Many international commentators must have been mystified as the political protest of three Russian feminist punks resulted in a wave of human rights activists across the globe donning fluorescent balaclavas and proclaiming ‘Free Pussy Riot’ in solidarity. Why did a minute-long performance of a ‘punk-prayer’ against the hierarchical Russian political system warrant such a strong reaction from the Russian courts as a two year imprisonment for the young women, and indeed such a fervent international outpouring of support for the protestors? The trial of Pussy Riot has revealed sharp rifts between an unwavering Western belief in the right to free speech at all costs and traditional Russian religious beliefs in the context of an increasingly authoritarian regime.

Image courtesy of Denis Bochkarev, © 2012, some rights reserved.

The conviction of three members of punk band Pussy Riot on 17th August 2012 for hate-motivated hooliganism prompted near universal outrage from the Western press who condemned the ruling as a grave violation of the right to freedom of expression and free speech, while Human Rights Watch deplored the sentence as “inappropriate and disproportionate”. The protest song that sparked the controversy decried the political cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, and in particular the close personal relationship between Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill of the Orthodox Church. What made this protest so contentious, however, was the choice to perform the song inside Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral, in front of the screen separating the sanctuary from the public area. The irreverent lyrics and the manner in which they were delivered were reported to have caused distress to a number of worshippers and the subsequent YouTube videos of the performance exposed many more traditional Russians to Pussy Riot’s radical politics. The collective, formed amid the social turmoil following the revelations that Putin was to stand again for President, insist that their protests are purely political, but in a society where up to two thirds of the population subscribe to the traditional teachings of the Church, how far can freedom of expression go before religious liberties are sacrificed?

Led by Amnesty International, the movement to ‘Free Pussy Riot’ was heralded as a key step in ensuring the global provision of the right to free speech, but for many Russian citizens the trial provoked indifference and even offence at the way in which the protest was conducted. While Pussy Riot’s concern about the lack of separation of church and state, and indeed the legitimacy of Putin’s rule and supposed right to power, may be shared by much of the population, the profane language and religious imagery used in their protest caused deep offence to the conservative sections of society and have alienated many from their cause. Western liberal ideals are not unconditionally accepted in Russia, and many see the post-Soviet era as an opportunity to return to faith with no fear of religious persecution from the state.

Following Putin’s return to the Presidency in May, marred by allegations of electoral fraud, there has been a wider crackdown on dissent and political opposition including new legislation allowing the restriction of public demonstrations and the censorship of the Internet. Pussy Riot’s fate seems to only foreshadow the costs of opposition to Putin’s regime by dissenters. The attempt of the Putin regime to strengthen its rule with repression and increasing influence from the Church has been both proclaimed as a degradation and a rebirth of the Russian state. Western governments may see Putin’s increasingly repressive policy as reactionary and indicative of the instability of the Kremlin, with potential for spillover effects on Russian foreign policy. Others argue that a rejection of Western values signals a return to a religious fundamentalism that fulfills the vision of the Russian Orthodox Church through cooperation with the state. Whether this is likely to result in a ‘Clash of Civilisations’, with the liberal values of the West being pitted against various forms of religious fundamentalism elsewhere, remains to be seen.

In the light of such domestic obstacles, is there really any potential for global civil society movements advocating Western conceptions of human rights where they are not openly welcome? As such a high profile, worldwide movement as Free Pussy Riot could not influence Russia’s judicial system, there appears to be little hope for the advancement of free speech in even more authoritarian countries. The legitimacy of such global efforts may be even more compromised by the perceived hypocrisy of Western commentators denouncing human rights abuses abroad when they appear blind towards the actions of their own governments. The Western media has been selective in its reporting of human rights abuses in general, and in the case of Pussy Riot has often failed to draw attention to the full scope of the protestors’ often extreme politics. Is it the West’s utmost duty to support those fighting for free speech abroad with no regard for specific circumstances? What this focus on human rights abuses elsewhere obscures, however, is the ability of the media to strengthen Western domestic governments by acting as propaganda that implies human rights abuses are something that happens in authoritarian, backward states, and not in enlightened, Western havens of peace and liberty.

Ultimately, the trial of Pussy Riot has exposed profound differences between the conceptions of rights and justice in Russia and the West. Speaking from jail to the Guardian, Yekaterina Samutsevich described the unfaltering resolve of her and her fellow protestors even after receiving their sentence, saying “We, along with many citizens of our country, are burning even more with the desire to finally take from Putin his monopoly on power, since his image no longer seems so total and terrible. In fact it is just an illusion, created by his spin doctors on government television channels.” While many in the West would sympathise greatly with their cause, and agree the punishment given for political protest, offensive or not, is unacceptable, the question we must ask ourselves is, can the West really take the moral high ground on free speech and human rights? Putin’s attempts to silence dissent have certainly taken a more violent and open form, but if the West is only advocating a certain liberal world view with only certain opinions being widely and freely expressed, especially at the expense of minority opinions, the narrowing of the political agenda may become as important an issue in the West as much as in Russia.