“Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” – Alexander Pope, 1735
This summer, Vladimir Putin tried to break three of Moscow’s butterflies on the creaking, iron wheel of Russia’s court system.
On Friday, the three Pussy Riot girls were sentenced to two years in jail for singing the wrong song in church.
Stalin’s show trials were scary.
Putin’s show trials are providing a show.
Day after day, the Moscow courtroom provided a stage for three attractive young women, sequestered in windowed box known as the “aquarium.”
As their international celebrity status grew day by day, you could hear the Kremlin’s PR and political strategies backfiring, day by day.
By the end of the trial, it had come to this: editors for Ukrainian Playboy angling for a centerfold photo session with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a 22-year-old defendant described by the Financial Times as having “Angelina Jolie lips.”
Carried on the wings of the internet, the Pussy Riot brand – a brightly colored balaclava — had circled the globe. Solidarity demonstrations ranged from the Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland dancing on a parade float in a Pussy Riot ski mask to a topless protester posing for photographers while she squirted red ink Thursday on a wall of the Russian Consulate in Sao Paulo.
The trial of three personable young women achieved what 100,000 protesters gathered in Moscow’s Arctic temperatures last February could not: focus world attention on Russia’s authoritarian government.
By Friday, reporters from an estimated 100 Russian and international media outlets gathered at the courthouse for the sentencing. (Since 99 percent of criminal cases in Moscow last year ended in convictions, there was no suspense about the verdict.)
Under this intense glare of international publicity, gleamed a court system that seemed like a lost chapter from Alice in Wonderland.
First, there was a large police dog in the courtroom that seemed to be trained to bark when the defense lawyers raised objections.
Then there were the prosecutors who embellished the official charge – “hooliganism driven by religious hatred” – with phrases redolent of the Inquisition, such as “blasphemy” and “sacrilege.”
Then there were the court marshals who threw out members of the public for smirking or looking out an open window to where solidarity demonstrations were held. One day, court marshals refused admittance almost all defense witnesses. The judge then declared the witnesses “no shows” and struck them from the witness list.
Mikhail Khordokovsky, the former political rival to Mr. Putin, was tried in the same courtroom two years ago. From his jail cell, he wrote a support letter to the Pussy Riot women: “The word ‘tried’ can only be used here in the sense in which medieval Inquisition used it.”
Tolokonnikova agreed, saying in court: “I do not believe in this court. There is no court. It is an illusion.”
The written statements of several prosecution witnesses contained identical language and same errors of grammar and spelling, prompting the defense to charge that some of the testimony in the 1,800-page court case was “a cut and paste job.”
Lyubov Sokologorskaya, a candle seller at Christ the Savior Cathedral, gave the most gripping prosecution account of the offending punk performance.
“All that looked like a lot of demonic jerking,” she said of the Pussy Riot dance. “They were throwing their legs up, and everything below the waist was visible.”
In reality, as millions of internet viewers can attest, the girls were wearing bright tights below their short skirts. But that is a fashion crime inside a Russian Orthodox church, a contemplative space where women are to wear sober and dark attire, and are to cover their hair, but not their faces.
Seven times, the defense asked Judge Marina Syrova to recuse herself. Seven times, she consulted with herself. (One can imagine the debate. Decisions, decisions: August at the dacha? Or August with the smart aleck feminists?) Each time, the judicial side of her brain prevailed, and she stayed on the case.
But stress surfaced at times. Once, when reading “Holy S**t,” the offending lyric the Pussy Riot girls sang in the Cathedral, the Judge interjected: “Shove culture up your (expletive)! We are going to the prosecutors!”
Then there were the defendants, giggling, smirking, and rolling their eyes, as they were guarded by hunky, T-bone shaped Spetsnaz – or Special Forces – police officers.
Security was so tight that when the courthouse was evacuated because of a bomb threat, the three young women were left behind in their courtroom box.
During the break, a man with a gray, Old Testament beard ran up and down the courthouse street, shouting: “Our women are free! Putin’s female slaves are not!”
Trial rules allowed the defendants to address the court. After each statement, the public — and many members of the “independent” press — burst into applause.
“This is not a theater,” Judge Syrova snapped two times. After the third time, she gave up.
When the three women were led out, court attendees jumped to their feet for a standing ovation. This prompted more dog barking.
Outside the courthouse, the trial provided more theatrics.
In Moscow, supporters staged readings at local theaters of the Pussy Riot members closing statements. On the day of the verdict, young men pulled Pussy Riot balaclavas over statues in Moscow, snapping photos for the Internet before irate citizens tore them off.
