Joan Smith: Putin has lost this game of cat and mouse

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Repressive regimes commonly mistake power for omnipotence. No one doubts that they can arrest their opponents, isolate them, deny them fair trials and put them in prison. What's much harder to do, in the modern world, is bury critical ideas under a suffocating blanket of censorship. Even if the regime gets the result it wants, its leaders risk appearing petty and vindictive, if not actually stupid. So the Russian government has little to celebrate in the wake of the trial of three members of the punk band, Pussy Riot.

On Friday, a judge in Moscow sentenced Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich to two years each in prison. They were arrested in March after performing a "punk prayer" in the city's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where they pleaded with the Virgin Mary to drive out Vladimir Putin. At the time, few people had heard of Pussy Riot, but they've become an international symbol of the rigidity and intolerance of the Russian state. Half a million people have viewed a shaky video of the women's protest in the cathedral, spreading their message to an audience far beyond the Russian Federation. Their slender figures in colourful balaclavas represent a kind of modernity that the regime simply cannot handle.

Maria, Nadezhda and Yekaterina are smart, outspoken and feminist. What could be more scary for President Vladimir Putin, a politician whose masculinity is so fragile that it is reasserted in a comical series of public performances? Listening to actors read the women's closing speeches at the Royal Court Theatre in London on Friday, I was impressed by their cool appraisal of the prosecution's attempts to distort their arguments. I don't think it's an accident that some of Putin's most significant critics are feminists; another woman who challenged him was the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated on Putin's birthday in 2006.

The charge on which the Pussy Riot three were convicted, hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, sounds like a modern version of an offence dreamed up by Soviet bureaucrats. It's a delicious irony that the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, is a Putin supporter who recently presented the President with an icon of Our Lady of Tenderness. In her summing-up, the judge accused the women of showing disrespect to the clergy, people in the church, and people who share Orthodox traditions. But Yekaterina had already asked Putin why he felt it necessary to "exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetic".

The answer, I suspect, is that the regime doesn't feel as solid as it makes out. "Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost," Yekaterina said in her closing speech. So why did the regime go to such (ineffectual) lengths to marginalise the three? The band won a bigger battle, as Yekaterina also pointed out.

Now we all know the regime is terrified of pussy power.

www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

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