The biggest news story out of Russia in 2012 was not Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May. It was the trial of three young women from the guerrilla-girl punk band Pussy Riot, charged with “hate-motivated hooliganism” for a protest performance in a Moscow church. The women’s offense was a brief song-and-dance act at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, opening with a prayer chant of “Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, drive out Putin.” On August 17, after a nonjury trial in which the judge blatantly favored the prosecution, Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were found guilty and handed two-year prison sentences. In October, two of the women were transported to remote penal colonies.
The prosecution, which was condemned by figures ranging from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Icelandic singer Bjork to Polish former president and dissident Lech Walesa, became an international symbol of the Kremlin’s heavy-handed approach to dissent and artistic freedom. Yet at its core, the Pussy Riot case was also about the unholy union of organized religion and authoritarian state in modern-day Russia.