A show trial like in the days of Stalin?
It is one of the most controversial cases in a long time: the Moscow trial against punk band Pussy Riot. The three young musicians face seven years in prison for staging an anti-Putin protest in a church.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is a massive building adorned with golden cupolas at the bank of the Moskva river not far from the Kremlin. It is the largest church in Russia, but was rebuilt only in the 1990s - the communists blew up the original 19th century church in 1931. For the Russian Orthodox Church, the cathedral is a symbol of its resurgence after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is here that the Patriarch holds his Christmas and Easter mass. President Vladimir Putin a regular guest.
But for about five months, the church has been at the heart of a scandal about church, politics and freedom of expression in Russia. The trial, which begins in Moscow on Monday, is seen as one of the most controversial in Russia in years. Some critics - like Moscow-based journalists Masha Gessen - compare it to the show trials of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. All court sessions will be broadcast live on the Internet - a novelty in Russia.
On trial are Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. All three are in their early 20s and members of the provocative punk band Pussy Riot, which spreads political songs with Internet videos.
Their most controversial performance was on February 21, 2012, in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior just before the presidential election. An Internet video shows a group of women in short dresses and wearing colorful balaclavas, dancing in front of the altar and shaking their fists. The video is accompanied by a punk prayer, a song calling on Mary, mother of God, to chase away Putin. Authorities managed to identify three of the women and for five months they have been held in custody. They’re accused of "hooliganism" - the prosecution is asking for a seven-year prison sentence.
The trial is getting a lot of attention and causing heated discussions. Typing the term Pussy Riot into Russia’s biggest search engine Yandex leads to a staggering nine million results. The video in question has 1.5 million hits on YouTube. The number of commentaries on the two-minute clip is growing by the day and currently is about 30, 000. The opinions are evenly divided. "It is as if someone would smear my home with filth, " an anonymous user complains. Another though says the case looks like an act of political revenge: "The three girls are being treated as if they’d prepared a terrorist attack."
Russian society seems to be divided. A recent poll suggests some 39 percent think that several years of prison would be just punishment for the young women. Almost the same number - 37 percent - are against a prison sentence.
Human rights groups and artists demand release
Human rights activists for months have been calling for the release of the three Pussy Riot members. Amnesty International describes the women as "political prisoners." Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Watch group says it is a "political trial." What is undisputed is that the trial is conducted in the midst of a tightening of laws that observers see as an attempt to curb political protests in Russia.
Even the Russian art scene is united over the case. Writers, musicians and actors might have different opinions on the whether the punk prayer in the cathedral was a good or a bad idea. But most of them reject a severe punishment. In an open letter to the highest court of Russia, more than 100 prominent Russian artists have called for the band members to be released.
Solidarity from Germany
There is also growing support for Pussy Riot among western artists. Anthony Kiedis, singer of US rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers wore a shirt with the name of the Russian band at a concert in Russia. British singer Sting addressed the crowd at a Moscow gig calling for a release of the three women. German punk icon Nina Hagen told DW that she hoped there would not be a tough sentence. "I call upon the Russian government and my Orthodox brothers and sisters to show mercy." She said she still believed in the "Russian heart."
Younger German artists have also demonstrated solidarity with Pussy Riot. Berlin punk bands Radio Havanna and Smile and Burn are joining forces with US band Anti-Flag and set up a benefit gig in Berlin on July 31. "For me, the trial is a clear sign of the government’s oppression of its own people, " Oliver Arnold of Radio Havanna told DW. The proceeds from the gig will be sent to the incarcerated band members.
A few days before the trial, the Pussy Riot members sought to calm the situation. "Maybe some think our behavior is shameless. But that is not the case, " they said in an open letter to the media. They expressed thanks for the support they’d received and called upon their supporters to seek dialog with their critics.