Two-Year Sentences for Punk Rockers’ Unauthorized Anti-Putin Performance in Russian Cathedral

The Washington Post reports:

Russian authorities sentenced three feminist punk rockers to two years in prison Friday [on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred] …. [T]he women [had] dashed into Moscow’s main cathedral to sing a song directed against Vladimir Putin …..

The video includes a brief clip of the performance.

Press accounts suggest that the prosecution and sentence were at least partly motivated by the anti-Putin message of the band; to the extent that this is so, the Russian government’s actions deserve the condemnation they’ve been getting.

At the same time, the performers’ actions strike me as a form of trespass: Though the church was open to the public at the time, it was pretty clearly open only to prayer or quiet observation, not for people to use it for their own loud musical performances. It strikes me as quite right to prosecute them for trespass, and a fairly egregious form of trespass at that: The people weren’t just (say) overstaying their welcome at a normal business establishment, but disrupting the quiet of a place that many other people were using for quiet contemplation.

I generally don’t like sentencing enhancements based on an offender’s anti-religious motivation, or on the religious nature of the institution against which the crime occurred, but even American law does often impose such enhancements. And a sentencing enhancement based on the trespass occurring at an institution being used by many people for quiet contemplation — a religious institution, a cemetery, a museum (especially a museum memorializing some solemn event), and so on — strikes me as proper.

So while two years strikes me as excessive, and likely motivated by the improper factor of trying to go after anti-government protesters, some nontrivial punishment for the trespass strikes me as quite appropriate. If people went into an American cathedral (or synagogue or mosque or cemetery or the Museum of Tolerance or some such), plugged in amplifiers, and put on their own performance without the permission of the management, I would hope that they would be prosecuted and sentenced to some meaningful punishment.

Note that I’d stand by this analysis even if the relevant cathedral was owned by the Russian government (something that likely wouldn’t occur in the U.S., given the specifically American rules about church-state separation). When a government owns such places that are devoted to quiet contemplation (plus speech by their management) — whether the places are churches, museums, memorials, or the like — I think it should have pretty broad authority to ban all unauthorized musical performances on their property. And my sense is that this is indeed likely to be the de facto policy in Russian churches, broadly understood by all visitors, even if the church authorities had not felt a reason to spell it out explicitly in the past.