Was the Pussy Riot Sentence Excessive?

by Peggy McGuinness

News sites and blogs are full of condemnation for what appears to be an excessive sentence for the political protest/stunt pulled by the Russian punk band Pussy Riot in an Orthodox church earlier this year. (Even President Putin had hoped the group would not be judged “too harshly.”)  Over at the CLR Forum, my St. John’s colleague Mark Movsesian, who knows more than a little about comparative approaches to religious liberty and protection of religious sites, agrees that the sentence may have been a bit harsher than the behavior merited. But he has a different take on whether the punk rockers chose a wise method (trespass and desecration) to make their point about Russian politics and the role of the Orthodox Church:

A Russian court today convicted three members of Pussy Riot, a punk band that stormed the altar of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow last winter to perform a “punk prayer” to protest Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, of criminal hooliganism and sentenced them to two years in prison. By Western standards, it’s a harsh and disproportionate sentence. By way of comparison, when members of a group called ACT-UP disrupted a Mass at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989, they received only misdemeanor convictions and no jail time. Similarly, in June, a New York court convicted Occupy Wall Street protesters of trespassing on property owned by Trinity Church; again, only misdemeanor convictions and no jail time.

But Russia is different. Before we get all sanctimonious about how much better we are in the West, though, it’s worth reflecting on a couple of things. First, as I’ve written before, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour has a sad history. The Communists dynamited the first version of the cathedral as part of an anti-Christian campaign in the 1930s, and Christians remain very sensitive about it. Notwithstanding the politicization and corruption in the Russian Orthodox Church, many believers genuinely feel pain at the desecration of the cathedral and what they see as anti-Christian animus. (Right on cue, in response to today’s sentencing, a topless female protester got a chain saw and cut down a cross in central Kiev that commemorated the victims of Communism. Way to win people over to your point of view!). Second, the media’s selective outrage is a little hard to take. Putin’s human-rights record has been poor for a long time now. Many less well known protesters remain in prison. Yet not so long ago, bien-pensant types like Goldie Hawn and Sharon Stone gave Putin a standing ovation when he crooned “Blueberry Hill” at a charity fundraiser. So what’s so different now? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, had the members of Pussy Riot not been so telegenic, and had their target not been the bad old Orthodox Church, the media would have paid much less attention.

It is certainly the case that the politics of today’s Orthodox Church leadership may have led some to overlook or minimize the protection international human rights law affords to religious practice and sites.  Mark’s written about the case before, and has more on the legacy of Soviet persecution of the Orthodox Church here.

http://opiniojuris.org/2012/08/17/was-the-pussy-riot-sentence-excessive/

One Response

  1. This post doesn’t actually give an answer to the question you pose in the title, other than in the huge block quote of text.

    I’m also not sure how human rights law can in any way justify the sentence given to the 3 women in Pussy Riot either.

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