The Pussy Riot Show Trial

There’s a certain guilty thrill in watching something you’ve studied rise to the world stage in its most extreme form.  War nerds enjoy wars, economists revel in recession, and politicians love a political crisis.  So as the Kremlin revives the show trial format, a grotesque simulation of judicial process ever-so-slightly refined for a digital age, Russia watchers and media watchers alike are riveted.

Just to recap, Pussy Riot describes itself as a punk band, but it might be more accurate to describe them as an opposition feminist art collective.  Music, I daresay, is not their raison d’etre.  With “about 10” members, their performances are brief, public, politically charged, and always performed in brightly coloured balaclavas, like a far-left Slipknot.  The also have links with the even more radical art group, Voyna.

Nadezhda in her plastic cage (RIA Novosti, via YouTube)

Their 30 seconds or so of filming inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour did not draw the ire of the state.  They were simply told off and ejected from the premises.  Far greater acts of sacrilege have been seen on the site.*  Pussy Riot’s crime was to repackage the footage as a music video and release it onto the Internet.  The Kremlin show trial machine, which has been greased and serviced in recent years in the pursuit of fallen oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ground into action.  Now three band members face possible sentences of up to seven years in prison.

The highlight of the trial so far was the closing statements from the three girls, particularly philosophy student Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.  RT’s Irina Galushko wrote an excellent account of the mood in the courtroom, describing how the case had descended to theatre, and the three defendants had won over their audience.  (The heartfelt piece reads more like Radio Free Europe than its true publisher, Kremlin-mouthpiece Russia Today).

A summary is never as good as the real deal, so I set to work subtitling Tolokonnikova’s speech/statement/manifesto.  I posted the final product on UniversalSubtitles.org, basically the Wikipedia of subtitling.  State broadcaster RIA Novosti then had the video pulled from YouTube with a copyright takedown notice.  So the subtitles just sit there now like a ghost, linked to a video that is no longer there.

In its absence, I’ll describe the highlights of the video.  It showed an intellectual laying out an articulate and convincing line of argument.  It showed this same girl, accused of a non-violent crime, locked in a plastic cage.  And most interestingly of all, it showed three court officials glued to their mobile phones throughout, embarrassed that they were caught within the camera’s gaze, worried that their facial expressions were being recorded.  I imagine that everyone in that courtroom with a law degree experienced a burning humiliation throughout the trial, real professionals who take themselves seriously, reduced to side parts in a political pantomime.  Everyone was aware of it, the journalists the applauded the defendants, the prosecutors who kept accidentally referring to the girls as the “injured parties”, the judge who implored the audience to stop behaving like they were in a “theatre”, and Tolokonnikova herself, who said bluntly: “We are more free than the people we are facing today. We can speak our minds freely and they cannot.”

Sentencing is scheduled for today, Friday 17 August, although if the Khodorkovsky trial is anything to go by the court may try to dampen media coverage by delaying the sentencing or pushing its conclusion into next week with a longwinded preamble.

*Stalin demolished this same cathedral in 1930 to make way for the Palace of the Soviets, a fantastic dystopian project that was to be crowned with a 6,000-ton statue of Lenin.  Construction began but was slow, and halted by Hitler’s invasion.  The site was then repurposed into a swimming pool during the more restrained Khrushchev period.  Yeltsin ordered the rapid reconstruction of the cathedral in the early 1990s, in manner that was so slapdash that Moscow friends have called it the Ikea Cathedral.  The building (though not the main chamber) is filled with traders, and some areas are available for hire.  Sacred, this space is not.