Skip to main content

Members of female punk band Pussy Riot sit behind bars before a court hearing in Moscow.TATYANA MAKEYEVA/Reuters

An all-girl punk band called Pussy Riot performed a "punk prayer" for 30 seconds in front of the altar of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the seat of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and began chanting, "Our Lady, chase Putin out." They intended to make a provocative political statement aimed at Russia's authoritarian President. It's the sort of manifestation that artists and provocateurs in the West do all the time and would have gone unnoticed here.

But in President Vladimir Putin's Russia, the prank has been treated as if it were an insurrection that threatened to topple the regime. Three members of Pussy Riot were arrested and jailed in March, pending trial. The young women remain behind bars and, if convicted, face possible seven-year sentences for "hooliganism" motivated by religious hatred. Amnesty International has declared the women prisoners of conscience.

Which begs the question: What is it about these artists, all women in their 20s, two of whom are also the mothers of young children, that so frightens Russia's leadership?

Mr. Putin appears to have no sense of proportionality. The same hammer that was used ruthlessly, but effectively, against Chechen rebels in the past is now being applied to artists who dared to make a non-violent statement about authoritarianism that, judging by the response of Russia's court system, itself a relic of Stalinism, is entirely accurate. That same court system is also busying itself with the persecution of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

On the first day of their trial Monday, Pussy Riot apologized to Russian Orthodox believers for making an "ethical mistake" and made clear they were making a political, not a religious, statement. But the Russian Orthodox Church has failed to demonstrate any Christian charity, or forgiveness, in turn.

Mr. Putin is a special case. He's used rock music when it has suited his purpose, famously turning up in 2004 at a landmark concert by Paul McCartney in Red Square. This was meant to signal that the country that once banned The Beatles music for fear of debauched influence had changed. It has clearly not changed enough.

Rock and punk-influenced musicians, given all their anti-establishment posturing, have been remarkably slow to rally to the cause of Pussy Riot. Sting, however, did issue a statement, aptly targeted at the tough-guy image Mr. Putin likes to cultivate: "A sense of proportion – and a sense of humour – is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness."