Pussy Riot Is on Trial for “Hooliganism”: What Does “Hooliganism” Mean in Russia?

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 1 2012 12:00 PM

Why Are Pussy Riot’s Alleged Crimes Called “Hooliganism”?

Members of Pussy Riot sit behind bars
Members of the all-girl punk band Pussy Riot—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L), Maria Alyokhina (R) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (C)—sit behind bars during a court hearing in Moscow on July 30, 2012.

Photo by ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/GettyImages

Members of the riot-grrl-inspired punk rock band Pussy Riot are on trial in Russia after staging a performance of their anthem “Mother of God, Cast Putin Out” at one of the most famous churches in the country. The women are charged with “hooliganism,” a crime that could put them in jail for up to seven years. What does “hooliganism” mean in Russia? Is that even a Russian word?

Yes. In Russia, “hooliganism” isn’t a word for the behavior of football-loving trouble-makers, but rather a piece of English written into the country’s criminal code. And it's taken very seriously in the courtroom. Russia’s criminal code explains hooliganism in article 213, where it’s defined as “The flagrant violation of public order expressed by a clear disrespect for society.” There are two different categories: hooliganism committed with a weapon, and hooliganism committed for reasons of politics, ideology, racism, nationalism, religious hatred, or enmity with respect to any social group. In the four separate levels of crime in Russia—which can be translated as petty, average gravity, grave, and especially grave—hooliganism generally falls in the second category. 

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Russia isn’t known for being lenient with political dissidents, but most protestors, such as those who demonstrated against Vladimir Putin’s controversial third presidential term, aren’t hit with hooliganism charges. Instead most protestors who are arrested are likely to suffer lighter punishments from the country’s separate category of administrative violations. Members of Pussy Riot opened themselves up to the more severe accusation of hooliganism by choosing a church as their venue, and performing in front of the iconostasis (part of the church’s sanctuary, where women and other regular parishioners are not permitted), a choice that many members of the country’s largest religious group, Russian Orthodox Christians, have found offensive. Hooliganism charges can also be more serious if committed in a group, which in Russia’s court system is defined as two people or more.

There’s only one punishment for hooliganism, and that is “deprivation of freedom,” which usually means imprisonment. That’s why many feel the charges are far too harsh for young women, two of whom have young children. However, even if seven-year sentences are levied against the musicians, they will have opportunities for early release after a few years. Then again, the Russian prison system is reportedly very harsh

The word hooliganism has been used for a very long time in Russia, coming to the country not long after the word entered English around the turn of the century. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests the word may have been a perversion of “Hooley” or “Hooley’s gang,” a reference to rowdy Irish ruffians, but its origins are uncertain. The Russian criminal charge of hooliganism was first implemented during the country’s Soviet Era; it was present in the criminal code of 1960, and has remained largely unchanged in the years since. The unfortunate news for Pussy Riot is that in recent years the punishments for hooliganism have become more severe.

Thanks to William E. Butler of Pennsylvania State University.

Ben Johnson is the producer of Marketplace Tech from American Public Media.