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Inside Pussy Riot trial: Clash of beliefs, reality TV or just theater of absurd? (Op-Ed)

Published time: August 01, 2012 12:26
Edited time: August 01, 2012 19:36
Supporters and opponents of the Pussy Riot trial. The banner on the right reads: “Coalition for Morality,” while the one in the middle addresses the judge: “Where’s your honor, Your Honor?” (RIA Novosti / Vitaly Belousov)

Supporters and opponents of the Pussy Riot trial. The banner on the right reads: “Coalition for Morality,” while the one in the middle addresses the judge: “Where’s your honor, Your Honor?” (RIA Novosti / Vitaly Belousov)

“Just wait a little, it’s only boring here now because it’s morning,” a reporter reassured his cameraman. “Soon there will be people with balloons and Orthodox believers, things will get more fun.”

­The cameraman was worried that, since there were no people in front of the Khamovnichesky District Court, he had nothing to film. But the reporters who have worked here for a few days knew that the "fun" was on its way. Soon enough, there really were balloons with "Free Pussy Riot" on them, and protesters arrived with posters as demonstrations began.

The protesters in front of the Khamovnichesky Court were a familiar crew, with the most persistent ones arriving as early as 8am. This is the where hearings for the Pussy Riot case are being held, and both supporters and detractors came to make their voices heard. Some defended Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich; others called what they did blasphemy.

I am familiar with almost all the protesters’ faces. I know that the man wearing black over there will hoist a sign that reads "Coalition for Morality," and the other man will start talking about Russia’s oppressive regime. One boy will stumble through the names of the reporters that, in his opinion, deserve a beating, since they work for the "wrong" mass media companies, and the man in a gray suit will say that what Pussy Riot did was immoral and that it can corrupt children, and that he has two children and a wife whom he has always been faithful to, which he keeps repeating for some reason.

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Police officers escorting Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina to the courtroom of Moscow′s Khamovniki Court (RIA Novosti / Aleksey Filippov)
Police officers escorting Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina to the courtroom of Moscow's Khamovniki Court (RIA Novosti / Aleksey Filippov)

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The majority of the protesters will just stand there quietly; it is clear that they are truly sorry that this is happening. Some sympathize with the girls, who’ve been in jail for such a long time. Some are outraged at what they did and think that it corrupts the young generation. There are also some that don’t approve of Pussy Riot’s stunt in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, but they simply can’t stay silent when young girls have been jailed for so long for hooliganism.

Posing for the cameras

Famous people and politicians also stopped by. They immediately get the reporters’ attention, deliver short speeches and then leave after about 20 minutes. Mr. Nemtsov, for example, came and said that if Pussy Riot’s song went like “Virgin Mary, chase Nemtsov out, Virgin Mary, chase Navalny out,” then the Ministry of Culture would’ve given them a medal.

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Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov taking part in a pro-Pussy Riot demonstration outside Moscow′s Khamovniki Court (RIA Novosti / Vitaly Belousov)
Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov taking part in a pro-Pussy Riot demonstration outside Moscow's Khamovniki Court (RIA Novosti / Vitaly Belousov)

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It’s quite hot in Moscow these days. Maybe because of the heat, or maybe because they are bored, the protesters often start arguing amongst themselves.

Once, one of the band’s supporters had a long discussion with an Orthodox believer over whether the Virgin Mary could really have been a virgin. In the heat of the moment, he blurted out, “Do you really believe in virgin birth? There’s no point arguing with you, then!” and went away, leaving everyone within earshot dumbfounded. A man with a Bible followed a girl around for quite some time, quoting it. I don’t know what exactly they disagreed on, but it was interesting to watch.

All of this seems like reality television. The people starring in those shows shout similar arguments at each other, and fail to get their point across more often than not. It’s like a debate between a blind man and a deaf one, two different worldviews clashing. And every time an argument like this starts, I feel like hiding or running away, because it’s so heated and bitter.

“Of course what happened in the Cathedral was art. Do you even know what art is? Are you an expert that you pass your judgment?”

“You’re a believer, how can say such foul things about the girls! The Bible says…”

“Why are you quoting the Bible? You’re not a believer, you understand nothing. You’re just taking the words out of context, you can’t do that.”

During the day, the fights calm somewhat. The protesters come to sit on the grass in the shade; on Monday, someone even brought a guitar. It turned into a sort of protest-picnic. But then the arguments started all over again.

