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Inside Pussy Riot trial: 'Feels like a Kafka novel – increasingly bizarre and beyond logic' (Op-Ed)

Published time: August 02, 2012 14:43
Edited time: August 03, 2012 00:05
RIA Novosti / Alexey Filippov

RIA Novosti / Alexey Filippov

Those who followed the trial of Pussy Riot from the beginning were confident that there was nothing that could surprise them. The trial was so confused that it seemed like it could not possibly get any more bizarre. They were mistaken.

­“Look, she comes here again, and again with an empty cup. It is empty?” The security guard of Khamovnichesky Court looked me up and down. “Yep,” I hesitate. “Here, they drag all the crap into court, instead of bringing something good. Well, okay, come on in.

The security guards at Khamovnichesky Court are big strong lads, and are apparently bored sitting at their post, feeling a need to crack jokes at someone – especially if that person is nice and friendly. This is the court where the Pussy Riot case is being heard, and since it’s clear that scandals and unpleasant things are bound to happen, the guards are in a good mood.

Right, and now they’ll demand to get their phones charged from our power outlets. It’s for a fee!” The guards just won’t let it go.

That’s a soft spot indeed. Although, we usually don’t charge our phones in here, but rather in the cafeteria. But the cafeteria is only open till 5pm, so bold journalists simply occupy the canteen, and the modest waitress can’t do anything about it. She has to stay overtime.  

The press was packed in the hallway discussing the latest news, since the hearing was delayed.

In the morning, someone had announced that the court forbade anyone from quoting the witnesses. Reporters started combing through the law, trying to figure out on what basis this could be enforced, and how they would report their stories under these new circumstances. This resulted in long negotiations with the editors, mad disputes with the court’s press service and a lot of pies eaten from the court’s canteen just to let off stress – and then the issue was settled. It looked like the journalists fought a little war and won.

But as it turned out, the court has asked reporters not to write down witnesses’ testimonies while the hearing was still in progress. The court had no intention of forbidding them from being published, or trying in any way to control the media. Great news! And just when we were so relieved, here we go again…

We noticed a group of medics walking down the hall. It turned out they were called in to provide medical assistance to the members of Pussy Riot. One of the girls wasn’t feeling well. The journalists closed in on one of the group’s lawyers, Nikolay Polozov. He said he did not have the details, but this situation could be expected. Every day, he said, the girls have to get up at 5am and spend several hours in a small (one meter by one meter) cell, with no air conditioning, before they’re taken to court. On top of this, they don’t get enough food, and the court sessions last for up to 12 hours at a time.

But the doctors did not find any significant health problems, and concluded that all members of the group were fit enough to stand trial. It was clear that the medics would soon be called in again, and again would confirm that all three are fit to be in court.

In the meantime, though, reporters were gathered on the staircase closest to the courtroom, waiting for the session to begin. The courtroom is so small it might not accommodate everyone, and everyone wanted in. So, we spent over an hour on that staircase.

Some were speculating about the public figures which had yet to comment on the Pussy Riot case, and for whatever reason Hillary Clinton was brought up. I, on the other hand, was mainly preoccupied with why on earth I chose to wear high heels on that day.

Some gave up and left saying they’d follow us on Twitter and that’d be enough for a report. Can’t argue with that, it sounds like a pretty wise decision.

A trial that ‘borders on the incomprehensible’

­The hearing begins with a shocking statement by the plaintiffs’ attorney, Aleksey Taratukhin, who claims rather counter-intuitively that Judge Syrova is biased and obviously favors the defendants, and that she has failed to ensure proper protection for the plaintiffs from the defendants’ lawyers. That comes after the judge had disallowed the defense from questioning the plaintiffs’ witnesses at the previous session.

The audience fights to stifle the laughter, but the lawyers cannot. “You know, I quite enjoyed the spectacle,” defense lawyer Volkova said, laughing. “I bet you knew we had also prepared the appeal to recuse the judge, and decided to jump in ahead of us, right?

In total, both sides now claim that the judge is biased. The judge retires to think things over. All present are left wondering what decision Judge Syrova is going to take in respect of Judge Syrova, after properly consulting Judge Syrova. Can this Judge Syrova be trusted? As it turns out, she can. The judge reckoned she has no reason to recuse herself, and rules that she is unbiased and may continue the hearing.

From that point on, the trial gets so increasingly bizarre and so far beyond logic that it borders on the incomprehensible.

