I remember well Moscow’s Khamovniki District Courthouse, where three participants of the punk-rock performance group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a penal colony today. It’s a shabby, four-story yellow-brick building squeezed between luxury apartment complexes on a narrow lane overlooking the Moskva River. Two summers ago I frequented the court to cover the second trial against former oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev.
To me, the dilapidated courthouse was symbolic of the Russian judiciary’s public standing. The walls of the corridors were covered by cheap vinyl paneling, the canteen exuded mysterious odors and the restrooms lacked toilet seats, paper or soap. Defendants, presumed innocent, sat in cages. A Russian flag was propped against the wall behind the judge, the edge pinned to the wallpaper.
According to reports from my colleagues in Moscow, the trial against the three young women of Pussy Riot – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich – was even more absurd than the second Khodorkovsky case. While the oligarch was charged with stealing the very oil on which another court had found he evaded taxes, Pussy Riot stood accused of blasphemy while holding a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main cathedral last winter.
The real reason for both the Khodorkovsky show trial and the Pussy Riot witch trial was the defendants’ opposition to Vladimir Putin. Mumbling judges, bumbling prosecutors and crumbling testimonies were the props for due process. The guilty verdicts were hardly surprising.
Yet if the desire to lock away a powerful rival (and nationalize his oil company) is not completely incomprehensible from the Kremlin’s point of view, the case against Pussy Riot seems to defy all reason.
A symbolic fine, even two weeks in jail, and the prank probably would have been forgotten. But overzealous prosecutors and a hypersensitive Russian Orthodox Church created an impossible situation: there was no way the young women could be acquitted after they had already spent five months in pre-trial detention. They were condemned from the moment of their arrest.
Russia’s powers that be have decided that by cracking down on dissent in all its forms, they can stamp out the protest movement for good – even at the risk of creating martyrs, radicalizing the opposition and making fools of themselves before the entire world. In Putin’s endgame against his domestic opponents, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.
The judiciary is the Putin system’s last line of defense. While he is ready to discuss virtually any problem such as official corruption or incompetence, the president stands fast behind the fairy tale of Russia’s impartial, independent courts.
Ordinary Russians – as well as phenomenally rich ones – know otherwise. They may not be particularly interested in freedom of speech or the right to demonstrate, but they are acutely aware that they lack protection under the law.
The absence of justice is what unites all Russians.
(Disclosure: At present, Lucian is mentally but not physically in Moscow.)