Voices within Russia join outcry over Pussy Riot sentence

 

Moscow

Amid international condemnation of the two-year jail sentence that a Moscow court handed down to the punk trio Pussy Riot on Friday, critical voices within Russia are also growing. Several public figures regarded as close to the Kremlin have damned the verdict and complained about the effect it will have on Russia’s international image.

“The sentence is shameful, incorrect, cruel and most importantly – unbelievably stupid,” wrote Maxim Shevchenko, a conservative television host and member of the Public Chamber, who is usually seen as a pro-Kremlin pundit. “The system has publicly made a fool of itself in front of the whole world.”

The February performance by Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral drew little sympathy from most Russians, but after the aggressive pursuit of the women by authorities, the trio were gradually adopted by the leaders of opposition protests against President Vladimir Putin as one of their causes. Nevertheless, despite international musicians and politicians slamming the prosecution of the women, most official voices in Russia remained quiet during the trial, which at times descended into farce.

After Friday’s sentence of two years, for “hooliganism inspired by religious hatred”, however, the chorus of disapproval has grown. “Huge damage has been done to the country’s image, and to its attractiveness for investment,” wrote Alexei Kudrin, the former Finance Minister and a longtime friend of Mr Putin. Pro-Kremlin journalist Tina Kandelaki also focused on the effect on Russia’s image of the having three women sent to jail for a 40-second mime inside a church, calling it “information suicide”. Businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, who ran against Mr Putin in the elections as a Kremlin-approved opposition candidate, said the sentence was “bad – very bad”, as it proved that the courts in Russia are not independent.

The prosecution accused the three women of making “devilish movements” inside the cathedral, and rejected the defence line that the “Virgin Mary, chase out Putin” song was motivated by political protest and not religious hatred. The defence lawyers say that the trial was marred by procedural violations and that they will appeal. The growing outcry inside Russia, combined with a somewhat belated call from the Orthodox Church to show mercy to the women, have led some to speculate that the sentences could be reduced dramatically on appeal.

Of the 100 people arrested for protesting outside the courtroom on Friday, all have now been released, but police sources said they were considering charges against three people that could result in 15-day jail terms. One of them is the former world chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov, who was arrested while standing peacefully at the sidelines. Television footage shows a scuffle breaking out as police attempted to bundle him into a waiting bus. Mr Kasparov screams loudly as officers pummel him with blows, but the police later claimed that he had bitten a police officer, something he has denied flatly.

In the short term, it appears unlikely that the Pussy Riot sentencing will provide a direct stimulus to the opposition street protests that began in December. A memorial rally yesterday to commemorate those who died in 1991 opposing a hardline Communist coup was poorly attended, with just a few hundred coming to the White House in central Moscow.

But opposition leaders said that the Pussy Riot case was significant because it left even supporters of Mr Putin dumbfounded at how the regime could turn a prank performance by marginal performance artists into a major international news event. “Soon many of VVP’s supporters will no longer be able to sing the praises of their leader and will start to say what they really think,” wrote opposition MP Dmitry Gudkov on Twitter, using Mr Putin’s initials. “We have to welcome this!”

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