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How Three Young Punks Made Putin Blink

MOSCOW—When the sentence came, it was after three hours of Judge Marina Syrova monotonously reading aloud the entire tale of Pussy Riot’s encounter with the law. Three hours from the time she pronounced the three young women guilty of “grossly violating the public order” and of being “motivated by religious hatred,” the judge announced that only a “real sentence”—rather than probation—would be fitting and instructive enough. She quickly handed down a two-year sentence in minimum security prison to each of the defendants, and that was that.

In those three hours, however, with the entire courtroom standing the whole time, we got to hear the entire case all over again. We heard about how the three young defendants—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina, handcuffed inside a bulletproof “aquarium”—as well as “two other unidentified people” entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on the morning of February 21, at which point they mounted the steps to the altar, shed their winter clothing, donned colorful balaclavas and began to “raise their legs” and to “hit the air, as if it were an opponent.” We heard about how their clothing was in violation of Church rules, how Samutsevich, “in clear collusion” with the others, took out a guitar and how Tolokonnikova plugged it into an amp “without delay,” about how the place where they stood—the ambon—was not for women, how the Cathedral’s employees tried to stop them, how the Pussy Riot “demonstratively and cynically” defied “the Orthodox world” and tried to “devalue centuries of revered and protected dogmas” and “encroaching on the rights and sovereignty of the Russian Orthodox Church.” We heard about the materials seized in the searches of the defendants’ apartments, materials that, apparently, had “offended God.” We heard about the testimony of the victims, the Orthodox believers so deeply wounded by the thirty-second performance, though we learned that that testimony of one witness—he had seen the resultant music video on YouTube and read an interview with Pussy Riot —was struck, which was a shame because he had been the only one to explain to the court the etiology of the group’s name. (“Do you even know what ‘pussy’ means?” he asked the court two weeks ago. “I do. I brought a dictionary.” The word, it turned out, derived from “pus.”)

Through those three hot, tiresome hours, the three young women listened to the litany of absurdist, pseudo-legalistic, theocratic woe, by turns laughing and rolling their eyes. Alyokhina, the brain, watched attentively, her pale face calm under a poof of dirty blonde frizz. Tolokonnikova, the opposition’s sultry new sex symbol (Ukrainian Playboy has just invited her onto its cover), wearing a blue “No pasarán!” t-shirt, smirked and curled her lips in disdain. Even the shy and awkward Samutsevich laughed when the judge, a prissy older woman, read the full text of the punk prayer “Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!”, uttering the phrase “the priest blows the prosecutor.” At one point, the unmistakable strains of punk wafted into the courtroom. The members of Pussy Riot who are still anonymous and free had emerged on a balcony across the street from the courthouse and began to rage through their new single “Putin Lights the Fires of Revolution.” Then they made it rain CDs. At the sound of the music, Tolokonnikova’s face lit up and, clasping her chained hands like a victorious boxer, shook them above her head.

When the two-year sentence came in, the girls laughed. When they were first detained and charged in March, all the signs had pointed to seven years behind bars. Putin had apologized to the Orthodox faithful, and the patriarch and Church made a point of staying out of the case, though it was quite clear that they weren’t.

But the Kremlin’s grasp on the story soon slipped. First, the story became a domestic PR-headache. Then, starting in July, Western musicians started glomming onto the case one by one: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting, Franz Ferdinand, Bjork, Paul McCartney. Madonna came to Moscow to give a concert, and ended up delivering an ode to the girls, donned a balaclava, and wrote the words “Free Pussy Riot” on her back. Unlike the highly politicized case of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a man with a shadowy past who had the assets Putin wanted, the case of Pussy Riot had become an easily consumable image of good and evil: Three young women against an Evil Empire. The heretofore little-known punkettes received such unanimously positive international publicity that one began even to pity the Kremlin and the Church a little: They had clearly and severely miscalculated.

