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Pussy Riot v. Putin: A Front Row Seat at a Russian Dark Comedy

On the morning of February 21, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich walked up the steps leading to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, shed their winter clothing, pulled colorful winter hats down over their faces, and jumped around punching and kicking for about thirty seconds. By evening, the three young women had turned it into a music video called “Punk Prayer: Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!” which mocked the patriarch and Putin. (“The head of the KGB is their patron saint,” they sang, by turns shrieking and imitating a church choir.)

The video went viral: it was two weeks before the presidential election and Putin, facing a wave of unprecedented protests, was feeling shaky. Three days later, a warrant was issued for the girls’ arrest. According to their indictment, their trial promised to be a decisive moment in the history of Christianity; officially, they were being tried for hooliganism, but the mumbling prosecutor clarified that they stood accused of “insulting the entire Christian world.”

Last week, on the day before the trial began, Petr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband, and I met for coffee. We talked about Derrida and post-modernism, the construction of gender and about performance art, but also about international press coverage of the Pussy Riot case and the growing list of Western musicians—Franz Ferdinand, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting—who had spoken up for the young women. “The state is doing everything to heat up attention for the case,” Verzilov said. “Someone’s putting on a show, as if, God forbid the New York Times doesn’t write about it.”

Verzilov and Tolokonnikova had met as students in the philosophy department of Moscow State University, and had been doing shocking performance art for years, first with a group called Voina, after which they founded Pussy Riot. (One of their first performance pieces, for Voina, involved having sex, together with a large group, in Moscow’s Biological Museum on the eve of Medvedev’s inauguration. Tolokonnikova was heavily pregnant at the time.) “Punk Prayer” was part of a series of performances that took aim at symbols of the regime, past and present: the Place of the Skulls, the execution spot on Red Square; luxury shopping malls, the Moscow metro. The Catherdal was chosen because it had, in Pussy Riot’s view, become a commercial center and because the patriarch had just told believers to vote for Putin in the upcoming presidential election.

Though Pussy Riot’s goal was to challenge Russian society through performance art, they were soon to discover that Putin’s state insisted on imposing its own distinct political aesthetic. “Of course, the indictment came down on Forgiveness Sunday,” Petr Verzilov said, referring to the fact that the criminal charge coincided with the day that Russian Orthodox believers ask each other’s forgiveness before the beginning of Lent. “The people in the Kremlin are obviously given to small acts of theatricality.”

THIS WAS PERFECTLY clear on the first day of the trial, which kicked off with statements from the defendants, read out by their lawyers. The young women, who sat in a cage of bulletproof glass (known colloquially as “the aquarium”) apologized to the Orthodox believers they had offended; Tolokonnikova called it “an ethical mistake.” Alyokhina, herself an Orthodox believer, apologized but also expressed her dismay at the lack of Christian forgiveness. “I thought the Church loved all its children,” she said in her written statement. “But it turns out it only loves those children who love Putin.”

And that’s where the loftiness ended and reality began to disintegrate. The judge overruled the defense’s motion to call any of its thirty five witnesses at the trial: the reason given was that it was too early, but she ended up rejecting the motion again and again throughout the proceedings. The prosecutor began to mutter his way through the indictment, using phrases like “imitating the Gates of Heaven” and “songs of an insulting, blasphemous nature.” The girls, drifting off in their aquarium, stood accused by the Russian state of being motivated by “religious hatred,” of “demonstratively and cynically putting themselves in opposition to the Orthodox world” and of “trying to devalue centuries of revered and protected dogmas” and “encroaching on the rights and sovereignty of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Somewhere else in there was a statement about how the young women of Pussy Riot had shaken “the spiritual foundations” of the Russian Federation, which, until that point, had given the distinct impression of being a secular state.

The defense counsel, for its part, seemed at this point to have already stopped listening; they were buried in their iPads and phones, live-tweeting the proceedings, as was Verzilov, who sat on a bench closest to the aquarium, as if they had decided that broadcasting the surrealism to the world was a better alternative than trying to make sense of it.

When the judge asked the girls how they plead, Alyokhina, a small, mousy girl with a poof of dirty blonde hair, said she wouldn’t plead at all as she didn’t understand what the indictment even meant. When this devolved into a shouting match with the judge—the first of many—Alyokhina demanded, “Why doesn’t the court take my words into account?” She was ordered to sit down.

