On February 21, 2012, five members of the all-girl punk rock group, Pussy Riot, staged a “punk prayer” inside one of Russia’s most prominent Orthodox Churches. In their protest, which lasted mere moments, the group members denounced what they perceived as Vladimir Putin’s regime and his ties to the Orthodox community.

The History of Soviet “Hooliganism”

For their minor protest, which the Russian government labeled as “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, the five women (two in absentia – they fled Russia) were each sentenced to two years in prison.

From the moment of their arrest, through their trial, and up to their subsequent sentencing, the ladies of Pussy Riot have had the backing of almost the entire Western world. World leaders from the United States, France, Britain, and the European Union called the ladies sentence “disproportionate”. Musicians including Madonna, Sting, Paul McCartney, and Peter Gabriel came out in support of the women in an effort to use their celebrity to affect change. Amnesty International even got involved. It was to no avail. Apparently, hooliganism is a big deal in Russia, but what exactly is it?

What is Hooliganism?

An accepted definition of hooliganism is a group of people (usually youth) who join together to commit illegal acts of violence, including damaging property and injuring others. Some define hooliganism in more general terms as simply violent or destructive behavior. In Russia, however, the definition of hooliganism is a bit different. It is defined as an “average gravity” crime. In other words, it carries a broad definition that can easily be applied to any number of actions, whether destructive or not.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Brian LaPierre, author of Hooligan’s in Khrushchev’s Russia, said the charge of hooliganism is now the “go-to instrument for Russian governments who want to get things done and stigmatize a certain social group. That’s now political protestors, environmentalists or anyone seen to be outside the cultural mainstream.” His words seem to reflect current Russian events with precision.

More Charges of Hooliganism

On September 18, 2013, 30 occupants of the ship “Arctic Sunrise”, were arrested by the Russian Coast Guard after having their ship seized outside of an oil rig off the coast of Russia. The group included 28 Greenpeace activists, a British videographer and a Russian photographer. They were stationed near the oil rig because they were protesting arctic oil drilling. Known as the “Arctic 30”, the group was initially charged with piracy and hooliganism. However, in part because of international pressure, the piracy charge was dropped. The 30 protesters still face up to seven years in prison each for the charge of hooliganism. In an October 23, 2013 press release, Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace Russia called the charges “disproportionate”, saying “They arrived at that oil rig in a ship painted with a dove and a rainbow.”

Russian performance artist, Petr Pavlensky, nailed his scrotum to the street in Red Square outside the Kremlin walls on November 10, 2013. In a statement posted at www.themoscowtimes.com, Mr. Pavlensky said he did it in protest of the “police state” and that it was “a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of contemporary Russian society.” Originally charged with disorderly conduct which leads to a potential 15-day jail sentence and a 1,000 ruble fine (about $30 U.S.), he has since seen the charge escalate to hooliganism. Mr. Pavlenesky now faces seven years in prison.

To many observers, those who have been charged with and convicted of hooliganism in Russia face “disproportionate” sentences. In other words, for the individuals facing such charges, the punishment does not fit the crime. Still others see something more sinister at play. Personal expression, even if it’s against the establishment, is a universal right that should be protected, not punished.

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