The Strange History of Russian Hooliganism

Three members of the band Pussy Riot have been charged with the antiquated, tsarist-era crime.

Pussy Riot charges onto a cathedral altar, in this video of the fateful incident, overlaid with their song "Punk Prayer."

Just two short weeks before Russia's March presidential election, five women stormed the altar of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. Chanting "Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, chase Putin out," the members of all-female punk band Pussy Riot took to the pedestal in full attire. Before the iconostases, the group punched the air and performed mock prayers while singing their well-known anti-Putin anthem "Punk Prayer," whose lyrics include the line "Shit, shit, the Lord's shit!"

Even though their concert lasted mere minutes, it was enough to earn them the condemnation of the Orthodox Church and, worse, an odd punishment from Russia's judicial system.

Three members of the group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alehina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich were arrested after the event and have remained in jail ever since. They are being charged with "hooliganism" and face up to seven years if convicted. After several postponements, their trial is now scheduled for July 30.

Pussy Riot had already been vocal about their opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The group had performed provocative, anti-Putin songs in public arenas, including Moscow's Red Square.

But in addition to protesting Putin's re-election, they were also known for their feminist messages.  And they were, of course, easily recognizable by their trademark costumes: bright balaclavas and neon tights.

Amnesty International has deemed the three members to be "prisoners of conscience" for their now months-long detention. An open-letter campaign for their release is drawing the somewhat unanticipated support of prominent Russian figures and cultural icons.

Critics of Putin and his increasingly restrictive government might see the legal charge as incidental to his crackdown on dissent. Whether or not they're right, what does "hooliganism" mean, anyway?

This legal term first emerged in Russia at the start of the 20th century, though at first with a number of meanings. In his essay, "Rural Crime in Tsarist Russia: The Question of Hooliganism, 1905-1914," author Neil B. Weissman comments:

For some, [hooliganism] was synonymous with crime itself, applicable to all illegal acts. For others, it connoted a particular attitude with which certain crimes were committed, such as extreme cruelty. And there were those for whom hooliganism represented a state of mind, a psychological condition of 'moral insanity' or 'moral nihilism.

Whatever the definition, hooliganism was still clearly linked to illegality and self-incriminating behavior. More specifically, though, Weismann proposed that hooliganism applied to crimes committed specifically in rural areas and by persons of the peasantry class. It was generally impromptu and spontaneous in nature, but authorities mostly saw it as lacking a clear direction or an end goal -- "maliciousness" or simply the desire to do evil was considered sufficient motive. Acts of hooliganism were usually committed toward "cultured and propertied" people and the Orthodox hierarchy. And this last part might be the most important.

At its core, hooliganism was -- and continues to be -- a rejection of and defiance to authority, according to Weismann. A few years after police began charging members of the lower class with "hooliganism" for just about any disruptive crime against the elite, the same class of Russian poor committed its greatest hooliganist act of all, overthrowing the tsarist upper class itself in 1917. In this sense, the disruptive acts by the lower class against the aristocracy, as well as the church, were part of the same social turmoil that may have played a role in the rebellion and subsequent turn to communism.

Today's rejection of authority is different in many ways, especially in scale, but once again the church and the civilian government have come together against dissent. As Kirill Razlogov, the director of the Russian Institute for Cultural Research, noted in an interview with The Voice of Russia, "criticizing [the Church] becomes a political gesture." Still, it's odd to see this almost absurdly antiquated charge once again used against a very different class of agitators.

Although the hooliganism of today and of Tsarist Russia might diverge in locality and origin, they still could both be said to represent a form of public protest against tyrannical authority and unjust rule. And, once again, the powers of Russia seem to see an act of public dissent as something to be punished.

As Anya Schmemann, a long time Russia observer at the Council of Foreign Relations, put it, "The harshness of [Pussy Riot's] incarceration has turned a spotlight on the limits of free expression and revealed a deep polarization between 'old' and 'new' Russia."

But could the return of "hooliganism" really be a sort of echo of last century's backlash against the charge's abuse? Sophia Kishkovsky, a Moscow-based writers for the International Herald Tribune from Moscow pointed out to me, "There are a significant number of people within the church, or at least a prominent and vocal group of intellectuals, and even some clergy, who, even if they are disturbed by the form of Pussy Riot's protest, are even more disturbed by the measures being taken against them."

Whatever happens, it's another small step backward from a Russian leadership that seems determined to maintain the old ways -- and the old order.