The prosecution called its first witness, Lyubov Sokologorskaya, who is caretaker of the cathedral’s candles, and who can be seen in the Pussy Riot video, her head covered with a white kerchief, trying to wave off the group’s video camera. She was testifying as one of the nine victims in the case, the Orthodox faithful who had witnessed the 30 seconds of blasphemy and had been suffering ever since. I had run into Sokologorskaya, a tall woman with a vague face, in the bathroom during a break and I asked her why she turned to a secular court to address her religious hurt. She flashed me a sudden, angry look. “Go ahead,” she snapped. “Go ahead. Why don’t you just say the word you’re dancing around?” Before I could understand what it was I was dancing around, her lawyer, Larissa Pavlova, a big woman with a malicious face, led her away.

On the stand, Sokologorskaya was all quiet pathos. One could barely hear her responses to the questions posed by the prosecutor. Was she an Orthodox believer? Did she celebrate all the holidays and keep all the fasts of the Russian Orthodox Church? What is god? What were the girls wearing? Was their clothing tight?

Yes, Sokologorskaya said, their clothing was mostly tight and bright and generally inappropriate for a holy place. She spotted a bra strap; one dress had bright stripes. The worst, though, was that they had fooled her: two of them, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, she said, had approached her and asked her which icons to pray to for various blessings. In the meantime, she realized, their co-conspirators were climbing the railing blocking off the steps leading to the altar, steps on which no woman is allowed to stand. Then they shed their coats and began to jump around, movements she described as “devilish jerking.”

“Have you ever seen any devils?” defense attorney Violetta Volkova asked.

The judge interceded and struck down the question, as she would for most of the defense’s questions.

“I just wanted to clarify, how does she know how devils jerk themselves around?” Volkova yelled, as she would for most of the trial.

The question was struck.

“They raised their legs so high that everything past their waists, you could see,” Sokologorskaya almost moaned. “They were egging each other on, to see who could raise her leg the highest.”

The prosecution went on. Was the behavior of Pussy Riot acceptable behavior according to Church rules? Did it offend the feelings of Orthodox believers? Was it a crime?


“In your view,” Pavlova asked her client, “what should the punishment be?”

“They need to be punished adequately,” Sokologorskaya said. (This elicited no objection from the defense about a witness testifying to something that was for the court to decide.) “They need to be punished so that they never want to do this again, under any circumstances. So that they’re scared.”

Because Sokologorskaya was claiming “moral damage,” one of the defense lawyers, Nikolai Polozov, asked her if she had turned to a doctor or a psychologist to address her suffering.

“I’m an Orthodox believer,” Sokologorskaya said. “The gracious power of the Holy Spirit is a million times stronger than any psychologist!”

“Then why didn’t the gracious power of the Holy Spirit assuage your moral suffering?”

“The question is struck!” snapped the judge.

“Have you seen the video of the punk prayer?” Polozov asked.


“If the performance caused you such moral suffering, why did you decide to poison your soul again?”

The judge struck the question.

Did she hear the name Putin? Anything about the patriarch?

There was a long pause.

“I’m trying to remember, I’m afraid to get it wrong,” Sokologorskaya said, voice quavering. “It was just that I was intensively praying. It was enough for me to hear ‘patriarch.’”

“When you are in a state of intensive prayer, are you aware of what is going on around you?” asked Polozov.

The question was struck.

“Rephrase,” said the judge.

“When you are in a state of intensive prayer,” began Polozov, “can you hear what people are saying to you?

The question was struck.

“Irrelevant,” said the judge.

“What did my client Tolokonnikova say on the dias on Februrary 21?” asked Mark Feygin, another of the defense lawyers.

The question was struck.

“Irrelevant,” said the judge.

“Who told you the girls in the video are the same girls as the ones on trial today?” Feygin asked. “They were wearing balaclavas, as you recall.”


The defendants were given the chance to ask questions through a small window in the aquarium. When it was Tolokonnikova’s turn, she asked how Sokologorskaya could determine the girls motivating hatred for Orthodoxy, to which she had just testified?

“Because you disturbed the peace in the cathedral,” Sokologorskaya said. “You used curse words.”

“Do you remember what I personally said on February 21?”

“I don’t want to repeat these words.”

“Do you remember what I said?”


“She already answered your question,” said the judge.

“Is ‘feminist’ a bad word?” Tolokonnikova asked, referring to the part of the punk prayer in which they implored the Virgin to become a feminist.

“In a church, yes.”

“What dress was I wearing?”

“You know what your dress was like,” Sokologorskaya snapped. “It’s probably why you wanted to raise your legs.”

SOKOLOGORSKAYA WAS FOLLOWED on the stand by Denis Istomin, a young man with sun-bleached blonde hair and a taut, angular face. He rolled up to the witness stand wearing a pair of tight pants and an electric blue shirt. 

“Is it fair to say you are an Orthodox believer?” asked the prosecutor. It was the first question he would ask every witness. “Do you celebrate Church holidays and keep all the fasts?”

