Pussy Riot's Implications for Freedom of Expression

JURIST Guest Columnist Karlanna Lewis, Yale Law School Class of 2015, uses the Pussy Riot incident to draw comparisons between Russia and the West in terms of their restrictions and protections of freedom of expression...
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Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk band, is the subject of much Western attention; however they are not as famous for their music, as for the legal implications of their thinly veiled political trial. On February 17, 2012, five members of the band protested Russian President Vladimir Putin's re-election in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral.

Though the punk prayer lasted less than two minutes before the band was removed from the church, three band members were arrested and tried for hooliganism. The presiding judge, Marina Syrova, refused to hear much of the defense testimony. The trial opened on July 30, 2012 and closed with a verdict for the prosecution on August 17. The three young women — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were found guilty of promulgating religious hatred and sentenced to two years of hard labor.

The impact of Pussy Riot's conviction, which they have now appealed, is not confined to Russia. Following the delay of the band's scheduled October 1 appeal hearing, with little hope or likelihood of a more favorable ruling, a Russian proverb comes to mind — custom is stronger than law. Russia has long been a country of impenetrable customs and traditions and Western criticism has done little to alter Russian officials' opinions of the verdict.

If the band had gone to trial in the US, the defendants' actions would likely have been protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Another possibility is that a summary judgment may have dismissed the case in Pussy Riot's favor. In Russia, while freedom of expression is an ostensible right, like the right to vote in the March 2012 elections, that right is increasingly in name only.

Across the world, artists including Madonna and Green Day have been expressing their solidarity for the band and outrage at what appeared to be a pre-decided trial. In reaction to Madonna's Moscow concert this summer, for which she wore Pussy Riot's name on her back and told the audience she prayed "for their freedom," Russian Deputy Minister Dimitry Rogozin criticized the singer's morality.

While some of the country's lack of protections for women and political dissidents might be excused as part of the recovery from communism, Pussy Riot's trial has drawn attention to the oligarchical political system in Russia's pseudo-democracy. Should we consider Russia a democracy if the elected presidential candidate ran effectively unopposed and, during his time as prime minister, altered laws and the balance of power to allow himself to continue to exercise the highest level of control?

In a country where the president enjoys little popular support yet expressing dissidence, even in artistic forms, can lead to imprisonment, the broader implications for global human rights and democracy are grim. Russia's imbalance of rights extends past issues of expression. For example, despite superficial protections, rape is not a crime in instances in which the victim willingly enters the rapist's home. Along similar lines, in Russia's major newspaper, Pravda, which is translated as truth, published stories are often of questionable factual status.

In the West, and especially in the US, we take for granted our right to free speech — not to mention our right to a just and speedy trial. But when a British journalist, Guy Adams, was recently suspended from Twitter for criticizing NBC, is the West really much better? On one hand, Pussy Riot's trial underscores the strange intersection of law and media. A key prosecution witness was not present at the trial but expressed his offense at the video footage he later saw. On the other hand, Pussy Riot's trial highlights the role of the law regarding religion. As in the US, the law considers it has a duty to protect the religious freedoms of its citizens. Yet in the case of Pussy Riot, religion has been used as a means to protect the state and its laws from any subversion or challenge.

Pussy Riot's musical protest occurred when no services were in session and few people were in the church. The punk prayer's words were not what a reasonable person would consider blasphemous — "Our Lady, chase Putin out!" Orthodox Christian witnesses took offense at their fashion choices. Yet few would consider it reasonable to jail someone for an etiquette faux pas, intentional or not, such as entering a church with bare arms.

Conformity is still the norm in Russia. Though the ideal Soviet citizen model is no longer upheld, what these three bold young women are really being persecuted for is stepping out of line. Their expressed dissatisfaction with Putin as a leader was open and clear. If the band had been around during the Tsarist era it might have expressed its grievances with the ruling few through allegory, but today's stimulated world necessitates a more direct approach for concerns to be heard. The band's defense was as straightforward as the message that initiated the dispute. Nadezhda, the youngest of the three and a philosophy graduate whose name means hope, held fast to the band's political motivations in a written statement. The performance was "a protest against illegitimate elections and Patriarch Kirill's endorsement of President Putin," wrote Nadezhda.

Pussy Riot's conviction is not only about the trio of strong women but about the state of artists and anyone with a voice around the world. In What Is Art?, Tolstoy wrote: "[A]rt is not the artist's handicraft, but is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced." If the judge's holding in Pussy Riot's case is a sign of future rulings, the status of artists and therefore citizens, in Russia looks dire. Russia is often criticized for its cyclical patterns of oppression and containment of power. Pussy Riot's 2012 conviction recalls hundreds of similar artistic persecutions under the socialist regime of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Artists were to support Soviet ideals through their work and many fled to escape such artistic restrictions.

Russia's artistic tradition has been strong, but with such a restrictive environment and without the benefits of state patronage, the future might see fewer Tchaikovskys and Dostoevskys and even a fourth wave of artist emigration. If Tolstoy is correct, Pussy Riot may produce even stronger art after their unjust treatment in Russia's courts. By virtue of their defiance, Pussy Riot has brought attention to the inadequacies of Russia's human rights protections and the prevalence of corruption through not only the political, but also the legal system.

In the West, rather than re-opening criticisms of Russia, we might instead draw our attention to our own protected right of freedom of speech. May we ensure, where we have the power, that the First Amendment thrives in this new global age, that "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech," and that we exercise that right against any who would alter the notion of a true and free democracy.

Karlanna Lewis is a member of the Yale Ballet Company. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction works have been published in various outlets. She is fluent in Russian, Latin and Spanish.

Suggested citation: Karlanna Lewis, Pussy Riot's Implications for Freedom of Expression, JURIST - Dateline, Oct. 2, 2012, http://jurist.org/dateline/2012/10/karlanna-lewis-pussy-riot.php.



This article was prepared for publication by Michael Micsky, an associate editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at studentcommentary@jurist.org

 

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