The all-female Russian Pussy Riot punk band's two year prison sentence, for performing a musical stunt in protest against President Putin inside a leading Orthodox church in Moscow, is another step in a series of recent measures taken by the authorities to silence dissent in Russia.
Other measures include the introduction of a black list of internet websites, re-criminalization of libel, and the tightening of regulations governing NGOs and participation in street rallies. Putin’s third term in office already appears more authoritarian and isolationist. It is symptomatic of a growing inability to satisfy popular needs and thus resorts to coercion and intimidation to keep control. The regime in Russia strongly believes prison is a powerful instrument of punishment and for suppressing political dissent. The verdict on Pussy Riot is the regime’s first serious response to youth anti- Putin activism.
However, the authorities have shot themselves in the foot by taking a stance on what would have otherwise gone relatively unnoticed. The wider impact of the Pussy Riot case on Russian society is significant. It has created hype surrounding issues which are not fully discussed, such as the involvement of the church in politics, freedom of expression, the rule of law, and women’s rights. This debate is paramount for developing civic consciousness and maturing political culture in Russia. It has exposed the weaknesses of the current system and encouraged people to speak about their needs and articulate discontent. In the long term, such public debate will help people make better informed political choices. It may also lead to more protests if the regime continually fails to accommodate society’s demands.
Since the imprisonment of Pussy Riot in March, public opinion in Russia has been rife with various analyses of the merits of the case. Numerous newspaper reports, television and radio talk shows and internet blogs have given the case publicity and highlighted its political underpinnings. The result of this wide public debate bore fruit early: if the initial assessment of the stunt by the public was desecration and blasphemy (an opinion which state-controlled media propagated), by the end of the trial this had shifted to the opinion that the musicians first and foremost were protesting at the involvement of the church in politics. The punk singers have thus succeeded in conveying their message, which was to draw public attention to the increasing links between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and Putin’s government and expose the anti-constitutional character of this relationship.
Under Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, the institution has become more authoritarian and rigidly administered. Its endorsement of the personalised political rule in Russia is more prominent. Although church and state are formally separate, the Patriarch takes part in pro-government political events while the government places the church at the heart of Russian national identity. Since Patriarch Kirill entered office in 2009, surveys show that public perception of the ROC’s involvement in domestic politics has increased. At the end of the Pussy Riot case, 16% of the public said that their attitude towards the church had deteriorated. The ROC’s silence on the case and its unwillingness to appeal for mercy, against the backdrop of the recent cases of minor offences committed by Orthodox priests that were ignored by law-enforcement officials, have also served to discredit the ROC in the public eye.
The Pussy Riot case has also exposed the judiciary. Corruption and the lack of rule of law are widely-reckoned as the biggest problems in Russia. Citing ‘devilish movements’ and quoting medieval church councils by a judge during the trial ridiculed the judiciary in the public eye. Surveys suggest that two thirds of the population found the prison sentence incommensurate to the offence, and the discrepancy between the crime and the punishment exposes the political dependency on the judiciary.
Despite the intimidating effect of the Pussy Riot verdict on civic activism, the government appeal to the public has also diminished. Putin’s popularity rating has been dropping steadily since 2008. The days when the country’s socio-economic problems did not impact on the rating of the political leadership are gone. Today, Russian society has questions for Putin and the system he has created. Not surprisingly, the day following the pronouncement of the verdict, Putin announced a search for a new national idea which would unite society.