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Pussy Rioters Should Count Themselves Lucky

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Anyone interested in just how much Russia has changed since the days when it was the Soviet Union should examine what's called the "Pussy Riot" case. Three female members of Russia's punk-rock band, Pussy Riot, are facing jail on charges of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."

What the young band members -- all in their twenties -- did was attend Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral last February wearing their trademark coloured balaclavas and launched into an impromptu performance denouncing the election of Vladimir Putin and calling on the Virgin Mary "to throw Putin out."

As well as upsetting Russian Orthodox believers and the church's leader, Patriarch Kiril, the three were accused of blasphemy and were in jail for five months, awaiting trial. The indictment is said to be some 2,800 pages long.

Various Western leaders and human rights institution like Amnesty International and a growing bunch of celebrities and performers (like Madonna) have rallied to support the three women and deplored the lack of free speech and talked about democracy.

Significantly, Putin entered the fray. "I don't think they should be judged so harshly for this," he said on a visit to Prime Minister David Cameron in London. Putin appealing to the Russian Court to be lenient is a bit of a charade. His word is law, and any expressed whim will almost instantly be translated into action.

What neither Putin nor prosecutors mention is that the three "Pussy Rioters" were staging a political protest, not a religious protest. The state is trying to make it a hate crime against the church. While many in Russia protest the persecution of the girls, the great majority are offended at the heresy of them interrupting a church service.

That in itself is a change in Russia, which has abandoned state atheism and is now more or less devoutly orthodox. Churches that under Sovietism were museums of atheism; now booming with parishioners. The defence lawyer for the Pussy Riot girls, Nikolai Polozov, is on record saying Putin's appeal for leniency is motivated by business deals with the West and international protests. Russia doesn't need the aggravation.

Lawyer Polozov also made the astonishing statement: "Even in the Soviet era, in Stalin's time, the courts were more just." How quickly they forget! In Stalin's time, or even in the fading days of Sovietism, there'd be no publicity, no public trial, no knowledge even of the girls staging a political protest inside a cathedral. They'd just disappear.

Today in Russia -- imprecise and fragile as their allegiance to democracy and freedom is -- people can criticize the leadership. Newspapers can rail against Putin. Scandals like the crew of a nuclear submarine being drunk appear in newspapers, which would be unheard of in the relatively recent past.

The Pussy Riot girls likely have no appreciation of how lucky they are. The oldest of then was six years old when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Russian mafia ruled the economy until Putin restored something resembling order and rule of law. Maybe the girls will get a suspended sentence, or time served.

If you want to see more, Google "amanpour and pussy riot," and wonder what would be the reaction in one of our churches would be if face-masked costumed dancers interrupted the service and charged to altar as Pussy Rioters did in Moscow.