Pussy Riot sentence echoes Russia’s bad old days

August 17, 2012

IN LATE 1933, a young writer in Moscow composed a 16-line poem that depicted a cruel and ghastly dictator, Joseph Stalin, with polished boots and thin-necked henchmen. “His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits,” wrote Osip Mandelshtam. “He is forging his rules and decrees like horseshoes — into groins, into foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows. Every killing for him is a delight. …” The poem led to Mandelshtam’s persecution, and he died in a Soviet prison camp five years later.

His poem, a satirical polemic, is worth recalling in the wake of a decision Friday by a Moscow judge to sentence three women who make up Pussy Riot, a punk rock band, to jail for two years as a punishment for their disrespectful performance art.

In February, the women, dressed in tights, colorful ski masks and short skirts, mounted a platform in front of the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and, with some wild dancing, mimed a short “punk prayer” critical of President Vladimir Putin and his close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. Others recorded a video of their antics. The performance took less than a minute. Later, the group added music and lyrics to a video that went viral, and they were arrested for “hooliganism” and inciting religious hatred.

The trial of Pussy Riot was a farce in which the defendants were locked in a glass cage and the judge repeatedly refused to let the defense call witnesses. Even their questions of witnesses were struck. “I have no rights in this court,” an exasperated defense lawyer said, according to our colleague Masha Lipman, writing in the New Yorker. “Indeed,” the judge responded, “all you have is obligations.”

Pussy Riot’s performance may have upset some Russians, as it may have amused others. But whatever one thinks of the band’s deed, the sentence is over the top. The three women have been in prison without bail since March. It would have been sufficient to sentence them to time served and let them go free.

What really has occurred in this case is that Pussy Riot was singled out to discourage others from challenging the establishment. It is wrong that three women in colorful costumes should be severely punished for a moment of expression. It is doubly wrong that they should be punished in the new Russia, where Stalin’s terrible legacy of pain is well known and should have been long ago abandoned.

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