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Pussy Riot’s supporters have come to Khamovniki Court dressed as members of the punk band, wearing bright dresses and colorful masks (RIA Novosti / Vitaly Belousov)
Pussy Riot’s supporters have come to Khamovniki Court dressed as members of the punk band, wearing bright dresses and colorful masks (RIA Novosti / Vitaly Belousov)

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A carnival, inside and out

While the protesters have heated arguments outside the Court, the lawyers, prosecutors and reporters are engaged in arguments just as heated inside. For some reason the hearing began in a smaller courtroom that couldn’t accommodate all the reporters, which led to an argument. The reporters had no intention of leaving the situation as it was, and were very loud about it.

Those who were unable to attend the first part of the hearing went to the cafeteria to get pastries, and planned how they would get inside the courtroom after the break. But after the break the hearing was moved back to the largest courtroom, since apparently the reporters were too much to deal with, and the conclusion was that it would be better to just let all of them in.

Once inside the courtroom, almost all of journalists started tweeting. And, to be honest, there was no lack of tweeting material.

“A warning to the defense.” “God sees everything, Your Honor.”

“When you were taking me to the doors and I wasn’t resisting, did you feel aggression in my behavior?” “Those are very subtle feelings. I didn’t have enough time.”

“The colors of the girls’ dresses clearly show that they are hostile towards Orthodoxy.”

The journalists were not the only ones tweeting, even the lawyers couldn’t contain themselves, which actually didn’t surprise me all that much. The lawyers didn’t show much respect for the court. At the beginning of the hearing, defense lawyer Volkova stood up and read a motion to recuse the judicial team, bluntly disregarding the judge’s order.

She seemed very agitated, and was shaking in anger, or maybe she simply had no clue as to what was going on and felt helpless. She was reading the motion, and it sounded like she was reciting a verdict.

Volkova said that the members of Pussy Riot were basically tortured in jail. “They don’t let them sleep, deny food and water. They woke them up at 5am, and the girls haven’t had anything to eat since. You didn’t even let Alyokhina have a cucumber.” 

“But they had tea,” one of the guards replied. The defense asked for the judge to be removed from this case for bias. 

The judge listened to the whole speech, sighed, and asked the prosecution to share their opinions. The prosecution disagreed, and one of the lawyers called it a theater performance. In his opinion, the defense lawyers were simply performing for the media. The prosecutor even accused the defense team of “rudely ignoring the judge.” 

“No one has ignored the judge yet,” Polozov replied. “You just did,” said someone behind me. The journalists started giggling.

For ten minutes the judge considered her recusal. Finally, judge Syrova decided that there was no bias in judge Syrova’s actions, and the proceedings continued.

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Another banner belonging to Pussy Riot’s supporters reads “Judge, stop the madness, set Pussy Riot free!” (RIA Novosti / Vitaly Belousov)
Another banner belonging to Pussy Riot’s supporters reads “Judge, stop the madness, set Pussy Riot free!” (RIA Novosti / Vitaly Belousov)

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'It feels like a joke'

Everything seemed so strange that the journalists kept exchanging looks and shrugging. Some prosecution witnesses began to read the Bible. I really wanted to take pictures of them, but wasn’t allowed to. Some journalists had already been removed from the courtroom for taking pictures. The guards kept checking up on us, making sure we weren’t taking pictures. Each time we showed the guard the twitter page, and he would leave.

All of the prosecution’s witnesses were modest and quiet, which is not surprising, considering that they work in a cathedral.

Beloglazov, who works as a guard at Christ the Savior Cathedral, testified that he was unable to work for two months after seeing Pussy Riot’s performance. He later clarified that he could work; he just couldn’t enter the cathedral because of the shock, and the fact that this video appeared on YouTube was a personal tragedy for Beloglazov.

Everybody got an opportunity to see what happened in the cathedral. He also said that the girls did not sing anything about Putin – apparently this part was added to the video later. 

“What did they scream?”

“Will the Lord forgive me if I repeat those words?”

The members of Pussy Riot apologized to Beloglazov, and he forgave them, saying that Orthodox Christians have to forgive. But not all the witnesses were so forgiving. Many didn’t believe that the girls’ apologies were sincere.

At the end of the day, Alyokhina discovered that the statements by the two guards were identical; they even had the same spelling mistake. Now Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich doubt the sincerity of the witnesses. So the defense will file a motion to appoint a new judge to the case, but is that a realistic move?

The general atmosphere in the courtroom ranges from desperation to laughter. Many are apparently not taking the hearing seriously, because it feels like a joke. One journalist even said that he felt like it was all going to be over soon, and somebody would come out and say, “Smile, you are on hidden camera!”

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Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina in a court dock during the hearing of their case in Moscow′s Khamovniki Court (RIA Novosti / Aleksey Filippov)
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina in a court dock during the hearing of their case in Moscow's Khamovniki Court (RIA Novosti / Aleksey Filippov)

­Lidia Vasilevskaya for RT

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