The Internet is agog over the fate of three young women who have become a symbol of the protest movement in Russia with some praising them, some cursing them, and others expressing concern the Kremlin is using them as scapegoats, setting a precedent to revive the Cold War-era persecution of dissidents.
On Friday, the women, who are members of an all-female punk rock group, were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and hatred of a social group, perpetrated in collusion." Each was sentenced to two years in jail after nearly six months behind bars.
All they did was participate in a punk-rock performance on the ambo of one of Moscow's better-known churches in August.
But the brief performance included a prayer song that sported a line, "Our Lady, chase Putin out!" And that's what sealed their fate.
A kangaroo trial that started in Moscow last month turned the three women into poster children of the protest movement against Russian President Vladimir Putin that gained momentum during his rigged election in March. When the prosecution asked for jail time for what was a political protest, Internet protest activity unparalleled in Russia ensued.
The women, who have a history of political protests, are perceived as such not only by international rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International and Western rock stars such as Madonna and Paul McCartney but also by people across Europe and — most important — Russia, where in his 12-year rule a former KGB spy has been increasingly using the willing leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church as his ideological, anti-West pillar.
"Our sudden appearance has shattered the image of the authorities and the Russian Orthodox morality, merged as one." Yekaterina Samusevich, 29, a rock group member reportedly said in court.
"Without the blessing of the patriarch, we have combined the image of the Russian Orthodox culture and that of the protest movement. We have said that the Russian Orthodox culture does not belong to the patriarch and Putin but can be on the side of protest and riot," she said.
Mr. Putin called the group's performance unpleasant, and he briefly spoke against a harsh punishment.
Mr. Putin spoke with a forked tongue. When the act of protest by the band gained more notoriety than he could stomach, he resorted to damage control, distancing himself from the trial. His goal was to put the blame for the overzealous prosecution of the women on his entourage, with the hope that the Russian people will traditionally see "the czar" as innocent and his "boyars" as evil.
The so-called trial has further polarized Russian society. In March, about half called for a harsh punishment of two to seven years in jail; by the end of July their number dropped, with 58 percent saying the three women should be freed, according to the Levada Center, a reputable independent pollster in Moscow.
The bad news is those may be right who believe the Kremlin knew what it was doing when it picked on this particular rock band and that it was from the very start betting on intense publicity of the case to sound out the society in order to gauge the protest movement and see if the powers that be can afford the further tightening of the screws.
In his public appearances lately, Mr. Putin has dropped hints of looming business expropriations that made the skin crawl under the suits of Russia's richest businessmen. Nationalizing — read "Kremlinalizing" — the remaining few lucrative businesses not yet under Mr. Putin's control may cause some of the Russian business elite to sponsor the protest movement, necessitating — in Mr. Putin's mind — harsher police measures.
The ridiculously harsh sentence indicates that Mr. Putin is putting his witch hunting plans on his front caldron.
Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a staff writer for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6089.