MOSCOW -- Three Russian musicians went on trial Monday for less than a minute of political theater in February, when they entered a Russian Orthodox cathedral dressed in colorful outfits and hoods to perform what they called a “punk prayer” begging the Virgin Mary “to drive [Vladimir] Putin away.”
They could face seven years in prison if convicted.
The three women, members of a feminist punk group with a profane name, have already spent five months in jail and have become a cause celebre for those opposed to the Russian leader’s rule. Their fate is being decided in the same courtroom where Putin’s archrival, former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was convicted in a case that activists also charge was politically motivated.
PHOTOS: Russian punk rockers on trial
On Monday, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, were read the indictment accusing them of a premeditated act of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. They pleaded not guilty.
The defendants, who in February were quickly removed from Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral by guards, “intended to cause heavy emotional suffering to persons who found their spiritual beginning in the Orthodox religion,” according to the indictment read by the prosecutor.
The said persons — several burly men, the cathedral guards and two middle-aged women who serve as church aides — nodded and stared at the floor as the prosecutor recited the charge in a monotone.
In a motion, Tolokonnikova said in a statement that the punk group’s action was nothing more than a politically colored artistic performance. “We simply react to what is happening in our country, as the times dictate to us the themes of our songs and performances,” said the statement, which was read by her attorney, Violetta Volkova.
Their action, she said, was a protest to support from the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchy for Putin’s bid for a third term as president, which he won.
“By the song ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away!’ we depicted the reaction by many Russian citizens to the appeal by the patriarch to vote for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in March 4 election.”
Tolokonnikova’s statement said she was ready to admit the group “had committed an ethical error” if the performance "was insulting to somebody.”
“We are not enemies to Christianity, and the opinion of the believers is important to us,” the statement said.
Long before the trial began, many Russian activists, including some supporters of Putin, had questioned the young women’s continued imprisonment. At the end of June, more than 100 celebrities — including actors, writers and artists — signed an open letter demanding the three feminists be freed and their case be requalified from criminal to administrative.
Patriarch Kirill drew criticism from independent media and especially on the Internet in February after he called the women’s performance “an act of blasphemy and spiritual villainy … of such a scale that shouldn’t go unnoticed.”
On Monday, he issued no new statement. “Let’s wait for the end of the trial and then you will hear our reaction,” Vsevolod Chaplin, a patriarchy spokesman, said in a phone interview.
The defense lawyers were full of pessimism as they spoke with reporters during a long court day filled with numerous defendants’ motions that were denied and prosecutors’ motions that were accepted.
“Judging by the way the trial began, the decision [verdict] has already been passed,” lawyer Mark Feygin said. “I have no doubt that the court will find the young women guilty.”
The women’s offense should not be treated as a crime, former Constitutional Court judge Tamara Morshchakova said Monday.
“In any normal country they wouldn’t be sitting in jail,” she said in a phone interview. “They have been punished way, way more than they deserve.”
“My daughter and her friends are not guilty of any crime,” Stanislav Samutsevich said during a break in the trial. “The longer this trial goes on, the more ruinous it will be for the image of the whole state.”
But not all were united in support of the defendants. A group of young women who called themselves Orthodox activists painted a poster in English outside the courthouse that read, “No vandalism in the house of God!”
“The girls on trial are nothing but scum and they deserve as tough a punishment as possible,” said Yevgeniya Klyucharyova, a 63-year-old pensioner who stood nearby. “They jeered at all the sacred history of holy Russia and now these ugly hooligans become heroes!”
Not far from them, a group of teenagers with hoods sat on the pavement holding a poster demanding that the judge should “stop the madness.”
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: From left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Credit: Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times