Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, who were charged with hate-motivated hooliganism and taken into custody on March 2012. Samutsevich was released in October 2012.

© 2012 AP Images

One year ago today, I sat and waited on a crowded stairway in a Russian courthouse, my heart pounding, as the judge handed down her verdict against the members of the punk group Pussy Riot. Her judgment – guilty, and two years in prison– was unsurprising, given the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent preceding the trial. But I still found it profoundly shocking.

This mixture of shock, coupled with a sense of inevitability, is a sensation I’ve had numerous times this year, as I watched Russia tighten its grip on society.

During the Pussy Riot trial, I kept waiting for someone – the judge, a government figure – to stop the madness. True, Pussy Riot’s 40-seconds of shouting and dancing in Christ the Savior Cathedral offended many, but to pay for that with years of imprisonment is inappropriate for a country that is a Council of Europe member.

To hope, as I did, that someone would come to their senses is to misunderstand the political dynamic in Russia today. Cases like Pussy Riot’s happen not because of the Kremlin’s irrationality. Rather, they are part of the government’s strategy to galvanize support from anti-Western constituencies and to pit them against the urban “creative classes” who had staged the unprecedented protests of 2011. The result is to polarize Russian society, ensuring no one can present an alternative to “Putinism.”  

Russia’s crackdown has continued since the Pussy Riot verdict, with more moments of hope crashing against seeming inevitability. When the US passed the Magnitsky Act and imposed sanctions on dozens of Russians implicated in grave human rights violations, Russia used its orphans to extract retribution and banned adoptions by US citizens. When Russia’s parliament began debating a so-called anti-gay propaganda law, some observers thought Putin would not sign it – at least not with the Sochi Olympics on the horizon. But he did. Few believed that opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s politically tainted trial would end in a lengthy prison sentence. But that is exactly what happened – although the next day he was released, pending the Moscow mayoral election.

These moments are all unsurprising, but no less shocking.