Battling the sweaty crowd at the Khamovnichesky court to hear the closing statements in the Pussy Riot trial, I couldn’t shake off the odd feeling that I was in the presence of genuine celebrity. My current job requires me to bump into famous Russians regularly, but I haven’t felt like this once. Yet here, staring at three young women in that absurd glass cage in which the Russian courts insist on keeping defendants, I was star-struck.
The fate of Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, each charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after lip-syncing to a punk song in a church for 40 seconds, has become a certified international cause.
The United States government expressed concern, Amnesty International deemed the women “prisoners of conscience,” and a dozen Western stars — like Madonna, Bjork and even Danny DeVito — sang, spoke, wrote and tweeted their support.
But the hometown opinion on Pussy Riot is mixed at best. Even the liberal response has involved language like “They should let these chicks go with a slap on the ass.” Despite the rapid Westernization of the city elites, the rise of the vaunted “creative class” and the widespread distrust of the state-coddled Orthodox Church, Russians remain distinctly uncomfortable with activist women.
Liberalism in Russia is a peculiar beast. Feeding as it does on the revulsion with “crooks and thieves” in the government, it is closer to Tea Party libertarianism, and it pointedly doesn’t concern itself with what Americans call “issues.”
Gender equality and the rights of ethnic minorities and gays all remain firmly outside of its scope. Indeed, outward Westernization easily coexists with attitudes that could be charitably called conservative: just last week, the owner of a new American-themed, artisanal-popsicle-serving cafe was quoted saying in a promotional interview: “This is a family place. … We’re not interested in a bunch of gays coming in and sharing one cup of coffee.”
Pride parades remain banned in Moscow, while opposition leaders freely use the Russian word for “faggot” in public. The idea that liberalism is partly about upholding someone else’s liberty — including their right to do something that’s personally offensive to you — is an exotic and untested notion in Russia.
This allows Russian commentators to say or write things like “these women disgust me, they should rot in jail” without noticing the clear line between opinion and law that separates the first thought from the second. Many prosecution witnesses — mostly church staff members — unnecessarily doubled as “victims”; the defense, for its part, has spent its precious cross-examination time asking questions like “Doesn’t Christ teach you forgiveness?”
The Pussy Riot trial is Russia’s Nazis-in-Skokie moment, its Hustler v. Falwell, but it is unfolding amid universal disregard for the letter of the law. A case that should pivot on a specific legal question (“Does a violation of church protocol rise to the level of religious hatred?”) instead hangs entirely on emotions, including those of Patriarch Kirill I and President Vladimir V. Putin, that the judge and the prosecution appear to be trying to divine. The debate about the trial has also been full of pointless syllogisms: What if it was your daughter up there? What if they tried doing this in a mosque? What if someone came into your house and defecated on the carpet?
The crap-on-carpet scenario has curiously emerged as the favorite arrow in the rhetorical quivers of Pussy Riot’s detractors. In the past week, I’ve seen and heard it perhaps two dozen times. Pussy Riot is the flash point where logic and law run head-on into the old-school Russian “nadryv” — a kind of plaintive hysteria that grips the culture every so often.
Of course, if the defendants decided to convey over-the-top remorse (by falling to their knees, crying, etc.), then public opinion and even their legal fortunes would almost certainly turn. But Ms. Alyokhina, Ms. Samutsevich and Ms. Tolokonnikova remain cool, smiling and remote — a “Western” and “unfeminine” attitude. When you’re a woman in Russia, nothing but tears will do.
But there is another aspect to what’s happening, beyond the obvious judicial overreach and possible political persecution. Pussy Riot marks the outer edge of Russian culture. And in this sense, today, they are the biggest, most important artists in the country.
This has nothing to do with the quality of their music; judging it on artistic merit would be like chiding the Yippies because Pigasus the Immortal, the pig they ran for president in 1968, was not a viable candidate. The fact that Moscow can produce a loud feminist action collective inspired by the punk rock band Bikini Kill and Julia Kristeva is as edifying for the West as it is dumbfounding to most Russians.
This helps explain why little high-profile support for Pussy Riot has come from Russian artists. Zemfira and Mumiy Troll, the biggest names in Russian rock, demurred from commenting when asked. Their silence may be partly rooted in Russian rock’s forced political neutrality: when the best-paying gigs in town are private shows for Kremlin-friendly oligarchs, rebellion is not a hot topic.
For more overtly conservative stars, silence wasn’t enough. “I’ll personally drink to the health of the judge who’ll slap them with some jail time,” Vaenga, the country’s preeminent singer of sugary ballads, wrote on her Web site. “What’s so great about Pussy Riot that all these international stars should support them?” wrote Valeria, a veteran pop singer who’s staged several attempts to break in to the West herself. “They must be saying this because someone ordered them to.”
If you detect a touch of envy, it’s because, for all their radicalism and their misfortune, Pussy Riot has become a sweeping pop success. Madonna has performed “Like a Virgin” with the words “Pussy Riot” etched on her bare back; covers of “Punk Prayer” are multiplying; the collective’s signature headwear is becoming the new Guy Fawkes mask. There’s even a “chapter” of Pussy Riot in Olympia, Wash., the birthplace of Bikini Kill.
Modern Russia’s mass culture, unlike its universally recognized classical canon, has always suffered from a well-deserved inferiority complex. Despite being awash in money, the Putin-era music industry hasn’t had a crossover hit since the days of t.A.T.u.
Yet finally, just as many have dreamed, there is a Russian band on the covers of major European newspapers and magazines — a band with an edgy name, a catchy look and a compelling story. Except it’s not a band at all. And instead of a world tour, its members are facing prison sentences.
Michael Idov, a former contributing editor at New York magazine, is editor in chief of GQ Russia