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The criminal case opened over an act of hooliganism by members of the punk band Pussy Riot several months ago is getting ever wider publicity, while the young women responsible remain under arrest. Many suspect this is a result of the position taken by the heads of the Russian Orthodox Church and the authorities, who have turned plain hooligans into prisoners of conscience. The public – both secular and Orthodox – is calling upon the Church to display clemency.
Moscow’s Tagansky court on Wednesday prolonged by one month – till July 24 – the arrest of Pussy Riot punk group members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhia and Yekaterina Samutsevich, remanded in custody after what the media promptly dubbed punk prayer in the Church of Christ the Savior. In all, the three members of Pussy Riot will spend nearly five months in a detention center.
The lawyers have requested their release in exchange for written promise not to leave town or for house arrest. They say that “Nadezhda has been in the detention center for 108 days, she has a four-year-old child, whom she has not seen since.” However, the investigator said that if released, the culprits may escape from investigation, destroy material evidence or continue to indulge in criminal activity. The lawyers’ arguments to the effect the accused women are broke and have no money to escape anywhere were ignored.
Before the court session supporters staged a picket in their support, during which the police detained a dozen people. Among those who were there to demonstrate support for the young women were film director Alexander Mitta, author Dmitry Bykov, and leader of the punk band Naiv, Alexander Ivanov. Actress Chulpan Khamatova, too, came to express support for the arrested. “I believe that the mothers should be allowed to return to their children,” the actress said. However, the judge in the Tagansky court disagreed with that.
On February 21 the feminist punk band Pussy Riot sneaked into the Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow to stage a punk prayer “Mother Mary, Drive Putin Away.” Five young women got onto the ambo in front of the altar, where only priests can appear, put on colored masks and started imitating praying parishioners. They also sang a song that many believers interpreted as blasphemy.
A criminal case over an act of hooliganism was opened. Three members of the band, including two having little children, were detained. The investigators charged them with hooliganism, for which they may face a prison term of up to seven years.
The escapade committed by Pussy Riot caused a popular outcry and caused polarization of opinion in society and in the Orthodox community. Now, four months after the incident, tensions over the affair keep growing with every single day.
The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and some of the believers have demanded punishment for the feminists. Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill condemned the escapade as defilement of a holy shrine and dismissed the calls for finding excuses for the punk band members as impermissible.
On the other hand, many human rights organizations and civil activists have described the young women as “prisoners of conscience” and been calling for their release. Some Western stars, including Beastie Boys, have come out in their support.
The two members of Pussy Riot who are still free have demonstrated in the center of Prague in support of their jailed co-performers. On June 19 the women appeared on a balcony overlooking Venceslas Square to display a poster with a demand for the release of the arrested colleagues.
The foreign minister of the Czech Republic, Karel Schwarzenberg, threw his weight behind Pussy Riot. “I admire you. Hold on. Russia will regain freedom and dignity. We are with you,” he wrote down on the Pussy Riot wall, put up within the framework of the Week of Freedom, a campaign launched by human rights activists.
In the Internet, on a special page in the Live Journal a collective message to Patriarch Kirill was published. It contained a request for asking the authorities to pardon the arrested. The foreword to the message says that it was authored by “people regarding themselves as children of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate,” and that it is “a purely internal church affair.”
In their message to the Patriarch the authors say they by no means try to find excuses for the women who staged the punk prayer inside the Church of Christ the Savior. They just appeal to the wisdom and clemency of the Patriarch. In their opinion, the time the women have already spent in jail is quite enough to prevent such incidents in the future.
Over a day and a half several hundred people put their signatures to the message.
The Patriarch’s press-service has voiced surprise over the attempt to lend a public dimension to messages to the Patriarch. “The people who wish to let their opinion of certain issues known to the Patriarch write to him in person, without making such matters public. The form of the message looks strange and an attempt to force the Patriarch play on their field,” said the chief of the Patriarch’s press-service, Alexander Volkov.
“The harsh position of the Church has aroused doubts even among believers,” political scientist Alexei Makarkin said in the Live Journal. “The liberal and even the moderately conservative part of the flock and clerics has no idea what is the reason for jailing young women who have not killed or robbed anybody. It would be enough to talk to them and let go.”
Many bloggers have openly blamed the growing confrontation of the Church and society on the harsh stance of the ROC leadership and the short-sighted response by the authorities. “In this way, slowly but surely, acting in a very clumsy and crude way the authorities have converted these silly Pussy Riot girls, who should be just fined, into some stars of civil protest,” writes blogger Lev Salamatov.
“An affair that isn’t worth a dime has been blown out of proportion to the size of a criminal offense,” Ekho Moskvy commentator Anton Orekh said. “Now the Pussy Riot band is known in every corner of the nation and far beyond. Young women, who have not done anything outstanding, have been turned into prisoners of conscience. They are martyrs, a banner, an example for young people to follow. They are supported by workers of culture and the arts, who in a different situation would hardly agree to talk to them.”
This affair has done little to bolster the authority of the Church. It’s the other way round. “People who are seen as God’s proxies, who are to be brimming with wisdom, have proved vindictive, small-minded men who have been dragged into a skirmish with a handful of punk girls.”
MOSCOW, June 20