Russian ‘Pussy Riot case’ sends warning about church-state entanglement

Remember when Russia was ruled by godless communists who persecuted believers? How times have changed: In the latest Moscow show trial, three punk rockers (Pussy Riot) who sang a protest song in a church face prison time for insulting religion.

The one constant between then and now is a state hostile to free minds and free speech.

The prosecution of the singers from the all-female band Pussy Riot represents a new low in political repression in post-Soviet Russia. But it is also a cautionary tale about the entanglement of church and state.

On Feb. 21, in the midst of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to reclaim the presidency, Pussy Riot brought its guerrilla theater to Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Wearing their trademark colorful short dresses and balaclavas, the young women ran out in front of the altar and began a song-and-dance act which opened with a “punk prayer chant”: “Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, deliver us from Putin.” Subsequent lyrics — only a small portion of which was audible before the group was hustled away — denounced the close ties between the church and the regime (“the head of the KGB is their patron saint”).

Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were charged with “hate-motivated hooliganism” and held without bail, even though two of them have small children. The charge carries penalties of two to seven years’ imprisonment; the prosecution is asking for three. There is no jury, and the judge has shown blatant bias against the defense throughout the trial, which wrapped up Wednesday. The verdict is due next week.

This case is clearly political, and is part of a larger crackdown on discontent. Yet it is also no accident that the group’s performance in the cathedral — and not, say, an earlier protest in which they sang a vulgarity-laced anti-Putin song on Red Square — was singled out. Turning dissent into sacrilege, the indictment accused the women of malicious intent to “demean the feelings and beliefs” of Orthodox Christians; in his closing argument, the prosecutor asserted that their lyrics “blasphemed against God.”  Continue reading

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