Readings — From the November 2017 issue

The Trial

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By Maria Alyokhina, from Riot Days, a memoir. Alyokhina is a member of the music group and art collective Pussy Riot, along with Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. In February 2012, the band performed “Punk Prayer” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the three were arrested on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The memoir was published in September by Metropolitan Books.

A convoy escort with a dog leads the way. Katya, Nadya, and I enter the cage one by one and put our hands through a small opening. The convoy escort removes our handcuffs, hangs them on his belt, and sits on a chair by the cage. The dog sits next to him. This is where we will be prosecuted.

Our cage is called the aquarium. It’s made of bulletproof glass and stands in the middle of the courtroom. There is no microphone in the cage. We listen and speak through a narrow slit.

“The defendants pose a danger to society and might disrupt the judicial investigation. For this reason, they must be held in custody during the trial.”

The dog vomits at the entrance to the courtroom; the judge steps over the puddle.

We hear the clicking of cameras. At first, the hundreds of clicks seem to ring out like rifle shots.

The courtroom is full of familiar faces. Friends I used to read poetry with, journalists I admire. Activists who joined us at demonstrations. My parents, who haven’t seen each other since their divorce, are sitting in the front row, faces frozen in what looks like horror or some strange rapture.

A bailiff announces, “All rise! This court is in session!” Everyone stands up.

Prosecutor: “The defendants are being charged with hooliganism, committed for reasons of religious hatred and enmity toward a social group.” This prosecutor has brought artists to trial before, for an exhibition called Warning! Religion.

The judge is wearing a black robe. She has a neat square cap of brown hair and rectangular glasses. She sits at her podium under our country’s coat of arms, exuding a quiet haughtiness.

“Summon the plaintiff,” the judge says.

The first plaintiff is the candle-tender from the cathedral. She is about forty years old and has long hair that is covered with a kerchief. She likes morality and the patriarch.

She says that when she began to wipe off the candlesticks, she saw “some kind of activity.”

“What kind of activity?” the prosecutor asks.

“Leaping and hopping around — clearly planned leaping and hopping,” the candle-tender says. This offended her greatly, as a result of which she has suffered terribly and is still suffering even now.

“Have you seen a doctor?” says the lawyer for the defense.

“The divine energy of the Holy Spirit is stronger than any doctor,” says the candle-tender.

“Why hasn’t the divine energy of the Holy Spirit healed you?” asks the lawyer.

“Strike the question,” says the judge.

The next plaintiff is a worshipper who was in the church when we performed. He’s a young guy, my age, blond. He’s a nationalist. After the performance, he was one of the men who dragged me by my arms from the altar.

“I saw the girls jumping around the altar, and I knew right away that I had to intervene. I rushed over and grabbed one of them. She fell on her knees; I grabbed another one, and she wouldn’t give up, either.”

“Were you shocked?”

“Yes, I suffered moral injury and shock.”

The nationalist doesn’t face the judge; he looks directly at me. I wink.

“The girls wouldn’t give themselves up to you,” I say sympathetically.

“They wouldn’t,” the plaintiff says sadly.

The August sun is shining through the window. The afternoon is hot and the air-conditioning isn’t working.

It’s impossible to sit on the bench, the bench of the accused. My feet don’t reach the floor and they go numb after half an hour. I can’t stand up, either, because if I do, it means I want to make a statement, and they immediately say, “Sit down, Alyokhina,” or “What do you want, Alyokhina?” The bench is not meant for people; it’s meant for potted plants.

I say: “If the faithful were insulted that we went up on the altar, taking it for a stage, I ask their forgiveness.”

Plaintiff Istomin, a nationalist: “I don’t believe you.”

Plaintiff Zhelezov, an altar-keeper: “The apology is not sufficiently sincere.”

Plaintiff Beloglazok, a security guard: “You shouldn’t smile when you apologize.”

Plaintiff Vinogradov, an electrician: “Beat yourself with chains or join a convent, that would show true repentance.”

The lawyers representing the Orthodox victims of our crime wipe drops of sweat from their plump foreheads. The prosecutor dries his glasses.

“Call the witness,” the judge says. A scrap of white polka-dot dress peeks out from under her black robe.

