A Further Perspective

Punk Rock in the Cathedral?

 Did Pussy Riot really advance the cause of Russian civil liberties?

By 9.10.12

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Before the absurd prosecution and sentencing to two years in prison camp of three punk rockers for their brief "performance" on the altar Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the world had seemed largely indifferent to repressive new laws implemented in the early days of Vladimir Putin's third term as Russian president. These laws severely hamper public protests, force NGO's to register as foreign agents, censor the Internet, and criminalize libel and slander.

As a lawyer who has worked with the Russian judicial system, I find it ironic that these troubling laws passed almost unnoticed, while the whole world is up in arms over the authorities' hysterical over-reaction to what was basically a girlish prank.

The rockers at the center of the controversy seem unlikely candidates for global adulation. As is clear from the name of their band -- Pussy Riot -- their intent was always provocation and maximum PR through scandal. To this end, they did not shrink from what many call pornography. Two band members starred in filmed performances of group sex in Moscow's Biology Museum, of groping and kissing random police officers on Moscow's subway system, of copulating while stuffing chickens in their private parts, and releasing live cockroaches in public institutions. Then, before their final event in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, they did a "punk prayer" on the altar of the Epiphany Cathedral.

The rockers said that the point of their "performance" was to protest what they saw as the Russian Orthodox Church's servility to President Putin. Yet their method of protest -- invading cathedral altars, not once but twice -- went beyond performance art and was deeply disrespectful. Everyone knows cathedrals are places where people go for confession, communion, prayer and meditation.

If punk rockers jumped onto the altars of our cathedrals, cavorting uninvited in tights and balaclavas, we'd be offended too. In the Orthodox faith, only priests are allowed on the altar, which is considered sacred space.

Invading others' shrines and disrupting others' rituals is properly against the law, and would be anywhere. However, the maximum sanction for such trespass should have been a fine and a fortnight in jail. Instead, the ham-fisted prosecution of these women for "blasphemy, motivated by religious hatred" effectively criminalized their song lyrics, which they didn't actually sing in the church (in church the rockers lip-synched, their anti-Putin lyrics were dubbed into the video later).

The court's harsh ruling and conduct of the trial (using "psychiatric reports" of "experts" that the defense was not allowed to cross-examine to determine that the singers are "threats to society" based on their "feminism" and "disdain for authority") seemed to many to be more guided by what Russians call "telephone law" -- i.e. by ex parte pressure on judicial authorities, communicated from above by telephone -- than by the actual language of Art. 213 of the Criminal Code for hate crimes.

Now that the trial court's ruling is being appealed the appellate court would be wise to reduce the sentence, even if "telephone law" is applied, because the case has proved a PR disaster for Putin. In the wired world of the 21st century, punishing "blasphemy" cannot help sounding medieval, and if anything, it makes the "blasphemers" look like the martyrs. So it has proved.

Amnesty International termed them prisoners of conscience, and rock stars such as Bryan Adams, Björk, Peter Gabriel, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend and others spread the word that Putin jailed them just for a song. It was their prosecution, not their surprisingly sophomoric musical skills, which made the rockers international pop icons.

But having garnered foreign support far beyond their wildest dreams, did Pussy Riot really advance the cause of Russian civil liberties? According to an independent poll, although 54 percent of Russians disapprove of the band's imprisonment, 65 percent actually agree with Putin that Pussy Riot's "punk prayers" on cathedral altars were "nothing good." I fear that now reasoned criticism of the government may get tarred with "godless hooliganism" and contempt for the faith of the vast majority, justifying further crackdowns. "Hard cases make bad law" as the saying goes.

In his 1818 poem "To Chaadayev" (one of Russia's first dissidents), Russia's national bard Alexander Pushkin wrote: 

But in us still desire's burning,
Oppressed by power's deadly yoke,
Impatiently our souls are yearning:
We hear the calling of our folk.
We wait each minute, longing, longing,
For Freedom's sacred fleeting bliss
The way young lovers fret while counting
The minutes to a secret tryst.

Under the tsars, such sentiments earned the young poet two terms of exile. Perhaps what's changed most is what passes for "art" nowadays. Call me old-fashioned, but punk rock in a cathedral hardly seems as inspiring. Time will tell, but "Pussy Riot" probably did the cause of freedom no favors by confusing freedom of expression with freedom of desecration.

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About the Author

Julian Henry Lowenfeld practices law in New York and Moscow. He is also a poet known for his verse translations of Russia's national bard Alexander Pushkin. His translation of Russia's best-selling book Everyday Saints and Other Stories, by Father Tikhon Shevkunov, will be published next month.