restricted access Reinventing the Show Trial: Putin and Pussy Riot
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Reinventing the Show Trial
Putin and Pussy Riot

At 9:00 am on 17 August 2012 I arrived at the Khamovnicheskii District Court in Moscow, where three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot were to be sentenced for “criminal hooliganism.” Although my hotel was within reasonable walking distance of the courthouse, I was unable to find it (even using Google Maps) until a growing police presence led me to the site. The geographical puzzle is surely deliberate: located on an obscure cross street in a seemingly upmarket residential neighborhood, the courthouse is visually unexceptional, easily barricaded, and difficult for an uninitiated visitor to discover.

Figure 1. Pussy Riot rehearses at an art studio on the outskirts of Moscow, 16 January 2012. (Photo by Anna Artemeva)
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Figure 1.

Pussy Riot rehearses at an art studio on the outskirts of Moscow, 16 January 2012. (Photo by Anna Artemeva)

I went to the sentencing knowing that I had little chance of being admitted into the actual courtroom where Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (age 22), Maria Alekhina (24), and Ekaterina Samutsevich (30) would sit handcuffed in the infamous glass cage. Thanks to the media circus [End Page 7] surrounding their trial, by 17 August these once anonymous feminist punk performance artists had become international celebrities. During the trial, political activists and journalists packed the courtroom; by the day of the sentencing, even the Wall Street Journal reporter I met near one of the barricades couldn’t get into the building. Armed with the foreknowledge that I could not reach the center ring, I arrived at the Khamovnicheskii District Court hoping to see the sideshow.

When I reached the courthouse, I found television crews setting up, but surprisingly few political, religious, or artistic activists. The Journal reporter explained the reason for the small number of people that morning: the formal reading of the sentence would not happen until 3:00. He also suggested that violence and arrests at recent Free Pussy Riot events might lower the turnout here, dampen expressions of protest, and restrain spontaneity. Whatever excitement there was to come wouldn’t happen for several hours, so I hung out, watching the crowd grow and change, wondering about the conspicuous presence of heavily armed riot police and conspicuous absence of international human rights organizations.1

I am not naive about Vladimir Putin or “Putin’s Russia.” Since 1992, I have been traveling back and forth to Russia, and although many people and events in that unsettled place have astonished me over the years, I thought I had finally become desensitized. Then Pussy Riot happened and I was reminded that if much in Russia has changed, much has also stayed the same, or been retrofitted for Putin-esque neoliberal post-socialism. As I write in September 2012, Putin has become predictably unpredictable: two weeks ago he suited up to lead orphaned Siberian cranes on their migration route; last week Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev said that maybe the Pussy Riot sentence was too harsh (perhaps a prelude to a Putin pardon); this week Putin’s Duma considers strengthening liability for insulting religious feelings. Vlad — the gift that keeps on giving.2

Although the police presence at the Pussy Riot trial was unsettling, I had anticipated it; indeed, I assumed that the police and the Pussy Riot supporters were the circus. PR supporters did not disappoint, showing up with brightly colored dresses and balaclava (worn by young men and women alike); a variety of newly printed Free Pussy Riot T-shirts; colored, face-painted balloons floating in groups of three; and a few angry placards. But I did not anticipate the other performers I saw there: menacing, black-clothed Russian Orthodox skinheads; demure Russian Orthodox girls singing hymns and holding hand-printed placards; Orthodox priests; and a string quartet.

As I watched, the more amazed and dismayed I became. Why the overkill? Why all of this heavy armor and patriarchal rage for three young women who staged a 40-second, nonviolent political performance expressing their opposition to Putin and the ominously intimate relationship developing between him and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill?3 Why the talk among people gathered here of blasphemy and hate crimes? Why the string quartet surrounded by anti-pornography signs? Why the detachments of husky, heavily...


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