Hard Line Could Backfire
Kremlin Sows Hate with Harsh Pussy Riot VerdictA Commentary by Uwe Klussmann
A protest in support of Pussy Riot in front of the Russian delegation to the European Union in Brussels on Friday.
The outcome was exactly what had been feared. On Friday, a Moscow district court found three members of the punk band Pussy Riot guilty. They were each sentenced to two years in prison. It was a verdict that surely would not have been delivered against the will of President Vladimir Putin.
The public debate in Russia over the handling of the three musicians -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina -- was passionate and controversial. Writers, artists and intellectuals expressed their solidarity with the defendants.
The trial drew no shortage of criticism on the uncensored radio station Echo Moskvy, which is sympathetic to the opposition, and other radio stations, as well as in daily and weekly newspapers. The debate was a far cry from what would have been the case in a totalitarian society. Compared to the Soviet Union of the 1980s, a state without freedom of speech or freedom of travel, today's Russia has come a long way.
That, however, is little consolation in the light of current events in Moscow. Russia's powerful seem to be unaware of the degree to which the politicized trial of Pussy Riot is a symptom of the deep crisis that currently afflicts Russian society.
Doing Themselves a Disservice
It was inevitable that the stunt by the punk band in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior would provoke objections. By entering the altar space and insulting the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church as a "suka" ("bitch") in their song, the band hurt the feelings of many believers.
The performance, with its "blasphemous words which insult Christians," had deeply shocked "the faithful of all religious communities," read a statement by the Interreligious Council of Russia, which was also signed by the Federation of Jewish Communities.
Photo GalleryPhoto Gallery: International Support for Pussy Riot
The court has now ruled that the three women had been "motivated by religious enmity and hatred." But those in power seem not to understand that the Church and state are doing themselves a disservice by locking up the three young women, two of whom are mothers of small children.
Rejecting Corruption and Abuse of Power
The judgment against Pussy Riot will likely not only cause problems for Russia at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Above all, the hope of those in power that the judgment will contribute to the stability of society could prove to be a false belief. The trial has divided Russian society deeper than any other incident in the Putin era.
There were voices that called for moderation during the legal proceedings even from within the ruling United Russia party. The leader of a United Russia district party organization in Putin's home city of St. Petersburg wrote a sympathetic letter to the three defendants saying that, even though their stunt had been "bad," the threatened punishment was completely unreasonable. "I am sure," he added, "that the majority of my party colleagues think the same way."
That means that, despite the authoritarian tendencies of supposedly strong men, Russia will not become a totalitarian regime again. And the closing argument of defendant Maria Alyokhina, who said that "Russia as a state" has for a long time resembled "a thoroughly diseased organism," reflects an opinion that is shared by many state officials, even including longtime colleagues of Putin's in the security services. There, too, there is opposition to policies that have allowed corruption and abuse of power to grow.
'War and Blood'
The opposition Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov, who like Putin is a KGB veteran, is one of those who are calling for the rule of law in the parliament and at opposition rallies. Gudkov is not a revolutionary, but a moderate social democrat.
The powers-that-be reacted harshly to Gudkov's criticism. A company he founded was shut down and several hundred employees lost their jobs. Now the Moscow authorities want to impeach him for "illegal business activity" and even strip him of his parliamentary immunity.
By turning basically harmless artists into criminals, the regime has transformed the trial against Pussy Riot into a political time bomb. With its hard line against the oppositional civil society, the state is conjuring up a scenario that Olga Allyonova, a journalist with the liberal Moscow newspaper Kommersant, warned of in March.
If a hard line drives the opposition to "hate and malice," Allyonova wrote, it will not lead to peace, a just social order or an honest state power. Instead, she concluded, "it will lead to revolution and to war and blood."