Pussy Riot Has Far Less Support In Russia Than Was First Believed

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, a philosophy graduate, Maria Alekhina, 24, a charity worker and environmental activist and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, a computer programming graduate have been imprisoned since March on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, were found guilty and sentenced to two years imprisonment each. But while Amnesty International has declared the three “prisoners of conscience,” Madonna got far more attention for their cause by displaying the group’s name on her back at a recent Moscow concert. Nevertheless, Pussy Riot support in Russia is far less than it is anywhere else on the planet.

In fact, few Western musicians have taken the stage recently without making some gesture in support of Pussy Riot, which takes aesthetic inspiration from the American riot grrrl feminist musical movement of the 1990s.  In just a few weeks, Pussy Riot has become the balaclava-clad face of Russian political oppression for many in the West, drawing tremendous attention to their cause and doubtless having an impact on the sentence, if not the verdict.

The Pussy Riot phenomenon would seem to present an opportunity to draw more global attention to Russia’s opposition, help it develop a cohesive agenda, and perhaps channel foreign support toward efforts to make Russia as a whole freer.  But this hasn’t happened.

The Russian opposition – along with much of Russian society – finds Pussy Riot’s language, tactics and overt championing of feminism and gay rights too extreme. The group’s foreign supporters, for their part, know little about Russia’s political and social context. The result was a focus in Russia and abroad on the women themselves and leniency towards them, not their message or that of the opposition as a whole.

There seems little doubt that the trial and the harsh sentences handed down to the women will worsen the image of Russia in the West, and particularly the credibility of Vladimir Putin, who has just completed the first 100 days of his third term as president. Many governments, including the United States, have condemned the sentence as disproportionate, and celebrities from Paul McCartney to Madonna have weighed in with their support for the group.

But international opinion can often have a negative impact in Russia. How the trial and its outcome have affected Russian public opinion may play a much bigger role in coming months, as the anti-Putin protest movement returns to the streets after a summer hiatusand the political season begins anew.

Public opinion has remained rather staunchly anti-Pussy Riot since the women were arrested in March. The latest poll, released last week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, shows little change.

According to the survey, 55 percent of Russians did not have their views of the judicial system altered by the trial; 9 percent said it diminished their trust in courts while 5 percent said it increased it, and 12 percent said they have no faith in the courts to begin with. About 36 percent thought the verdict would be based on the facts of the case; 18 percent thought the verdict would be dictated “from the top.” Interestingly, when asked what they thought the punk band’s goal was in staging the protest, about 30 percent of respondents said it was “against the church and its role in politics”; 13 percent thought it was “against Putin” and 36 percent said they could not discern the purpose.

More worrisome, from the Kremlin’s point of view, is the effect the trial has had on Russia’s more educated and influential social strata. Of course the usual suspects – opposition leaders, artists, liberal intellectuals – have popped up to protest the treatment of the women, who were kept almost six months in pretrial detention and now face more than a year in the harsh conditions of a Russian penal colony.

An opinion poll of Russians released by the independent Levada research group on Friday showed only 6 percent had sympathy with the women, 51 percent said they found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility, and the rest were unable to say or were indifferent.

“The girls went too far, but they should be fined and released,” said Alexei, a 30-year-old engineer on a Moscow street near the court. He declined to give his family name.

Protest leaders say Putin will not relax pressure on opponents in his new six-year term. In moves seen by the opposition as a crackdown, parliament has rushed through laws increasing fines for protesters, tightening controls on the Internet, which is used to arrange protests, and imposing stricter rules on defamation.

Pussy Riot’s conviction comes in the wake of several recently passed laws cracking down on opposition, including one that raised the fine for taking part in an unauthorized demonstrations by 150 times to 300,000 rubles (about $9,000). Another measure requires non-government organizations that both engage in vaguely defined political activity and receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents.”

Nevertheless, Komsomolskay Pravda daily said on Saturday: “There is a feeling that the Moscow city court, after the lawyers’ appeal, will cut (the sentence) down to only one year, and after that they will release these foolish women back to their children and loved ones.” Certainly this statement can’t be understood to be coming from someone that supported “Pussy Riot’s” political position.

In the aftermath of their trial, their popularity at home could not be any clearer as they’ll fellow country men are indifferent to their cause.

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