Pussy Riot Performance in Perspective

The 40-second performance by four members of the group Pussy Riot on 21 February 2012 in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour resulted in Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda  Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samutsevitch each receiving a sentence of ‘two years deprivation of liberty in a penal colony’ for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’, having ‘crudely undermined social order’.

Following their arrest, the story has been covered widely by the world’s media and many of the religion-focussed blogs.  For an offence carrying a tariff of up to 7 years, given the Prosecutor’s demands for three years, some might argue that the court took cognisance of the pleas for leniency from President Putin.  However, there has been worldwide condemnation at the harshness of the sentence, and criticism of the increasing involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church in the State.


The legal consequences of Pussy Riot’s performance have been compared with how this might have been treated in the UK, the United States, or Ireland, and whilst it is useful to examine what might have happened domestically, below, it is highly unlikely that this could replicate the complex mix of circumstances surrounding those in Russia.

As a group, Pussy Riot has staged performances at a number of venues in Moscow – on top of a trolley bus, and in the Metro – and whilst Moscow Cathedral was clearly an obvious and prominent choice at which to protest at the involvement between church and state, (c.f. Peter Tatchell’s protest, below), it was also an extremely sensitive one.  The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was desecrated and destroyed by the Bolsheviks, and for many symbolizes the very heart of Christian Russia.

Others have commented on the downplaying of the sacrilegious nature of the women’s performance in western reporting, which has viewed it primarily as a political stunt, omitting that ‘it was also genuinely shocking in a religious culture that still retains (unlike much Western Christianity) a sense of the numinous and of sacred space. Russian Orthodoxy is a religion rooted in experience rather than doctrine.’

Within Russia, there is a division of opinion between those who oppose the verdict and others who view the sentences as an appropriate punishment for desecrating an holy place and undermining Russian cultural values.  The Guardian reported an opinion poll, released by the independent Levada research group, that found that only 6% of Russians polled sympathised with the women and 51% felt either indifference, irritation or hostility.

Whilst statements attributed to Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church condemned the performance as blasphemous, the trial considered the incident in terms of civil rather than religious criteria.  Within the UK, the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished by s79 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, but there remain a number of provisions that might be used, depending upon the perceived seriousness of the offence.

The Crown Prosecution Service, (CPS), advises prosecutors on religiously aggravated and other religious offences, and for the latter it notes that there are other ‘useful offences for prosecutors to bear in mind’ including s2 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860.  This creates an offence of violent or indecent behaviour in any place of worship certified under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855.  It affords protection to those preaching or carrying out other religious duties and includes mosques and synagogues certified under the 1855 provision.  The advice states:

‘The penalty on conviction is a level 1 fine or up to two months imprisonment.  This may account for the fact that other legislation, with a higher maximum penalty, is sometimes preferred to deal with the kind of criminal behaviour which could be covered by section 2 of the 1860 Act.  There might be circumstances, however, in which a section 2 offence is more appropriate simply to mark the anti-religious nature of the offence and where the available penalty is not the primary consideration’.

The Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 was one of the group of provisions through which the jurisdiction of testamentary, marriage, burial and other functions were transferred from the ecclesiastical courts to the civil courts in the mid-1800s.  The Act has its origins in the Brawling Act 1551 (5 & 6 Edw 6 c 4) and retains echoes of Church of England Canon Law through the inclusion of churchwardens as one of those permitted to apprehend offenders, [s3 1860 Act, Canon E1 §4 Of Churchwardens].

The modification/removal of section 2 of the 1860 Act was discussed by the House of Lords in 2002, but although it remains on the statute book, it is used relatively infrequently.  In 1998 Peter Tatchell was charged with the offence following his interruption with six member of Outrage! of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sermon, in protest against Dr Carey’s alleged support for anti-gay discrimination.  Reflecting the year of the Act’s inception, Tatchell was fined £18.60, with costs.

Actions such as those of Pussy Riot and Peter Tatchell are undertaken with the objective of raising awareness, and this tends to be through the publicity generated rather than the act itself.  Whilst there is no doubting the effectiveness of the Pussy Riot performance generating publicity, questions remain as to: whether this contributed to the severity of the sentence; did it detract the world’s attention from human rights abuses elsewhere; and what impact will it have within Russia?