As is so often the case with the Russian government, it was Putin himself who dramatized the pathos. Just before Putin’s departed for the London Olympics—halfway through the trial—London mayor Boris Johnson spoke up for Pussy Riot; upon his arrival, Prime Minister David Cameron broached the issue with Putin in their private meeting. Putin took notice of these slights; as swaggering and rude as he is (he’s been late to meet just about every foreign leader, including the Queen), he very much cares about his image in the West. It is where, after all, all his friends and subjects have their money. It is also important to Putin to be the leader of a world superpower, which is what he thinks Russia still is. He cannot be an Assad or a Qaddafi; it is very important for him to be what the Russians call “handshakeable” abroad. And so, while his instinct is often to hit first and think later, Putin knows it’s in his interest to cultivate the image of a centrist. It is not unheard of for him to bow to public pressure, though he will try his damndest to make it seem like public pressure has nothing to do with it.

Thus, when the case reached a fever pitch, Putin, speaking from London, said the girls “shouldn’t be punished too harshly.” Let them think about what they’ve done, he chided, and, as always, left it up to the court. The court immediately picked up on the signal, and soon the prosecutor was asking not for seven years, but for three. Some of the victims stopped calling for any punishment. The liberals who had gotten so fired up about the case became even more fired up: Here it was, the taste of victory! Ebullient rumors of probation soon began to circulate around Moscow.

There was some truth in this euphoria, but not enough. Twitter had helped Russian liberals back the Russian regime into a corner in unprecedented fashion. But the system that does not have a reverse gear, a system that admits no mistakes, and shows no weakness (ninety-nine percent of criminal cases in Russia result in a guilty verdict) cannot get a new transmission in one week, or in one case. As soon as the trial began, it was clear that the government did not intend on absolving Pussy Riot.

Still, the two-year sentence was a surprise because it was less than the three many expected, and far less than the seven everyone feared. “In our system, two years is not a real sentence,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who advised Putin’s successful 2000 presidential campaign. “They probably think they’re being very merciful,” especially considering that the girls have already served nearly six months of it in pre-trial detention. This was, in other words, as much give as the system could give.

Afterwards, supporters of Pussy Riot made their arguments for why it was still not enough. “Putin’s statements that the court could deliver a not-too-harsh verdict were expressed in a verdict that deprived innocent people of their freedom for two years,” defense lawyer Mark Feygin told a scrum of journalists outside the courthouse. “Who in their right mind could say this was a not-too-harsh verdict?” Alexey Navalny, the unspoken leader of the opposition, announced that he was “too angry to comment.” Nearby, a couple hundred very angry people had gathered nearby to protest, and a couple dozen of them were arrested. (One climbed the fence of the nearby Turkish embassy, and the police chased her onto its grounds.) The parents of the Samutsevitch and Alyokhina, who had originally disapproved of their daughters’ performance, now were fully behind them. “They did the right thing, absolutely,” Samutsevich’s soft-spoken, somewhat religious father said afterwards. “They really hit a nerve and showed the Church for what it is.”

And so the conclusion of the Pussy Riot trial served the same function as the performance that was its instigation: a demonstration of the deep contradictions plaguing Russian politics. From the perspective of the government, a sentence of two years is merciful; in the view of the country’s nascent, if disorganized and clumsy, but increasingly conscious, forward-looking middle-class opposition, it is beyond the pale. The original prupose of the trial may have been to cow Russia’s liberals, but the result was the opposite: Those paying attention to the trial—the journalists, the European parliamentarians, the activists, the chattering classes—were outraged, not intimidated, at the thought that three young women would be locked up for two years for singing a silly song.

When Tolokonnikova’s husband and Pussy Riot spinmeister Peter Verzilov emerged from the courthouse after the verdict, he was mobbed by journalists asking him for comment.

“What will happen to your wife and daughter?” one journalist asked. “Who will take care of them?”

“My daughter, wife, and everyone else will be saved by the revolution,” he said blithely. “Only the revolution. And we’re going to make it happen.”