On August 17, a Moscow court found three young female performers from the Russian punk band Pussy Riot guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The band members were sentenced to two years in a penal colony. The women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich, were arrested in March following their February 21 performance, in which they sneaked onto the area in front of the iconostasis. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, an iconostasis is an altar screen or wall of idols and religious paintings that separates the Sanctuary from the nave. The public is usually not permitted to enter this area. Here, the band performed what they called a “punk prayer,” in which they danced, jumped, and shouted lyrics such as, “Virgin Mary, Get Putin Out.” The performance lasted for about 40 seconds before they were escorted out. The band members did not vandalize the church or any of its property.
People in the church captured footage of the band’s “punk prayer” and posted the videos on social network sites, such as YouTube. The band’s arrest prompted worldwide condemnation, primarily from the West, which saw their arrest as yet another sign of Putin’s relentless crackdown against political opposition.
Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, release the following statement, “We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The United States is disappointed by the verdict, including the disproportionate sentences that were granted.”
Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch said, “The charges and verdict against the Pussy Riot band members distort both the facts and the law. These women should never have been charged with a hate crime and should be released immediately.”
Music celebrities from around the world expressed their support for the punk band players. “I hope you can stay strong and believe that I and many others like me who believe in free speech will do everything in our power to support you and the idea of artistic freedom,” posted Paul McCartney on his Twitter page.
On paper, the Russian Constitution provides for the freedom of speech and assembly. Chapter 2, Article 29, subsection 1 states, “Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of ideas and speech.” Further down, Article 31 reads, “Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to assemble peacefully, without weapons, hold rallies, meetings and demonstrations, marches and pickets.” However, as in the Soviet Union, where such rights were also “guaranteed,” Russia does not uphold these rights.
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Photo of Vladimir Putin: AP Images