Few people took much note of Russia's Pussy Riot punk band before it was put on trial for blasphemy. Now even Putin supporters are sympathizing with the young women.
The Pussy Riot trial may be over, but the fault lines it has exposed within Russia's educated and politicized elite appear deeper and more irreconcilable than anyone might have thought when the three women were arrested after performing a profane anti-Putin "punk prayer" in Russia's premier Orthodox cathedral last February.
Most people seem to agree that the brief, arguably blasphemous and clearly obscene song performed by the women in a priests-only section of the empty church was of little import and might have passed unnoticed under different circumstances (as had several previous Pussy Riot events). But the larger symbolism of what they did, the tough criminal penalties applied by the Russian court and the outpouring of support for the imprisoned girls in the West and among Russia's beleaguered liberals have become the subject of an intense and growing debate.
For liberals, the trial, with its almost exclusive focus on the hurt feelings of religious believers and the severe two-year sentence meted out for what looks like an intellectual crime – no property was damaged, nobody was hurt – seems to signal an authoritarian turn by the administration of President Vladimir Putin and a wider crackdown on all forms of protest and dissent.
"Six months ago Pussy Riot, as a radical left-wing group, was scarcely known, not by me or the vast majority," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.
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