Two years in the slammer

Russia tells the world it has learned nothing from its authoritarian history and goes right on being authoritarian by sentencing Pussy Riot to two years in prison. For what? For staging a political protest in a church.

“The girls’ actions were sacrilegious, blasphemous and broke the church’s rules,” Judge Marina Syrova told the court as she spent three hours reading the verdict while the women stood watching in handcuffs inside a glass courtroom cage.

Maybe all three of those claims are true, but they still shouldn’t be subject to punishment by the state. The state shouldn’t be telling people what is “sacrilegious” or whether or not they’re allowed to do things that are “sacrilegious.” The state shouldn’t be concerning itself with what is or is not “blasphemous.” The church’s rules should be for the church to enforce, along with proportional, reasonable state enforcement of privacy and/or property laws if they applied. But sacrilege, blasphemy, the church’s rules? Not the state’s business. Putin isn’t a tsar.

She declared all three guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, saying they had deliberately offended Russian Orthodox believers by storming the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral in February to belt out a song deriding Putin.

There it is again. Not something the state should be policing. Russia isn’t supposed to be a theocracy.

Russia’s like Basil Fawlty, isn’t it; it just can’t get it right. Stalin on the one hand, crawling to the church on the other.

Valentina Ivanova, 60, a retired doctor, said outside the courtroom: “What they did showed disrespect towards everything, and towards believers first of all.”

Not a crime. Not worthy of two years in prison. Respect for everything should not be mandated by the state or enforced by the judiciary.

“Evil must be punished,” said Maria Butilno, 60, who held an icon and said Pussy Riot had insulted the faithful.

It’s not the state’s job to punish “evil.” Let the faithful take comfort in the thought that God will teach them better in the next world. (Seriously. Why isn’t that the best outcome? Skip the punishment. Just be patient, and in due course God will show them where they went wrong, and all wounds will be healed.)




  1. F says

    I just ran over here after reading the story elsewhere. I figured you would have a post up already.

    This is some seriously fucked-up stuff.

  2. smrnda says

    I know a few people who have emigrated from Russia, who tell me that it’s quite a backwards, superstitious place, where the idea that in a free society, disrespecting religion is not a crime just doesn’t seem to be comprehensible to a vast majority of the populace.

    All said, I’m hoping international pressure could do some good, but once nations decide they want to go the path of being theocracies, no amount of damage seems to change their mind.

  3. Lorenzo says

    Well, I think in this case that the sentence for “blasphemy” is just a convenient excuse, since Pussy Riot was protesting against Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president.

    So it IS a case of repressing free speech – but for political reasons, using religion as an cover up. Nothing really new here, sadly.

  4. says

    Is this case about the insult to the Church, or to Putin? Or the former as cover for the latter, since the two seem to be in bed together?

    In a civilized country, misdemeanor trespass and (maybe) a keep-the-peace order would be about the maximum punishment this would merit.

  5. eric says

    It’s not the state’s job to punish “evil.”

    The article is a reminder is that it’s not OUR state’s job to punish evil – at least not yet. Its a reminder that if we want to keep it that way, we need to be politically active and fight against the people who WOULD make it the state’s job.

  6. Bob-B says

    Given how Putin’s pal Assad has responded to opposition you could say that Pussy Riot are lucky.

  7. sceptinurse says

    –It’s not the state’s job to punish “evil.” Let the faithful take comfort in the thought that God will teach them better in the next world. (Seriously. Why isn’t that the best outcome? Skip the punishment. Just be patient, and in due course God will show them where they went wrong, and all wounds will be healed.)–

    It’s been my experience that most believers don’t want to wait for their god to deal with the problem. They want to see the retribution and if possible be part of meting it out.

  8. jamesfish says

    I thought the members of Pussy Riot were profoundly impressive throughout the summing up. I’d have been quaking in my boots, but they stood there, cool as some cucumbers, simply refusing to take this bullshit seriously.

  9. Beatrice says

    It’s definitely political. They are being punished for insulting Putin, but he’s also using the way they did it to cozy up to the church some more.
    And of course, the religious angle is being used to please the crowds. Imprisoning them for insulting the great leader might cause displeasure, but religion is (as usually) a convenient excuse that brings people together (not in a nice and loving way).

  10. Albert Bakker says

    Also they are not sentenced to jail, they are in fact sentenced to hard labor in an all women’s labor camp. Gulag as they used to call them. They will be amidst murderers and hardcore criminals and violence among prisoners is frequent. They will be very, very far from home and very few visits are allowed. This is not comparable to American jail, much more like a nazi concentration camp.

  11. kantalope says

    Wouldn’t it be nice if some other country that supposedly stands for freedom of religion would offer to take those sinner/criminals off the Russian’s hands and give them asylum?

    ‘Merca is out…it’s election time. Can’t do the right thing, too busy pandering.

  12. Francisco Bacopa says

    So, where can I buy my FREE PUSSY RIOT t-shirt?

