United States do? In my opinion, nothing. While the usual diplomatic banter has already begun to take place in the United States State Department, any further action other than showing our disappointment may serve to hurt us, and hurt Russia’s democracy movement in the process. Some, like the leadership at Amnesty International, have immediately mobilized, urging their supporters to write to Congress to axe the bi-partisan supported deal to increase trade with Russia. As Russia makes the historic move of entering the World Trade Organization, we in the United States are set to pass through a trade deal that would create over two-hundred-thousand new jobs and raise billions in revenues. An August 23rd, 2012 Rutgers article explains that, “taking any form of legitimate action on the issue will find America losing out on an incredible deal at a desperate time.”

But more importantly, why do we have the right to tell Russia that they were wrong? Though America is a great democracy, it has not always extended freedom to its entire people, growing and learning from its mistakes without the harsh judgment of the world. Unfortunately for modern day Russia, it is surrounded by well-established democracies, all of them quick to point out their neighbor’s missteps.

I am not suggesting that Russia has not done something wrong—they have. Individuals and organizations are completely in the right for wanting to help these women avoid the unjust punishment they have received, and, though I find it unlikely, seeing their case appealed would be fantastic. But in this instance, I believe one country criticizing another for taking action on a particular crime, even if the action is extreme, is wrong, unwarranted, and even hypocritical.

We have been a democracy for over two-hundred years; Russia has been a democracy for around twenty. As Anya Schmemann, columnist for The Atlantic and director of communication to the Council on Foreign Relations argues, “Russia has made the decision to try out this experiment we call democracy, and the long term trends suggest they are succeeding. Some setbacks like this one may take place, but attacking them for it will only push them farther away from the country we want them to be.” Sometimes it is best to stay out of other people’s or countries’ business. America has no right to tell another country to change its ways, and because there has been no atrocity or mass killing, we have no obligation to take a stand either. Sometimes, no response is better than any response when it comes to a Riot.

Pussy Riot Protesters; Photo by Sarah Stierch