When it came to the events of February 21, Istomin said he happened to be in the Cathedral on a Tuesday morning by sheer accident. “My parents gave some money to help build it and I feel it is our church, too,” Istomin said. It was his first time in the Cathedral. When he knelt down to pray, he heard women’s voices; when he looked up, he saw girls in colorful balaclavas dancing around on the steps to the altar.

“Did you hear what they were saying?” asked Pavlova.

“Yes,” said Istomin. “They were shouting insults at our god Jesus Christ. It was blasphemy. People in the cathedral were crying, some people were sick. There was no precedent for this.” Their clothes, he said, “did not conform to Christian tradition.” Their dancing was “dancing on the graves of our ancestors.” Sadly, this was to be expected. “Our country went twenty years without an ideology,” he said flatly. “A whole generation grew up without Orthodox values.”

“What did you do when you saw this disorder?” asked Pavlova.

“I tried to stop them,” Istomin said. One of the girls, Alyokhina, was held up by a church security guard who removed her mask. “Someone took her mask off. She looked at me, and I looked at her,” Istomin went on. “I recognize her today. I have a photographic memory.”

After Istomin, the accidental witness, has been asked to weigh in on the extent to which Pussy Riot had criminally offended all of Orthodox Christendom, Pavlova—or “Lawyer Pavlova,” as she preferred to refer to herself in the courtroom—tried a different line.

“Would you say that this was art?”

“What is art anyway?” smirked Istomin. “I don’t think this is art, but if some people consider it art, then it should be displayed exclusively in closed spaces and not be made available for wider public consumption.”

“You’re here as a victim,” Lawyer Pavlova went on. “Are you claiming any monetary compensation here today?”

“No,” said Istomin, lifting his hawkish nose. “I don’t need their money.”

“You heard the girls apologize this morning,” Lawyer Pavlova said with gravitas. “Do you think they were sincere?”

“I don’t see any repentance in their actions,” Istomin said.

“I have no further questions,” said Lawyer Pavlova.

The occupants of the “aquarium” were again permitted to ask questions. (All three had been taking furious notes throughout the testimony. A tattered paperback Bible lay on the bench where the girls were sitting.)

“When you held me up and led me to the door of the Cathedral, did I resist?” asked Alyokhina.

“I can’t say definitively, I’m not a person who holds grudges,” said Istomin. And, with a smile added, “Actually, all Orthodox people are like this.”

“What did you do after you led me out?”

“I went back to restoring order.”

“Tell me, were you here in this courtroom three hours ago?” Alyokhina went on.


“Did you hear me when I apologized for offending the Orthodox faithful?”

“You know, a spoon is useful at lunchtime,” he scoffed. “We waited for this apology from you in the first days after your blasphemy. And, as Stanislavsky once said, ‘I don’t believe in your repentance.’”

“Tell me, please, what form does my repentance have to take for you to believe me?”

“I don’t know, use the Internet, like you did last time,” Istomin said, referring to the YouTube sensation. “Or go to church.”

“I can’t go to church,” Alyokhina said. “I’m in jail.”

Volkova, the defense attorney, began asking questions again. “What words did the accused say?”

“They were saying bad words,” Istomin said.

“Which words?”

“The question is struck,” said the judge.

“Is holy shit an offensive phrase?” Volkova shouted.

“We already established that these words offend God!” the prosecutor shouted.

“The question is struck.”

Feygin, whose massive frame reminds one of an antique wardrobe, took his turn. “Is it true that you are part of the group Narodny Sabor?”

 “Yes,” said Istomin.

 “What does the group do?”

“It provides military-patriotic training for youth,” Istomin said. “It’s a good organization.”

“Did you know my clients before February 21?”


“Were you also a victim in the court case against Erofeev,” Feygin asked, referring to another scandalous case, from 2006, when the Orthodox faithful filed suit against the curators of an art show in which contemporary Russian artists took on the theme of religion. The Orthodox faithful won.

“The question is struck,” said the judge.

“We’re trying to establish that Istomin has participated in similar court cases,” Feygin pleaded.

“He’s a professional victim!” yelled Volkova. “Like a professional beggar!”

“The question is struck!”

BY DAY TWO of the trial, the trial had become an acknowledged embarrassment. Even the Putin loyalists were already cracking. After the first day, a member of the ruling United Russia party wrote in his blog that, even though he was offended by the Pussy Riot performance, “an indictment based on citations from sixteenth century Church cannon makes the country the laughingstock of the entire world.”

