A month or two ago, I discovered a particularly interesting online person, Anatoly Karlin. I wrote about him earlier in the context of feminism; in the months since (which has involved minimal interaction; I mainly find he's interesting reading (not that I often agree with him on facts or values, but "interesting" is a good enough bar to meet). One of his projects is to explain Russia to the west, although to me it feels more like he's justifying Russia's problems, or at least bringing up sometimes-reasonable sometimes-not examples of problems in the West for comparison.
By comparison, I consider Russia a semi-backward, highly corrupt society and culture with numerous serious shortcomings in pluralism, in development of law, in civil culture, and the like. I call it a second-world country. The first-world countries almost without exception have serious problems of their own, but they have much more solid foundations in almost every metric.
One of his justifications that's struck me as most curious is that of Russia's long imprisonment of the Pussy Riot band members for their stunt in the church; he's noted that Russia is a deeply conservative society and their act has meaning in such a society that it wouldn't in ours. I'm trying to read this more deeply than kneejerk defense of his homeland, and I have at least one plausible theory; it's a cultural-legal perspective that has echoes in the United States, and for it I'm going to bring up another data point, that of the arrest of Jill Stein, Green candidate for US President, in a protest immediately before the second presidential debate earlier this week; many people there saw her arrest as symbolic of the lack of health of US democracy, generally without any further explanation (so I am assuming it to be a surface symbolic statement).
I believe that analysis of Jill Stein (that she should not have been arrested) and that analysis of Pussy Riot (that their sentence of two years is acceptable) share the same fault; they're written from a world that ranks symbols over laws. I believe part of the western perspective is to ran rule-of-law very highly; we recognise formal relations in law, allow them to have moderate distance from cultural/symbolic meaning, and primarily analyse situations in terms of law for what-should-happen (even if we might decide how to emotionally react based on a mix); to the extent that we believe law captures the most important aspects of most structures, and to the extent we're willing to let go of punishment or formal penalty for misdeeds that are not captured by a rule-of-law philosophy, we don't include things like dignity of an institution or perspective as foundational for the ordering of conflicts in society.
AK's analysis makes sense if we're operating from a perspective that lacks this moderate alienation of law and symbolic meaning. As does anger of the arrest of Jill Stein. And like symbolic-centric perspectives usually do, these judgements generally either embody strong privilege to specific actors or fail to hold up under careful examination; had Pussy Riot done their protest in some other semi-public space would they have received the same sentence? What kinds of laws should Jill Stein be immune to while she is a candidate running for the US Presidency?
None of this is to suggest that the laws or institutional behaviours being questions are correct; indeed a legal system might be based with less of a rule-of-law focus (any legal system that has a concept of lese majeste, for example, is performing a task that more rule-of-law legal systems would not), and perhaps having some debates that include the unelectable would be prudent (at some threshold; I imagine there are actually moderately large numbers of people running for US President). But when we are judging Pussy Riot, we shouldn't expect much more than brief jailtime and a fine for trespass, and when we are judging Jill Stein, we should not expect much less; their acts are substantially the same. We should not expect the behaviour of our legal system to have a personal character (where insulting the state or powerful interests in society has real legal effects), and should accept that because laws are not perfectly sharp tools their judgement will be a little distant from our inconsistent intuitions on particular situations. Our judgement of how the law acted in particular situations should be sympathetic to the difficult task of law and we should look at the legal/impersonal judgement (perhaps a cousin to ant's Categorical Imperative) before we look for juicy symbolism.