Huffpost New York
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Ed Koch Headshot

Madonna, the State Department and the White House Have It All Wrong: The Russian Orthodox Church Is the Victim, Not Pussy Riot

Posted: Updated:

Last week, a Russian court sentenced three feminist punk performers who call themselves "Pussy Riot" to prison for two years. The three women were charged with "hooliganism." The graveness of the charge was described by the New York Times of August 17:

The case began in February when the women infiltrated the Cathedral of Christ the Savior wearing colorful balaclavas, and pranced around in front of the golden Holy Doors leading to the altar, dancing, chanting and lip-syncing for what would later become a music video of a profane song in which they beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr. Putin.

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow had been deliberately destroyed by Stalin. It was rebuilt in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, and is one of Moscow's architectural gems and now once again a heavily used by Russian Orthodox church. The Times reported on the Russian Orthodox Church's reaction to the Pussy Riot:

On Friday, the Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement that referred to Nazi aggression and the militant atheism of the Soviet era, and said, 'What happened is blasphemy and sacrilege, the conscious and deliberate insult to the sanctuary and a manifestation of hostility to millions of people.'

The sentencing Judge Syrova, when delivering her decision, according to the Times, found that the action in the church was "motivated by religious hatred."

The Western cultural elite is rallying to the defense of the disrupters in the cathedral. Some approve of the verbal attack on Putin. Others support the denunciation of the Russian Orthodox church leadership and the church disruption because of the church leadership support of Putin. All cited characterize the issue as one of free speech. I do not.

I would assume that many Pussy Riot supporters would take a different position, and rightly so, if here in the U.S. a black church were invaded and three men or women engaged in comparable conduct insulting holy places within the church and the pastor. I recall when I was mayor in 1989 and the AIDS activist group Act Up, unjustifiably angry with John Cardinal O'Connor, invaded St. Patrick's Cathedral and interrupted the mass, throwing the communion wafers -- which for Catholics are the actual body of Christ -- to the floor. Some were arrested. So far as I can recall, no one was punished. I think the decision of the Russian court to punish a hate crime was just and to be applauded, rather than condemned and ridiculed. One can argue concerning the degree of punishment, whether fines rather than jail time should have been imposed, but that is a function of the Russian penalty procedures.

I also believe it is not in the interest of the U.S. to support the actions of the Pussy Riot defendants. At a time when the Iranian nuclear threat grows by the day and we are fighting Islamic extremists around the world, we should be seeking to enlist President Putin to join the West in our effort to prevent the Islamist fanatics from achieving their goal of destroying Western civilization, not making him the enemy and Pussy Riot the victim.

The attacks on President Putin for "squelching free speech" included one by Madonna performing at the time in Moscow.

The extent of the culture clash was evident this month when Madonna paused during a concert in Moscow to urge the release of the women, who have been jailed since March, and performed in a black bra with 'Pussy Riot' stenciled in bold letters on her back. The next day, Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy prime minister, posted a Twitter message calling Madonna a 'whore.'


Madonna is an artist, always testing the limits of decency and often going beyond restrictions accepted by ordinary people. I do not, however, defer to her judgment on such political matters.

Most shocking to me was the response of the White House, as reported by the Times:

In Washington, where Obama administration officials followed the trial closely, seeing it as a measure of Mr. Putin's new presidency and its own troubled relations with Russia, the White House and the State Department each criticized the verdict. The State Department all but called on Russia's higher courts to overturn the conviction and 'ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld.' A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said the verdict was disappointing and the sentences disproportionate. 'While we understand that the group's behavior was offensive to some, we have serious concerns about the way these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system,' he said.

Offensive to some?

I do not believe the issue is properly one of freedom of expression. The right to free expression is not unlimited and does not mean one can say anything anywhere and at anytime. Further, Russia and most countries do not have embedded in their law the constitutional protection of the First Amendment that we do. I for one am delighted they now punish religious hatred. Aren't you?