When the Russian authorities make decisions that give the country a bad image without appearing to provide any apparent benefit, it’s usually possible to trace motives that reflect the inner logic of the country’s Byzantine, clannish politics. Threatening to direct nuclear missiles at Western Europe looks absurd from the outside, but it makes President Vladimir Putin look tough at home.
But the decision by a Moscow court on Friday to refuse bail to three members of a female punk band called Pussy Riot and extend their pretrial detention until January strains the imagination.
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The group captured the imagination of those Russians opposed to Putin last year for their energetic impromptu performances in various public places during which they wore brightly colored dresses and balaclavas. They became a symbol of opposition just as Putin was preparing to return for a third presidential term in an election marred by widespread accusations of fraud and rigging. In other words, a sensitive time for the authorities, who were caught off guard by a wave of protests last December.
The three arrested members — Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova — are accused of taking part in a several-minute-long, unsanctioned performance at Moscow’s largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in February, when they sang "Mother of God, Cast Putin Out!" They face up to seven years in prison. Charged with “hooliganism,” although they hurt no one and damaged nothing, they have been jailed since March.
All of the members are in their twenties, two have small children. Prosecutors say they deserve their fate for insulting believers and demeaning the Orthodox Church. The church leader, Patriarch Kirill, has said Pussy Riot’s performance showed the church was “under attack” by persecutors.
That’s rich for the head of an institution most Russians still associate with suffering an onslaught of repression under the officially atheist Soviet regime. But polls show a majority of Russians agree the young women deserve punishment.
Pussy Riot has become an icon for the country’s opposition at home and abroad. Protesters in Moscow regularly carry images of their colorful facemasks. Amnesty International has declared the group’s members prisoners of conscience. Anthony Kiedis, leader of the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers, set Russian social media atwitter on Friday by wearing a Pussy Riot tee-shirt in St. Petersburg.
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So what’s the logic for magnifying Russia’s deplorable image in the world by jailing young women who were exercising their constitutional right to free expression?
For centuries of Russian history, the difficulty of governing a vast, unruly land where enforcing the law has been virtually impossible reinforced the brutality of a justice system that meted out harsh punishment in order to spread fear by making examples of individuals.
Draconian justice in Russia has usually reflected weakness rather than strong rule. Pussy Riot’s treatment by a justice system controlled by the Kremlin reflects badly on a regime that is clearly afraid of the slightest threat to its power. Putin may hold great authoritarian power, but Friday’s court decision shows he is increasingly worried about the brittle nature of its support. That only makes his regime less stable.