Three members of the band were arrested, and could face up to seven years in prison for the impromptu performance. The incident, and the subsequent trial of the women, has blown open a long-simmering debate about the social role of the church, its allegedly cozy links with the Kremlin, and the way Russia's "anti-extremist" laws are often invoked to protect the church from criticism or artistic commentary that would pass largely unnoticed in most Western societies.
"This incident with the punk group opened the floodgates of public discussion about the church, and it has taken forms that are new for Russia," says Viktor Michaelson, a political scientist with the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow. "People on both sides feel deeply engaged in it. Liberal and secular people feel one way, religious people feel another way. It's far from over."
Liberal critics say the punk band, provocatively named Pussy Riot, violated no laws at all, and that the only reason the women now face stiff jail sentences is because the church is able to get its way in Russian courts and wants a tough example set in order to deter any repetition.
"Pussy Riot performed in an empty church. They left peacefully when a priest ordered them to go. The only violation they committed was of a church rule that no woman can penetrate the altar space," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, an expert with For Human Rights, a Moscow-based public movement. "People understand these women have been imprisoned for purely political reasons. This is about the church splitting society to prove it is stronger, has more followers than supporters of a secular state do. In fact, the church is behaving as part of a repressive state machine."
Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a leading church spokesman, denies the church has any influence over the outcome of the trial of the punk rock group and he does not personally favor tough punishment for it. But he adds that "the feelings of religious believers must be protected…. The law must make certain that this sort of desecration is not repeated."