Patt Morrison

<em>Patt Morrison</em> is known for its innovative discussions of local politics and culture, as well as its presentation of the effects of national and world news on Southern California. Hosted by

Read the Riot Act: Implications of the trial of Russian punk band Pussy Riot

by Patt Morrison

Supporters stand near the street holding a sign as members of the band 'Brenda' perform in a dirt lot across the street from the Russian Embassy in Washington on August 10, 2012 in a solidarity concert for the Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot. Three members of the female band Pussy Riot are currently on trial in Russia and face a three-year sentence with the possibility of hard labor for performing a protest song in a Moscow cathedral last February. PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Back in February, the European press was calling Pussy Riot, an all-female Russian punk band, “the latest symbol of young Russian discontent.” If that’s the case, then the anti-Putin youth of Russia now consider themselves on trial.

Pussy Riot functions as a collective, with a rotating cast of characters who wear brightly colored balaclavas to conceal their specific identities. No longer anonymous, three members of the band await sentencing in Moscow on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” with a verdict due Friday.

The group entered the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on Feb. 21 and took over the altar to perform a version of their song, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Expel Putin!” The prosecution initially asked for seven-year prison sentences; insiders currently say that the maximum sentence would be three years.

“The tension has been building over the week in anticipation of the verdict,” said Miriam Elder, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, on the Patt Morrison show. “People are getting angrier and angrier about the fact that these three women can go to jail for their performance.”

A protest is expected outside the courthouse Friday and could amass 100 people or more.

Since their arrest, Pussy Riot has become a cause célèbre, with artists like Franz Ferdinand, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Madonna demanding the band members’ freedom and Amnesty International naming them prisoners of conscience.

Amnesty International USA chief of campaigns and programs, Michelle Ringuette, says the three women were only exercising their right to freedom of speech. “Last we checked, blasphemy was not part of the criminal code,” she said.

“We should make no mistake, this wasn’t because they were dancing and singing in a church, this was very much because they had been making political statements for a while in Russia,” Ringuette said. “They came afoul of people who are right now carrying forth significant crackdowns on freedom of speech throughout the country.”

Band member Nadezhda Toloknnikova issued a closing statement that the “entire state system of the Russian Federation” is on trial.

Elder, who has sat in throughout the proceedings, said the line of questioning used throughout the trial often illustrated the social, political and cultural schisms that exist within Russia. For example the father of one of the defendants was asked about his daughter’s childhood — was she baptised? Was she obedient?

In the same vein, witnesses to the case were asked such things as, “What does God mean to you?”

“It’s strange, inside the court — very often – it almost didn’t feel like it was just these three women who were on trial. But the entire Russian government system, cultural system, religious system,” she said.

Elder continued explaining the sort of tension that exists within the country, especially around the trial, “There are sort of two Russias right now. There’s this minority that’s getting more and more passionate and more and more radicalized and more and more against the government of Vladimir Putin. But then there’s the majority of the country which tends to be more conservative and quite religious and probably wouldn’t look too badly upon a guilty verdict and a sentence.”

WEIGH IN:

What will it mean if the band members only get a slap on the wrist? If they receive the full sentence? How dire is the need to protect freedom of speech in Russia?

Guest

Miriam Elder, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent; she has been following the band and the trial

Michelle Ringuette, Chief of Campaigns and Programs for Amnesty International USA

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