Pussy Riot Loses the Battle, But Have They Won the War?

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Photo: ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images

In a case that has gained attention around the world, the Russian punk band Pussy Riot was found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" this morning for a March 2012 concert held inside Moscow's most prominent Russian Orthodox church, the Christ Savior Cathedral. During the brief, unauthorized performance, the group of three twentysomething women, bedecked in their trademark ski masks, screamed, "Mother Mary please drive Putin away." The members of Pussy Riot, who have been jailed since their arrest, faced up to seven years in prison, although prosecutors recommended three, and Putin himself said he didn't "think they should be judged too severely." The judge ended up giving them two years.

Of course, in a nation that ostensibly allows for freedom of speech, the fact that the band was brought up on such harsh charges to begin with has invited condemnation from other governments and outrage from Pussy Riot's fellow musicians, Madonna among them. During a Moscow concert earlier this week, she declared, "Everyone has the right to free speech, everywhere in the world. Maria, Katya, Nadia, I pray for you. They did something brave with their action. And I am praying for their freedom." Protests are expected to take place today outside Russian embassies in Washington, D.C., and throughout Europe.

The prosecution of Pussy Riot is seen as part of a larger crackdown on political dissent in Russia. "During the last three months, at least 17 political cases have gone to Russian courts," the Telegraph reports. "Putin has allowed parliament to toughen criminal libel against journalists, as well as laws against street protests and foreign-funded NGOs."

If silencing Pussy Riot's anti-Putinism was the objective here, then you could argue that, regardless of the punishment they've received, the government has failed. In fact, Pussy Riot's Yekaterina Samutsevich said as much in her closing statement. "On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost," she said. "On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial."

This post has been updated to include details on Pussy Riot's sentence.