MOSCOW — Since returning to the Kremlin as president three months ago, Vladimir Putin has signed a series of new laws curbing freedom of speech and assembly. In a court case on Monday, prosecutors took aim at three young women who they say insulted him personally.
In a case that highlights Russia’s growing generation gap, the trio of feminist rock musicians whose band goes by the name Pussy Riot pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of hooliganism, stemming from their performance of an anti-Putin prayer in Moscow’s main Orthodox church.
On February 21, dressed in short skirts and wearing brightly colored balaclava hoods, the band performed a one minute "punk prayer," imploring the Virgin Mary to drive Putin away.
Two weeks later, Putin was elected to a third term as president, and today the women's trial is seen as a gauge of the president’s attitude toward dissenters. The women have been in jail for five months, and some people at the courthouse say Putin’s message is already clear.
Alexander Lebedev, a Russian billionaire active in democratic politics, linked the punk rocker case to the expected prosecution of Alexei Navalny, a blogger seen as the opposition’s most charismatic leader.
“I suddenly understood - from, actually, the Navalny case, which is fully fabricated, same as with these girls - there is only politics, nothing else," he said. "Just a kind of copy of the 1960s."
Lebedev predicts the president will continue to crack down on dissidents. Monday’s actions coincide within Putin's signing of a measure that sets criminal penalties for slandering judges and prosecutors.
In court, one of the women, Maria Alyokhina, spoke of a generational gap opening between young Russians and the nation’s political and religious hierarchy.
“As representatives of our generation, we are bewildered by [Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill's] actions and appeals," said Alyokhina's lawyer, Violetta Volkova, reciting her client's statement to the court. "We wanted and we want a dialogue.”
While the patriarch condemned the punk prayer staged at the cathedral as “blasphemous," a Levada Center opinion poll released Monday reported that only 17 percent of Russians interviewed supported the church leadership’s demand for harsh punishment.
Conviction could mean sentences of up to seven years for each of the defendants. A judge has already ruled during an earlier proceeding that the women, two of them mothers of young children, must stay in jail through January.
“[The women] wore clothes contradicting church rules to show their disrespect for the Christian world and the church," said a prosecutor, charging that the women intended to insult Christian believers.
In London, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told the Times newspaper that some countries would be harsher than Russia in cases of offense against religion.
But younger Russians seem to be going in a different direction. At a recent protest demonstration in downtown Moscow, the loudest chants were for the punk group's freedom.
With the faces of the three young women becoming household images across Russia, the Kremlin may end up winning in the court of law - and losing in the court of public opinion.