Support came in from a host of international music stars and Hollywood actors — Madonna, Bjork, Paul McCartney, the Pet Shop Boys and Elijah Wood, famous for his role of hobbit Frodo in the fantasy movie “The Lord of the Rings.”
“It’s still hard to believe this is not a dream,” Tolokonnikova wrote last week of the international and Russian support.
A touch of envy could be heard from Russian protesters and artists who for years labored in vain to break through to international recognition.
Valeria, a pop singer, who failed to make that breakthrough, complained: “What’s so great about Pussy Riot that all these international stars should support them?”
Edward Limonov, a veteran opposition leader with a Trotsky-style goatee, lamented Friday about the expected appeals: “The opposition will be moaning and groaning about the fate of the poor, young women. It is a good song, start again: Pussy, Pussy Riot. The dumbest conflict that one could ever think up.”
Way back in March, when snow and ice covered Moscow, Kirill I, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, called the one-minute punk prayer “blasphemy” and called for prosecutions.
But two of the women have small children. During their five months in jail, they have not seen their children.
By summer, a new anti-clerical sentiment was rising in Russia, especially among younger people. By the time of the trial, 75 percent of Russians were telling pollsters that the church should stay out of politics.
Konstantin Sonin, a Vedemosti newspaper columnist, warned: “The last time the church tarnished its image so badly was when it excommunicated Leo Tolstoy in 1901.”
Georgy Bovt, a political analyst, agreed, arguing in newspaper essay: “By initiating a Middle Ages-style witch hunt against three young women, the Russian Orthodox Church has caused irreparable damage to its reputation in the eyes of the educated class.”
During the eight-day trial, church figures kept a low profile. On Friday, Patriarch Kirill was in Poland, meeting with Catholic leaders. In Moscow, the church asked the state to show mercy to the defendants. But the statement was released Friday evening, after Judge Syrova had sentenced the three women.
The women said they chose the Cathedral because they were angry that Kirill had endorsed Mr. Putin in the March presidential election. Mariya Alyokhina, one of the defendants, said in her pre-sentencing statement: “As representatives of our generation, we are bewildered by his actions and appeals. We wanted and we want a dialogue.”
Russian conservatives were caught snoozing by what initially seemed like a marginal group.
But by early August, Madonna was in Moscow donning a Pussy Riot balaclava and giving a sold out concert with the words “Pussy Riot” written on her back.
Leaders of one conservative group, wearing black T-shirts inscribed “Orthodoxy or Death,” burned posters of Madonna and Pussy Riot for reporters. Their leader said: “We’re going to rip them up and burn them…just like in the Middle Ages.”
Dmitry Rogozin, a Russian Deputy Prime Minister, fired a tweet in Madonna’s direction: “Either take off the cross, or put on your panties.”
Maxim Shevchenko, a conservative TV host, charged that Madonna and other Westerners lie when they say that Pussy Riot is banned in Russia.
“How can the group be prohibited if there is nothing to prohibit in the first place?” he wrote in The Moscow Times. “The band doesn’t have any CDs. They aren’t even musicians. They are publicity-seeking ‘performance artists’ who make their living by creating scandals.”
Before the sentencing, Anastasia Volochkova, a ballerina, wrote on her LiveJournal blog that the three women should be sentenced to cleaning public bathrooms.
To dent the sweet, feminist-next-door image of the Pussy Rioters, conservatives are busy posting links to photos of a 2008 “performance art protest” where Tolokonnikova, then seven months pregnant, participated in an after hours group sex orgy among the stuffed mammals at Moscow’s Biology Museum.
The political message was a protest against official presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev, whose name derives from the Russian word for ‘bear.’
But, as Pussy Riot defense lawyers prepare for a long series of appeals, in Russia, and at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, Moscow conservatives are making sure this series of “art” photos is going to have an equally long life on the Internet.
Next up for a trial: Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion and current Russian opposition leader.
On Friday, he was one of about 100 protesters and onlookers who were arrested outside the Pussy Riot courthouse. Within hours, police charged that he had bitten a police officer on the finger and that an assault inquiry was underway. Conviction could bring a five-year jail sentence.
Kasparov, who has been arrested many times, says he did not bite the policeman. He speculates that a police dog did.
Kasparov’s account of his arrest outside the courthouse ran Saturday in the Wall Street Journal: “When Putin’s Thugs Came for Me.” Last time, I checked it topped the website as “Most Popular” story. Gosh, I had no idea there are so many punks among the Journal’s 2.1 million readers. I thought they were just boring foreign investors.
Presumably that trial would include testimony from Kasparov’s dentist. It is unclear if the defense would call police dogs to the witness stand.
In 21st century Moscow, a Putin show trial is nothing like your grandfather’s show trial.