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A masked demonstrator attends a demonstration in support of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot, whose members face prison for a stunt against President Vladimir Putin, outside Russia's embassy in Berlin. The three female band members have been in jail for more than five months because of an anti-Putin prank in Moscow's main cathedral. A judge is due to rule on their case Friday.

Markus Schreiber/The Associated Press

Sentencing the three young women in a Russian punk band to two years in jail, for singing a protest song in a church, is a disproportionate punishment by any standards. But their trial for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" will also ensure the success of Pussy Riot's act of protest, as it so convincingly highlights the many disturbing trends in President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Among those developments: the increasingly repressive nature of the state; the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church over public policy, and Mr. Putin's attempt to build an alliance with that conservative institution to bolster his support.

Pussy Riot formed last year to protest Mr. Putin's decision to return to the presidency in an election following four years as prime minister. Their intention was to shock when they performed a "punk prayer" last February in Christ the Saviour Cathedral, asking the Virgin Mary to chase out Mr. Putin.

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The ensuing controversy that followed the incident revealed a deep divide in Russia. While some members of the country's elite spoke out in favour of the band, many ordinary Russians were deeply offended and deemed the song to be an act of heresy. An opinion poll conducted by the independent Levada research group found that only 6 per cent of Russians had sympathy for the women, though even those opposed to their act did not necessarily want to see the singers severely punished.

The Orthodox Church, which supported Mr. Putin in the election, still wields considerable power and influence in the country. And the President has tried to use the church to gain legitimacy and rebuild a sense of national identity, as well as to crack down on his liberal opponents.

The trial's outcome will only serve to further polarize Russian society, and cement Mr. Putin's international reputation as an anti-modernist autocrat, in spite of his pledge to free his country from Communism's legacy.

It will also guarantee that images of the testimony of 22-year-old band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who noted that many famous people (including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) have gone to extremes to defend their beliefs, will be viewed thousands more times than if the judge had merely sentenced her to a fine and a slap on the wrist. That provides a much-needed opportunity for Russians to consider the state of their country.

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