    I may just stop by the local Russian consulate tonight. Let me check my spray paint inventory.

  13. GordonWillis says

    There are two issues:

    1) the right to protest
    2) the right to invade someone else’s space without permission

    I wholeheartedly support the first, and I do not at all support the second.

    As far as I can tell, Pussy Riot “burst in” and started their performance. I cannot find whether they asked permission to use the cathedral as a performing platform beforehand. This matters, because we all need to be protected against protesters who take over our spaces. Suppose we were running a workshop on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace and a bunch of MRAs suddenly rushed in and started a musical performance which included mockeries of women of the usual MRA type. It is one thing to say, “Yes, come along and do your stuff, as long as you don’t mind us taking you apart afterwards” and another to discover that one’s special place has simply been taken over.

    On the other hand, here we have a group of young women with a stake in the advancement of their lives living in an increasingly authoritarian state which is giving its support to a resurgent authoritarian state religion. And, as we know all too well, authoritarian states are cruel to women. Faced with the simple fact that whichever way a woman turns she is faced with denial of personal freedom it seems completely natural that protests of this kind should occur. And in any case, Pussy Riot didn’t damage anything (except, apparently, “feelings”) and harmed no one (except in their right to be somewhere particular without being deafened by people with no colour sense). It is consistent with the women’s claim that they had no intention of offending individual believers to make a protest against the whole policy and raison d’être of the Church. But (as with our MRAs above) there is the question of whether they understand why something might be offensive to someone else. So a small fine or six months community service would seem appropriate for the offence of not respecting other people’s spaces, and maybe a few MPs could call for an enquiry into the condition of women in society…

    But oh no. It’s blasphemy and insult, and seven years hard labour is too good for them: maybe they should burn in hell for ever and ever. That is the insane “value” people set on their personal pieces of mind own peace of mind. So in standing up for themselves as women with a stake in their lives Pussy Riot are in fact standing against the individual selfishness which would dictate social policy. My peace of mind is not better or more valuable than your stating your claim to be considered, and if you feel compelled to shout and swear and jump up and down and do similar strange things in odd places then maybe I ought to consider that some very serious circumstance has driven you to such an extremity.

    I’m not sure that Putin is able to deal with this. He has said that not too much should be made of it, and this might be the reason why the sentence is two years rather than seven. On the other hand, it may be that he has to keep in with the Church, now that Russians are allowed to be openly religious without being suspected of antisoviet sympathies. It’s not just a matter of freedom of speech, but there is a big issue of freedom for female human beings, and whether being human beings counts in their case. Is Putin bothered about this? I have no idea.

    One thing bothers me: if they didn’t ask permission in the first place, how did they set up their sound systems beforehand? The videos suggest that they must have done. My own experience as a musician is that this tends to take some time (like, a few hours). So I have to suppose that there was a pronounced Pussy-Riot presence in the cathedral well before the performance, and some ecclesiastical dignitary must have been aware of it.

  14. says

    To be fair, the blasphemy charge is just a distraction. The “crime” is political, it’s merely been couched in religious terms because it’s easier for that to fly in the international community. I think it’s telling that part of the verdict mentioned that the band members identify themselves as “feminists” – which is fine in Russia, but offensive to religions such as Christianity and Islam (we were listening to the live reading of the verdict this morning, so no linky – can anyone provide one?).

    In other words, it’s about drawing an “us v. them” between the secular (*coughliberalcough*) and the religious international majority. Putin is simply telling the religious what their priorities are, and that his align with theirs, and using that to cover up his shifting of Russia towards a dictatorship.

  15. Albert Bakker says

    @13 – I’m sorry, I should have sourced that. I read it in a Dutch newspaper NRC. It is in here, it is the last comment:

    Apparently it sentence is retro-actively enforced in Russia, it is 1,5 year hard labor.

    On the penal colony/ labor camps systems themselves in Russia there is some information on the net, for example:

    So guess how that went…

    Two years after Magnitsky’s death, Kozlov says, the situation in Butyrka — and Moscow’s other remand prisons, where an estimated 50 prisoners die each year of various causes — is largely unchanged.

    So now the bleak picture painted herein is pretty plausible:

    I’ll be so glad to be completely wrong on this one.

  16. GordonWillis says

    @Giliell #20 So, that’s trespassing. You thin it’s worth 2 years in jail?

    No I don’t. That isn’t what I said, is it?

  17. earwig says

    Russia is still reaping the whirlwind of Soviet oppression of religion, in which the formerly oppressed now have an ongoing sense of grievance coupled with new political power. The orthodox church is a powerful ally for Putin, motivated by a sense of righteousness.

    Pussy Riot are being incredibly level-headed and brave in conducting their defence and in their demeanour post-sentence. It is dismaying that so many Russians just don’t get it. I hope they don’t get too beleaguered and entrenched by the outrage expressed so widely in the West. The New Statesman gets it.

    I haven’t even seen a single Guardian article criticising Pussy Riot – yet.

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