The sensational trial of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot, that staged a 40-second performance in one of Moscow's cathedrals to protest the hand-in- glove relations between Vladimir Putin and the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox church, has ended. The verdict will be announced on August 17.
The prosecution made a consistent effort to keep out references to politics and claimed it was merely prosecuting the group for inspiring religious hatred and committing sacrilege.
The dominant defendant in the case, 22-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, is a fourth-year philosophy student at the prestigious Moscow State University. In her closing speech, she compared the trial to the Stalinist trials of the 1930s.
Tolokonnikova is exaggerating a bit. In Stalin's Socialist Russia, nobody in the court would have dared to applaud the defendants or demonstrate on their behalf outside the courts. In a Stalinist trial, the defendants would have admitted their guilt.
Anyway, most of Stalin's victims were shot without trial and without publicity. The current trial is more reminiscent of justice under the czarist autocracy.
Publicity has been rampant as the local and international media has descended on the courthouse, the international entertainment world has mobilized and the European Parliament is getting into the act as a defense of human rights and even of the Russian Constitution.
That constitution states that the "peaceful actions of artists even if they seem to be a provocation to somebody cannot bring about an accusation of severe criminality." The pop icon Madonna partially disrobed to display the group's name on her mostly bare back, to the applause of a Russian audience.
Tolonnikova has a history of provocations. When Dmitry Medvedev was elected president back in 2008, she participated in gross sexual exhibitionism at Moscow's biological Museum and drew a giant phallus next to the headquarters of the FSB, the successor to the KGB. The latest escapade is part and parcel of her iconoclastic behavior.
The official Russia Today tried to portray the conflict as pitting the privileged against middle Russia, writing about how one liberal young woman yelled at one of the officers:“You listen to me, listen to us – highly-educated, smart people who make good money…”
The officer quietly replied, “Well, educated people don’t behave this way. ” One would suspect that this is the general feeling.
The trial and the pictures of the handcuffed defendants, however, have been overkill and have backfired against the regime and the church by making the girls into martyrs.
The general public's attitude recalls that of President Abraham Lincoln when he came across a death sentence to be imposed on the 14-year-old drummer boy Daniel Winger. He exercised clemency and wrote his Secretary of War Edward Stanton "Hadn't we better spank this drummer boy and send him home to Leavenworth"? The Russian public would empathize with Lincoln's approach.
The authorities may have gotten the right idea when it was announced that an outraged citizen from Novosibirsk was filing a civil suit against the group. Harassment can be more effective than actual prison. Vladimir Putin himself urged clemency, thus positioning himself advantageously for every eventuality.
If the girls are let off easy it will be attributed to a merciful Czar, and if they get 3 years in prison, as the prosecution has demanded, he can proclaim that irrespective of his views, he cannot intervene in the decisions of the Russian judicial system.