08/23/2012 12:43 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2012

Girls Aloud

by Christian Böhme, The European Magazine

The system shows its nasty side: If you dare to insult patriarch Putin, you'll be locked away. But the writing is on the wall after the Pussy Riot case.

Their names are Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevitch. They are punk musicians, they call themselves "Pussy Riot," and they have become famous as performance artists. They will spend the next two years in Russian prisons. According to a Moscow district court, the three young women are guilty of hooliganism. They were found guilty of having insulted the patriarch of the Orthodox Church and president Putin inside Moscow's biggest Orthodox cathedral out of "religious hatred." Given the current state of affairs in Russia, this translates as follows: Pussy Riot were convicted in a show trial because they dared to publicly criticize the head of state. This charge weighs much heavier than mere blasphemy. Off to the slammer with them!

Of course, the artists knew that their action inside of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was bound to provoke the authorities. Their dissidence was well-known: In another public performance in March, Pussy Riot had appealed to the Virgin Mary to banish Putin. Tsar Vladimir isn't known to show much tolerance when it comes to such sacrilegious statements! Under Putin's rule, political sins require atonement, ideally of the public kind to scare away possible dissidents.

The court case highlights the depravities of Putin's system of governance: Russia isn't a functioning democracy with rule of law. Instead, it is governed by force, censorship, corruption, oppression and the solidification of power -- at any cost. Russia in the year 2012 displays paranoid and totalitarian streaks.

The Kremlin sees itself surrounded by enemies who want to topple the rulers. Harmless NGOs are accused of being "foreign agents," protesters are attacked with high fines or the threat of imprisonment. Apartments are searched and oppositional politicians are intimidated. The authoritarian regime uses its monopoly over the use of force to protect its power. But despite Putin's strongman image and the arsenal of repressive policies, his power is brittle. That, too, has become clear during the Pussy Riot trial.

The activists' performance was widely discussed in Russia (unlike other acts of dissidence) with controversy and passion. Some believed that the foundations of the state had been attacked by public criticism, condemned the "blasphemy" and demanded punishment.

Others defended the activists' performance as freedom of expression and acquitted them before the court even convened for the trial.

An unprecedented wave of solidarity swept the country as Russians rallied behind the three women and showed their outrage over the government's response and the complicity of the judicial system. Independent media outlets sided with the musicians and criticized the trial as a farce. To Putin and his entourage, such statements are an open affront. But they also signal that their claim to power is increasingly contested in the public sphere.

The writing is on the wall for the regime inside the Kremlin, and the trial against Pussy Riot is the strongest indication of Putin's weakness yet. His government is like a time bomb that could implode (or even explode) without warning. As Maria Alyokhina said in her closing statement to the court, Russia reminded her of a thoroughly sick organism. The question is whether the regime will fight the disease through reforms that are worthy of the name, or whether it will remain ignorant and harsh until it is devoured by the sickness? Today, the latter seems increasingly likely.