It was soon clear that the authorities were eager to wrap things up as quickly as possible, and shift the public’s attention to something that wasn’t quite so unexpectedly humiliating. And so the judge decided not only to prevent the defense from calling any witnesses or asking any questions; she also had no intention of keeping Russian courthouse hours. Rather than end each session at six, when the courthouse closed, she kept going. “We’ll be here till morning if we have to,” she said when the defense suggested adjourning for the day.

The main effect of the grueling twelve-hour sessions was the deterioration of the defendants’ health. On the third day, an ambulance had to be called twice for the girls (and for Volkova, who had worked herself up into a tizzy), but the paramedics determined they were fit to stand trial. Volkova started a shouting match with the judge: Her clients were not given time to sleep, and were not being fed. “When I asked the bailiff whether they’d eaten, he told me they’d been fed tea!” she shouted. The judge said it was not the court’s prerogative to deal with such things. When the defense team attempted to pass a bottle of water into the aquarium, every cop in the room lunged to intercept it. Afterwards, an attorney for the plaintiff, Lev Lyalin, himself a religious man who was representing three of the victims, told me, “You know, I’ve been an attorney for a long time, and I can tell you’ve never seen a court work at this clip before. Even I don’t feel well, and I’m not in prison.”

On top of this, the court was doing everything in its power to make the trial a black box. First, they shut down the live stream of the proceedings (ostensibly to protect the victims). On day two, they moved the trial to a tiny courtroom where not more than ten journalists could fit. When the journalists left on the stairwell mutinied, the trial was moved back to a bigger courtroom. The next day brought a ban on Twitter, which the press inside the courtroom to broadcast the insanity they were witnessing. When a higher court overruled them the same morning, they tried to introduce a ban on audio recordings.

The one thing that the authorities had determined was not negotiable was the verdict. That had been determined months ago: Shortly after the punk prayer became a viral hit, Putin spoke at a Church event, apologizing to the faithful for the harm done to them by the Pussy Riot performance. The court had received its signal from the Kremlin; now the only question was whether the girls would get the full seven-year sentence.

In that way, the trial became an inadvertent continuation of their performance piece, one that grew far past the boundaries they had envisioned for it and ended up becoming a monumental, historical work. The kangaroo court, the prison sentence, the martyr status—Pussy Riot didn’t expect any of it, but they had clearly hit a nerve and the state’s overblown, medieval response had became part of the show. And if Act I (the punk prayer) turned off some liberals with its edginess, Act II (the witch trial) was clearly a nation-wide hit and a liberal cause célèbre.

It was a prime example of a classic Russian genre: a bitter dark comedy depicting the absurdity of oppression. Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich have audibly laughed their way through the proceedings, as have the defense lawyers, the journalists, even Alyokhina’s mother, forcing the judge to periodically scream at the courtroom. “Is this funny to you!” the judge cried at one point. “No, it’s quite sad,” Alyokhina said, barely stifling her laughter. By Thursday of last week, the burly enforcers stalking about the courtroom were threatening to toss out anyone who even smiled.

But how could one not laugh? How else could one react to a tall, greasy man who was called as an expert witness for the prosecution because he had seen the YouTube video and read an interview with PussyRiot? Sweating through his testimony, he described for the court how the girls had “pushed themselves into hell,” and that “to the Christian faithful, Orthodox or not, hell is as real as the Moscow metro.”

How else could one interpret a witness, a church treasurer, who walked into the courtroom with a frilly parasol, which she then lovingly hung off the edge of the witness stand before giving her testimony? “Excuse me,” she said when it clattered to the floor as she discussed how much offense she had taken at Pussy Riot’s performance.

How else could one react to a victim weeping through her testimony and, describing how one of the girls prostrated herself on the altar on February 21, uttered the nearly Biblical phrase, “and her butt was raised high and this butt was facing the altar”? To an altar boy who looked like he spent more time at the gym than in church? (“Do you think they could have been possessed?” Feygin asked the altar boy. “The question is struck!” said the judge. “He is not a medical expert!”) To the candle woman, the first victim, watching the proceedings from the gallery, angrily muttering her bewilderment, and repeatedly crossing herself?

How else to respond to the fact that the nine victims, all security guards and attendants of the Cathedral, felt confident in opining on theological, psychological, and jurisprudential matters, and in delivering their verdict on when the punk prayer crossed over from art to blasphemy? To the fact that all of them described in soaring words the depth of the Christian faith but that all but one could not find it in their hearts to accept the girls’ apologies?

To call this a show trial would be to understate its grotesque aesthetic. This was not a show trial, but it was a show—a sumptuous, tragicomic show, in which three twenty-something girls have unintentionally check-mated the regime.

On Thursday, as the girls were marched out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Verzilov called to his wife.

“Nadia!” he shouted. “Björk says hello!”