“ . . . That’s how the band’s name is translated into Russian,” the witness says. Our supporters in the courtroom try not to laugh. “But it’s more than a band, it’s a whole movement.”

Ugrik, a real estate agent, saw “Punk Prayer” on the internet and concluded that we worshipped Satan. He is now a witness in the trial. He’s wearing a rumpled polyester shirt.

The judge tries to ascertain whether Ugrik was present at the scene.

“Were you in the church on February twenty-first?”

“No, but I saw the video. I was horrified. The girls are heading straight to hell. I had the feeling they didn’t know what they were doing. For a Christian, heaven and hell are as real and obvious as the Moscow Metro.”

The prosecutor walks to the center of the courtroom and puts on disposable white gloves.

“We have material evidence,” he says, and puts a cardboard box on the podium in front of the judge. The prosecutor takes out two hats with cut-outs for eyes and mouth, pulls them over her hands, and holds them up to the court.

The judge reads from Nadya’s protest writings. The prosecutor pulls a yellow dress from the box and holds it by the shoulders.

“But where’s the video?” we say. “Where are the song lyrics?”

Defense lawyer: “I summon the witnesses for the defense.”

Prosecutor: “Objection. I request that the summons be denied.”

Judge: “Every one of them?”

Prosecutor: “Every one of them.”

The judge bars the witnesses for the defense from entering the courtroom and orders that those who are already present be removed by the Spetsnaz team. Our witnesses are led out. One of them is shoved down the stairs, and they beat him around his kidneys. The courtroom doors close.

The rottweiler strains at the leash, jumping and barking.

Defense lawyer: “Remove the dog.”

Court bailiff: “He won’t bark if you speak more softly.”

Defense lawyer: “It says no dogs allowed at the entrance.”

Judge: “This is not a dog, it’s a means of protection.”

Defense lawyer: “This is fucked up.”

The secretary stops recording the proceedings. The judge bows her head and starts doodling.

“Your Honor, please stop doodling!” the lawyer shouts.

“Don’t look at my desk!” the judge shouts back.

Welcome to hell,” the court secretary says after a break. It has grown dark. The stores and cafés have closed, and all the other courtrooms and their judges have finished work for the day, but our trial continues.

Th
e prosecution: “Not only are they not sorry, they have the temerity to claim in court that they were taking a moral stand, that it’s part of their culture, in line with their views.”

Defense lawyer: “There is more Christianity in these girls than in all of you.”

Judge: “This is not a circus. Stop it.” The prosecutor asks for three years in prison for each of us.

It’s August 17, 2012.

The ultra-right crowd chants, “Burn the witches! Burn the witches at the stake!”

They hold up signs: they danced at the altar rail, now they will dance in jail!

The chanting is periodically interrupted with shouts of “Kiss the bride!” City Hall is just ten yards away.

People gather around the plexiglass cage in small groups; their cameras click, they wave their hands. Their eyes seek out the best angle for a picture, and then, the cameras hanging from their necks, they look at us with sympathy. One stands before us and shrugs, as if to say, Forgive us for not being able to set you free. It’s as though the people coming up to our cage — every single one — take our hands in their thoughts. Dozens of hands are holding mine, which are bound before me in metal handcuffs.

“Let’s go! Go! Go!” a Spetsnaz officer barks. “Move!” He shoves us into the autozak.

In the autozak, the Spetsnaz officers take off their helmets and exhale. The road to the detention center has been cleared of traffic, as though we were a cortege of high officials. We are crammed together. I feel the heat coming from under the layers of the officers’ black uniforms and armor.

“Girls, why did you have to go and force your way into the church?” one of them says indignantly, making Katya smile.

“Do you really like what the Church is doing?” she asks.

“And the authorities?” Nadya adds.

“Of course not!” The Spetsnaz officer bristles. “But you’re young women! So young! And such a long sentence!”

“Well, that’s the one they gave us,” Nadya says.

Our autozak resembles a boat cutting through the August heat.

“Listen, girls, don’t you feel bad about wasting your youth?” the officer asks after a short pause.

“No,” I say. “I don’t regret it.”

“What is there to regret?” Katya asks.

“Would you have acted any differently?” Nadya says.

“They’re revolutionaries,” the Spetsnaz chief cuts in. “Enough talking.”

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