Weary, bearded, anti-authoritarian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was the very definition of dissident during the Soviet era.

Today's high-profile protesters in Vladimir Putin's Russia look different. At least when you can see them. Usually, Pussy Riot, the punk rockers recently convicted for filming a provocative, profane, anti-Putin prayer to the Virgin Mary in Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral, conceal their faces with balaclavas.

Unmasked, however, the three women (two of them mothers of young children) were more relatable -- at least in Western eyes. Their case is now a cause for Western governments, human-rights groups and artists, which all rightly decried the musicians' severe two-year sentence for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."

But reactions in Russia, where many were profoundly offended by what the church called "blasphemy and sacrilege," have been sharply different -- especially in the context of countrymen like Solzhenitsyn.

"As a dissident, Solzhenitsyn was more serious. He chose the medium of the traditional novel, so he did not exasperate or irritate or antagonize regular, educated people," said Dr. Masha Zavialova, curator at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis.

Zavialova was one of those educated people, and almost paid for it: In a case of life imitating art, she faced five to seven years in a prison camp after the KGB caught her translating "The Gulag Archipelago," Solzhenitsyn's opus of oppressive Soviet rule.

Solzhenitsyn himself might have seen it differently, too, according to two professors steeped in Soviet and Russian history.

"Solzhenitsyn would be appalled," said Nick Hayes, professor of history at St. John's University. Solzhenitsyn opposed the Soviet Union, but deeply believed in Russia, and especially the church, Hayes said.

Tom Wolfe, associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota, agreed. Solzhenitsyn "might agree with Putin's approach, because he was very much a believer that Russian Orthodoxy was central to Russian culture, and should never be criticized, because it was the soul."

Yet the church, which paid a steep price for opposing Soviet rule, is under increasing scrutiny for its complicity with Putin.

Some protesters have "switched to attacking the Russian Orthodox Church because it is seen as the right hand of the Putin state," said Hayes, who added that despite intense international scorn, internally Putin may be boosted. "Part of me wants to say Putin made up Pussy Riot, because it is exactly what he wants."

The punkers are just the latest artists to rock Soviet and Russian rulers.

"Throughout the Soviet Union, the intelligentsia stayed and preserved its role as the leader of protest against the government. So all the dissidents were writers or journalists or artists or composers," Zavialova said.

Soviet and Russian rulers created an oppositional vacuum. Artists filled it.

"It's more the artist articulating things," explained Wolfe. "That's always been crucial. There's never been a very big middle class with contested political parties in Russia."

This view -- of artist as articulator of injustice -- is how the West generally judges the case.

"When an issue floats across the media's radar, it's important because it fits patterns, and we're able to put it in a box and define it and label it in some way. And that confirms a cycle of difference and strangeness that Russia's always presented," said Wolfe.

Solzhenitsyn's prolific work was wanted, but hard to get. Pussy Riot just released its first single, and before the trial few seemed to seek the group's readily available video.

Despite the deep artistic differences, Zavialova believes the members of Pussy Riot won their own sort of victory -- albeit at a high price.

"Governments always fall into that trap -- to persecute those people. Every kind of persecution like this creates a public image for those public voices that far exceeds the punishment. I look at these girls and they are quite happy. They know they made it," said Zavialova. "They won different things outside and inside Russia. ... [Russians] are familiar with history, when church spaces were violated, which might create this ambiguity. In the West, it's unambiguous: It's just support and indignation about this undemocratic and unjust decision that the court made."

Indeed, ambiguities are to be acknowledged. But it's equally key to unambiguously protest the sentence. Because even though Pussy Riot may offend some, and lacks the gravitas of a giant like Solzhenitsyn, those with free speech must defend those without.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.