Ding, dong, bell, Pussy’s in the well, so goes the opening of a traditional English nursery rhyme. In the modern Russian version Pussy is not in a well but in prison. She was told by a
Moscow judge on Friday that she must remain there, poor beast, until at least January of next year, pending proceedings on a charge of ‘hooliganism.’
The Pussy in question is actually three members of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk rock band. Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich, all in their twenties, have been in custody since March, arrested for their part in protests against Vladimir Putin’s re-election to the presidency earlier this year. It’s a sign that the more things change in
Russia the more they remain the same; that free speech is a right more often defined by its absence.
The whole case is tinged with some ludicrous colours, nothing more ludicrous than the offence itself. They were arrested for performing an impromptu punk prayer in
Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, beseeching the Virgin to ‘Drive Putin Out.’
That’s it; for that they will be held for a total of ten months in detention. When the case eventually, if ever, goes to trial they could face another seven years if convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Bail has been repeatedly denied despite the fact that two of the women have young children. There have even been calls to deprive them of their parental rights along with their liberty.
How Stalin, sleeping fitfully under the Kremlin Wall, would marvel at modern
Russia. The Orthodox Church, which he and his comrades subjected to systematic persecution, is once again a power in the land. The hierarchy, which has close ties to Putin, supports the continuing incarceration of the three women, though the majority of ordinary believers want them to be released.
Boris Akunin, a popular writer of crime fiction, has described the “state’s malice” towards the women as “disgusting.” It certainly is, but there is more than simple malice here. The whole process is acquiring Gothic overtones, reminiscent of past prosecutions for witchcraft.
Salem, it might be said, has flown east.
On Thursday, Mikhail Kuznetsov, a lawyer acting for one of the Cathedral guards, accused Pussy Riot of being motivated by the same “Satanic forces” that carried out the 9/11 attacks on America. The punk band is apparently the "tip of an iceberg of extremists, trying to break down the thousand year edifice of the Russian Orthodox Church by creating a schism, guiding the flock through trickery and cunning not to God, but to Satan. Behind this stands real enemies of our state, and Church."
A heavy indictment indeed, if one believes that opposition to Putin has demonic overtones. Democracy and free speech would also seem to have a devilish character in modern
Russia. Well, by and large, they always have. Satan is back in Moscow. Readers of Mikhail Bulgakov will surely love the irony.