Moments after the sentence in the Pussy Riot trial came down, dozens of people in my social network feeds posted a single word: shameful. (A few more went for an obscene two-word variation.)
Straining to shove emotion aside, I am left with another key word for this surreal process: unprofessional. The entire case was a triumph of amateurism on every conceivable level, as one participant after another forewent logic, law and common sense in favor of personal grievances, knee-jerk responses and anger.
The Russian authorities took a marginal act of arty protest and, through sheer cruelty, made it into an international cause. (In covering the trial live, CNN and the BBC have broadcast what essentially amount to long infomercials against investing in, visiting and generally dealing with Russia.)
Clueless Western supporters have glommed on to the story at its most black and white, imposing easy narratives on it and making a balaclava look as cute as a hemp tote. (Melena Ryzik’s piece in the New York Times on Friday marks the beginning of a subtle backlash: In her dry description of a Pussy Riot benefit at New York’s hip Ace Hotel, the case is seen as a magnet for vapid celebs and people who unironically use the word “shero.”)
Finally, the women’s defense team, especially the lawyer Mark Feygin, proved extraordinarily capable of stooping to whatever level the other side had decided to drag the discussion. On Thursday morning, for instance, Feygin decided to “address critics” on his blog by posting his work ID (to prove his professionalism) and, more disturbingly, his mother’s birth certificate (to prove that he is not a Jew, thus affirming that the opposite would have been a liability).
The only professionals anywhere in sight are Pussy Riot themselves: From their name, perfectly pitched to both shock and attract the Western media, to their instantly recognizable look; from their initial punk posturing in interviews, to their pointedly academic statements to the court.
These women, and they alone in this mess, know exactly what they are doing.
Minutes after the verdict, the band released a new single, Putin Lights Up the Fires, exclusively through the London-based Guardian. It is notably more melodic than their previous work.
In fact, such PR precision may even open up a slightly icky discussion of whether, in the meta-artwork that is Pussy Riot’s story, imprisonment is an integral part. (The collective were once temporarily excommunicated from their parent art group, Voina, for allegedly planning the arrest of a group’s member as a way of amplifying the message.)
However, now is not the time for that discussion. Nuance can come later. When you trim away everything else, three young women will spend two years in jail for dancing in a church.
And the depths of vengeful backwardness that their case has teased out of the Russian soil have helped make a dubious art project into a great one — one capable of changing the society that tried to stifle it.
Michael Idov is editor-in-chief of GQ Russia.