­Defendant Alyokhina: I am feeling unwell and cannot participate in the process, we’re not getting enough sleep, we’re exhausted.
Judge Syrova: The doctors said you’re fit to participate in the process, we shall proceed.
Alyokhina: In that case we all refuse to take part in the process entirely. Please dismiss us.
Judge Syrova: Proceed with questioning the witness.
Lawyer Volkova: Are you kidding me?
Judge Syrova: Proceed with questioning.

Defense lawyer Volkova turns purple, gets up and walks out of the courtroom, giving the excuse that she doesn’t feel well. Judge Syrova shouts at her back, “I did not allow you to leave,” but Volkova just doesn’t care anymore.

The lawyers appear crushed, the defendants look pale, the judge is seemingly nervous, reporters exchange puzzled glances and only the plaintiffs, women from Christ the Savior Cathedral, appear unimpressed, composed and calm, sitting upright and wrapped up in their vast shawls. They’ve come without copies of the Bible, so they just follow the trial.

The first witness, Oleg Ugrikov, testifies that in his opinion the girls had declared war on the church, and that they had been successful in that war, as they’ve now got followers. Ugrikov adds that the girls had obviously aimed to defame the church, as they claimed that the church was acting conjointly with the state, which was not true.

The witness enlightens the audience, saying, “In Russia, church is separated from the state.” According to Ugrikov, the prayer delivered by the girls was not addressed to Holy Virgin, but to Satan himself.  Yet, when asked what is a prayer to God as opposed to a prayer to Satan, Ugrikov replied that God is a very generalized notion.

­Ugrikov: By the way, do you know what Pussy Riot means? I can tell you.
Gallery: Please, don’t!
Ugrikov: I have a photo copy of a dictionary page! ‘Pussy’ is derived from ‘pus.’ This is horrifying. This means purulent riot.

­The girls are evidently staggered by this kind of interpretation.

­Judge Syrova: Defendants, you find this funny?
Defendants: Yeah!
Judge Syrova: You don’t seem to be feeling sick.
Defense lawyer: You are not qualified as a medic to decide on that. 

The girls’ lawyers are incensed. They launch an all-out offensive on the judge, passing satirical remarks and snapping back against her admonitions. These verbal clashes between the judge and the counsel were red meat for the press, all the more so since the witnesses summoned to testify were people who hadn’t been present in the Cathedral to see Pussy Riot’s punk-prayer. This left the lawyers rather puzzled as to what kind of questions these witnesses were fit to answer.

­Judge Syrova: Attorney, you are to pose reasonable questions to the witness. He was not in the Cathedral at the time. Nor is he an expert. He is merely a witness.
Gallery: Witness of what?!

The defense lawyers are enraged to the point of snapping back at the judge in ways few in the audience had thought imaginable. It isn’t that often that you get to hear an attorney tell a judge, “Your honor, you were not listening carefully to my question. Please pay attention.”

A few more representative exchanges from the trial:

­Judge Syrova: Question overruled. Don’t force the witness to…
Attorney Polozov: Think?

­Attorney Volkova: Justice is non-existent here, so you can do whatever you want.
Judge Syrova: This is inappropriate conduct.
Attorney Volkova: You’re telling me that? 

At some point, as Judge Syrova is questioning a witness, defense attorney Polozov ticks her off for asking “an improper question.

The prosecution isn’t playing nice either. A plaintiff’s counsel cuts down an objection by a defense attorney by telling him, “You are no expert in theology. So sit down and listen.” The attorney had to comply.

Leaving the courtroom as the hearing was over, everybody looked fairly bewildered. Here were witnesses summoned to testify merely by virtue of having seen Pussy Riot on TV, and getting upset over it. What next? Are they going to call evidence from the network’s news editor who ran the footage?

The court’s security guards did not fail to treat us to more of their sophisticated humor on our way out, telling me, “Do come again. Your visit has been very important for us.

It later turned out the courtroom was not the only place to see sparks flying. There was also a hot-tempered standoff in front of the Khamovnichesky Court between Pussy Riot supporters and Orthodox protesters. Somebody made a chalk drawing on the pavement featuring the three girls in balaclavas with halos over their heads. Orthodox believers tried to erase the drawing, and a brawl ensued. The police eventually had to step in.

We believe that Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich are saints already,” a supporter tells me. “The three of them are like the Holy Trinity. And we will make a petition for their canonization.”

Whom are you going to petition?” I ask the guy. But the irony of my question is apparently lost on him.

Feels like finding yourself inside a Kafka novel.

­Lidia Vasilevskaya for RT