Punk Band's Case Tests Putin's Tolerance For Dissent

Three women charged with blasphemy went on trial Monday in Russia in a case that's being seen as a major test of President Vladimir Putin's tolerance for dissent. The women are members of the band Pussy Riot. They were arrested after staging a punk rock protest at the altar of a Moscow cathedral.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Members of a Russian punk band, on trial for an audacious and what prosecutors call a blasphemous performance at a Moscow cathedral, are back in court today. Three young women in the all-girl group known as Pussy Riot face up to seven years in jail for a protest staged last winter at the altar of the cathedral. The punk performers say they were protesting the cozy relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church. NPR's Corey Flintoff is with us from Moscow.

And, Corey, this trial is being closely watched as a sign of how President Putin intends to deal with dissidents. But tell us briefly, who are these young women? I mean, remind us of the details of their story.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, there's three young women. They're all between the ages of 22 and 29. They're members of a feminist collective that use basically street theater to protest against the government, and especially against Vladimir Putin. So last February, just before the election, five members of Pussy Riot storm into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior - it's a major cathedral here in Moscow - and they performed a song which they called a punk prayer. So here's what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PUSSY RIOT: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: All right. So it starts out like a hymn, but starts sounding a little bit rougher after that.

FLINTOFF: Exactly. And to get the full flavor of this, you really have to see the video that the group posted on YouTube. It shows the women, and they're disguised in these colorful balaclava ski masks, and they're dancing and high kicking in front of the altar as these nuns and security men are trying to throw them out.

The song calls on the Virgin Mary to deliver Russia from Putin. And it also denounces the top church leader - he's Patriarch Kirill - for informally supporting Putin's run for president. So the outcome was that three of these women were arrested. They were charged with hooliganism inspired by religious hatred. So that makes it a hate crime, with a penalty of up to seven years in prison.

MONTAGNE: Well, these women have also been in jail for the whole five months since they were arrested. What are they saying in their defense?

FLINTOFF: Well, yesterday in court was the first chance they've had to make their case, and they pled not guilty. But their lawyers read out statements in which they expressed regret, basically, if their performance offended Orthodox believers. And that's a key thing, Renee. It sounds like they're really trying to make some concession to the church without apologizing to the leaders.

MONTAGNE: The church, though - at the top, at least - is calling for the harshest possible punishment, although I gather there are some Orthodox members, church members who are calling for mercy.

FLINTOFF: That's right. I've talked to some people who describe themselves as devout Russian Orthodox believers. And they said that they were really wounded by this, but they felt, you know, it's their duty as Christians to show mercy. On the other hand, the top church hierarchy and, you know, some of the top theologians are still demanding harsh punishment.

MONTAGNE: One thing about this case, though, I mean, here you have this punk group spewing, you know, profanity-laced lyrics in a church, which you could see offending both the church and believers. But because of the trial and the potential very harsh punishment of actually going to jail for years, I gather that they've gotten a fair amount of support that they may not have had initially.

FLINTOFF: Yes, they have. And, in fact, a lot of cultural figures and academic figures have come forth in support of them, and also pointing out that while this is, you know, a religious offense, it is not a criminal offense. You know, this is not really a hate crime in a lot of people's view. So they're saying that this is really a sign of what the government is willing to do to suppress dissidents.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff, speaking to us from Moscow.

Corey, thanks very much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Renee.

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