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The Absurd Reality of the Pussy Riot Trial

(Read an interview with Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov, arrested outside the Pussy Riot trial, in our Summer 2012 issue)

by Alan Yuhas

The show features three young women inside a glass box, prosecuting lawyers who keep calling the accused “victims,” an exasperated defense who has petitioned to recuse the judge seven times, and a judge who considers, then dismisses every motion for her own recusal. Also on hand are two unruly dogs, a witness who saw the devil in the defendants through YouTube, a “psycho-linguistic” expert opinion on the phrase “holy shit,” and an audience of journalists alternately bored, laughing, or giving ovations. Protesters and priests mug for the cameras outside. The police keep changing the rules. Babushkas weep. Such is the trial of Pussy Riot.

On February 21, three members of the feminist-punk protest band Pussy Riot, Ekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikava hopped the small fence to the altar in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and shouted the lyrics to an anti-Putin song, invoking the Virgin Mary to exorcise him and corrupt clergy from Russia. Since then they’ve spent months in prison on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and face up to seven years in prison. The verdict had been reached; and the punk band received a two year sentence in a medium-security prison on Friday. The authorities’ inordinate response and inept execution have played into the young women’s hands, though they have suffered the cost. Their trial exposes Putin’s dysfunctional and corrosive system of “vertical power,” granting few individuals great power within a strict hierarchy, each able to deliver rewards and punishment as they see fit. Welcomed as a reaction to Yeltsin’s decentralized government, it has drawn comparisons to feudalism. The trial’s spectacle—meant as part of a larger muzzle on the opposition—has pushed the government deeper into the swamp it first encountered with the Moscow protests. Putin and his system have become a joke at home and abroad, and his attempts to hold the country in stasis make his regime more fragile, laughable, and criminal. 

Meanwhile, the opposition leaders, including big names like Alexei Navalny, Boris Nemtsov, and Ksenia Sobchak, and to an extent Pussy Riot itself, have failed to create an alternate vision for Russia’s future. Their disparate personalities—radical nationalist, politician-businessman, socialite-turned-TV-wit, and balaclava-d girls shouting about feminism over power chords, respectively—reflect the fragmented and chaotic demographics of the opposition. Although defendants’ youth, ideals, and pragmatic attitudes make for charismatic figures, it’s the trial itself—a mockery of justice and corruption—that has garnered world attention.

In her closing statements, Alyokhina said, “prison is just Russia in miniature,” but the courthouse works just as well. In a chaotic, overcrowded room, a diverse group of Russians take part in an event fraught with paradoxes. Tolokonnikova calls the judge and prosecution puppets, and nobody disagrees. An appropriate sense of powerlessness pervades, enhanced by the glass cage. Everyone shares the brand of unflappable Russian cynicism, and Nikolai Polozov, of the defense, assures Judge Syrova that her “peculiar methods are very familiar to us.” The threatening specter of a guard dog lingers in the courtroom, barking and repeatedly breaking from its leash. The defense fights tooth and nail; the prosecution prosecutes with listless candor; witnesses are laughed off the stand, and the audience cheers for every moving speech. The pettiness of the crime, the women’s earnestness, and the authorities’ bizarre responses surprise even the jaded audience.

In the courtroom the system orbits Judge Marina Syrova. A trial relies on pillars of order and image—the disciplined judge, the pious Patriarch—and without these two it flounders. The Court, however, has long grown tired of keeping up appearances, much less order. The judge dismisses motions, races through stages, harries the defense, and shrugs to the prosecution. She shouts and gets bored. She doodles on her desk. When the defense asks her to stop drawing little circles, she tells them to do their job. She scolds the crowd that “This is not the theater!” but her command to quiet down goes ignored. The defendants insist that they are not defeated.

This is Putin’s Russia, where the puppet show has gone on too long and been rendered absurd. It still has the teeth to punish, but the opposition’s anger has increasingly been joined by laughter, in the face of which the capacity to instill fear or respect withers. Even if the opposition struggles to find unifying policies, it can rally against this mockery of a judicial system.

Image-obsessed and having run successfully three times on an identical platform of stability, Putin has designed a ridiculous structure and is now proving unable to manage the laughter. His government has pursued a policy of self-interested neglect, abused the courts, and survived by means of bureaucracy and intimidation. The pettiest authority shapes the law to their whims, manufacturing daily miniature vertical systems [maybe it’s all those Gogolian bureaucrats finally getting their revenge, two centuries later.  Putin is president again and still posturing as the strong face of Russia, uncompromising towards international recklessness. Faced with protests over corruption, he resorts to xenophobic rhetoric of “foreign agents” for sowing doubt. But the trial’s absurdity undercuts him twofold: It immediately dispels any illusion that his government functions in a just or effective manner, smearing his international stature, and it sweeps away the internal scapegoating by putting on display a show so visibly unjust, funny, and Russian.

The trial isolated Putin further from the West, and it seems some pressure has worked: Shortly after he publically hoped that they not be judged “too harshly,” the prosecution downgraded their sentencing goal to three years in prison. It has turned out to be two years. But unless he makes drastic policy changes—an unlikely course—Russia will be increasingly crippled by its systemic corruption and a refusal to diversify investments, democratize elections, and balance relations between government, business, and religion. Meanwhile, the nation will stumble along, watching as its population emigrates and infrastructure collapses. Vertical power leaves its central figure vulnerable without the columns of image and order, and a policy of “stability” not only portends stagnation but also accelerates disintegration. With the columns slipping away, change will occur in Russia, whether or not the government facilitates it. 



Alan Yuhas is a World Policy Journal Associate Editor Emeritus


[Photo courtesy of cactusbones]

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