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Pussy Riot: The State, Religion And Freedom Of Speech

I was raised in a country where freedom of speech has become somewhat of a utopian dream.  Anna Politkovskaya, Artyom Borovik, Natalia Estemirova, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Yevgeny Fedotov; this is only a brief example of the tidal wave of people who have spoken out against the Russian State and faced consequences of the harshest kind. Traditionally, the Russian Government has no hesitation in dealing with those who propagate anti-Government rhetoric; prison and homicide have frequently been convenient solutions.

Earlier this year, three members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years jail following a political performance inside the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Two other members fled the country, and one of the detained has recently been granted parole. For many, Pussy Riot is a modern interpretation of the famed political activists of old; they are notorious for their anti-Putin songs and the garishly coloured balaclavas in which they perform.

Pussy Riot was founded in September last year, following Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he would contest a third term as President. They first attracted the arm of the law in January, when they were briefly detained for singing “Putin Pissed Himself” in the Lobnoe Mesto, Red Square. The band’s choice of location was provocative and not unusual; they had previously performed at the Detention Centre in Moscow and frequently claimed trolleybuses and metro stations as their stage.

Pussy Riot’s February performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was their most radical statement to date. The performance was loaded with hatred for, and anger at, Putin’s Government, and included screams of “Mother of God, chase Putin away!” Band members were subsequently charged on the grounds of hooliganism aimed at inciting religious hatred, although they maintain that their actions were purely politically motivated.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is a prominent site of religious worship in Russia, and many church goers and religious faithful throughout the country were offended by the band’s actions. Whether people support the political message of Pussy Riot or not, many believe they should not have been forced to confront it in a religious setting that people turn to for solace from their issues, many of which are informed by politics. Russia is a nominally secular state, and as such it is expected that politics is obliged to be separate from the church in the same way that the Church is expected to be separate from the State.

The Russian Government has been publicly condemned by the international community for the two year sentence, which is widely seen as extreme and a repression of free speech. Many international commentators have interpreted it as Putin becoming increasingly repressive of dissent, which they worry is indicative of a more broadly non-cooperative state.

The issue, however, is further complicated by the fact that despite, nominal secularism, the Russian Orthodox Church wields tremendous power and influence over the Government and broader society.

In reality, despite their anti-Putin rhetoric, Pussy Riot was not a particularly large threat to Putin, and had he been fervently opposed to them it is likely that their original sentencing would have been harsher. Look for comparison to multimillionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who in 2003 was sentenced to seven years jail along with his lawyer. In 2010 this sentence was extended by six years. Unlike Pussy Riot’s shock value, denoted by their bright balaclavas, aggressive lyrics and provocative name, Khodorkovsky represented a legitimate threat to the existing order. The 49 year old business man, head of a charitable fund and ex-owner of the top oil producing company Yukos, had money and significant political influence.

As such, many believe that the second sentencing of Pussy Riot was primarily dictated by the Church rather than the State. Given the offence caused to religious leaders by the protest at their place of worship, it comes as no surprise that they would be instrumental in the sentencing of the protesters.

The Russian Government has no incentive to be more amenable to prosecuted members despite world-wide support for Pussy Riot. The outcome increases Putin’s reputation as a firm leader and sends a message to other potential dissenters that their actions will not be tolerated. Putin has publicly justified the sentence by referring to Pussy Riot’s past provocative actions such as having group sex in public and posting the video thereof on the internet. However, rather than demonstrating that the State is responsible for the prosecution, these statements merely suggest that Putin is happy to rule in accordance with the wishes of the Orthodox Church.

As such, the sentencing of Pussy Riot has exposed not only ongoing problems of free speech in Russia, but also a deep seated connection between the State and the Church. This perhaps validates the group’s decision to protest at the Orthodox Cathedral, but has in turn damaged the meaning of, and ability to practice, religion for many Russian citizens. Free speech and freedom of religion should never come at the expense of one another, yet for this to be realised it is necessary that there be a clear distinction between the Church and the State.

Sveta Tran

The author Sveta Tran

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