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Moment that mattered: Three members of Pussy Riot are convicted of hooliganism

 

“In terms of media attention this was like no other trial I’ve been to in Russia. There there were hundreds of people and a lot of security outside the courtroom; the verdict was due at 3pm but I arrived at noon. To reach the courtroom we had to pass a police barrier and have our documents checked. Just trying to get in was an intimate experience, we were being squeezed for about an hour.

I think that most people knew what the verdict was going to be. All the talk in the crowd was about how many years they would get. At a Russian trial everyone stands up and the judge reads the entire verdict. So judge Marina Syrova read the whole thing – something like 40 pages – which took about three hours. I’ve read it again in the months since the trial, and it’s extraordinary. They were charged for hooliganism. In Russian law, hooliganism is a violent act and there are two kinds: One is hooliganism that is committed with arms, the other is motivated by religious hatred and that’s what they got these women on.

In the verdict, when the judge explained why their acts constituted religious hatred, she said that “feminism is not a violation  of the law and is not a crime, but the ideas of feminism are not in line with a number of religions, although feminism is not a religious concept, its proponents cross the line into the spheres of decency, morals, and family relations and… when you support the superiority of one ideology, at the expense of another, this can be ground for enmity, hatred, and conflict.” So even though espousing feminism isn’t a crime, when you espouse one ideology to the detriment and insult of another, you are opening the possibilities of conflict and hatred. You could also turn it on its head and say, for example, that if religious activists came and tried to bust up a clinic that provides abortions or a feminist political rally, you could bring the same charges against them. No one really picked up on that.

In 2011 when Medvedev and Putin announced that they were going to switch places, it was the last straw for a lot of people, and was the catalyst for major street protests. Now the government is cracking down to ensure these protests don’t happen again, and Pussy Riot’s supporters see the band members’ sentences as part of this larger crackdown.

What’s unclear is how far the crackdown will go. It consists of a whole battery of laws intended to intimidate and restrict free speech, assembly and association, and it’s got a particularly anti-foreign bent; it’s aimed at intimidating people who might think about talking to foreign organisations. The Kremlin narrative is that the only reason why the 2011 protests happened was because they were sanctioned, organised and paid for by the West. Does the Kremlin actually believe that? We’ll never know.

What we need is for people to take a step back and look not just at this case but at the big picture in Russia. When people just focus on this case it feeds this misunderstanding in Russia that all the West cares about is these women who did terrible things. There needs to be an intelligent response to the crackdown not just in the press, but at a political level when leaders meet eye to eye. Putin is not an easy character to deal with. He snarls and sneers, and gets petulant and difficult when people talk about human rights. He’s got a big arsenal behind him and Western leaders are easy on him because he might explode. But I think Putin and the Kremlin do care about what the West thinks of them, and Western leaders need to bear that in mind.”

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