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Putin’s Kulturkampf

MOSCOW – August is often an unlucky month in Russia, particularly President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Submarines have sunk, neighbors have been invaded, and forests have burned out of control. But, this August, the crisis was purely man-made – indeed, made by one man. The conviction of three members of the agitprop punk-rock group Pussy Riot for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” has turned the three young women into an international cause célèbre.

On February 21, 2012, five members of the group tried to stage a performance, later described as a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The “prayer” lasted for no more than 40 seconds, at which point security personnel expelled the performers. But their visit to Russia’s largest church was not in vain – footage of five women, dressed in glowing dresses and balaclavas while jumping in front of the altar, circulated widely on the Internet.

Their song accused Kirill, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, of kowtowing to the government and advised him to believe in God, not Putin. The song’s refrain – “Mother of God, drive Putin away!” – incited the wrath of both church and state. So retribution was certain. The word “blasphemy” was used more and more frequently. On March 3, the day before the presidential election, two members of the group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, were arrested. A third, Yekaterina Samutsevich, followed them to prison 12 days later.

Initially, Pussy Riot’s troubles attracted little attention, but the hate campaign orchestrated by Orthodox activists and the threat of a seven-year prison sentence for the women turned the tide. Moscow liberals, initially treating the performance as silly, saw the threat of prison as inappropriate and the proceedings of the court as Kafkaesque and demented. The case also attracted attention in the West. Dozens of pop stars, from Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney to Madonna, rallied in support of the women.