Two members of an all-girl punk band have been jailed and may face stiff prison sentences for a prank-like performance inside Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral last month.

The harsh treatment of the musicians seemed to signal a rising intolerance for dissent in the wake of Sunday’s presidential elections which won Vladimir Putin a third term as Russian president.

It is also a test of sorts for radical feminism – a fringe ideology in macho Russia, yet one which seems to be catching on amid three months of protests against the Kremlin.

In a separate incident, three other feminist activists were in administrative detention after a topless protest on Sunday in the polling station where Mr Putin voted and shouting, “I’ll steal for Putin!” and trying to make off with ballot boxes. They said they represented Ukrainian feminist activist group Femen, which also stripped off in front of the Christ the Saviour cathedral on December 9.

While the Kremlin has not reacted to the Femen protest, Mr Putin has apparently become involved in the fallout from the stunt by the punk band, known as Pussy Riot. "Negative," was how Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov described Mr Putin’s reaction to the scandal in an interview with Dozhd internet television channel. “Honestly speaking, as far as what happened in the cathedral, there's no other way than ‘disgusting’ to describe it, with all the consequences that implies,” he said.

The band first gained notoriety performing in Red Square on a cold January afternoon with the song “Putin wet his pants” performed in dayglo balaclavas and mini dresses. Video of the Pussy Riot performance went viral with 568,000 page views on Youtube as of Thursday.

They followed the stunt on February 21 with another one this time inside Christ the Saviour cathedral, Moscow’s largest church and site of most official religious functions. Five members of the group filmed themselves dancing in front of the cathedral altar, playing electric guitars and singing a hymn-like punk song, “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, drive Putin out!”

“Black cassock, gold epaulettes! The congregation bows, crawling to him! The Ghost of Freedom in heaven / Gay Pride is sent to Siberia in chains” goes one representative line.

While they managed to escape the cathedral without being arrested, several members of the band were detained at the weekend, though all but two were released pending trial. A number of bloggers have signed an internet petition asking for leniency for the two, both of whom are single mothers, according to Russian media reports. If convicted of “hooliganism”, they face maximum prison sentences of seven years, according to officials quoted by official news service Ria Novosti.

On Thursday, about 20 protesters stood outside Moscow police headquarters calling for the release of the two women. “They are mothers and have left children at home,” said Konstantin, a demonstrator from opposition group Solidarity holding a sign saying, “Mama should be at home”.

Orthodox church representatives said the church leadership itself did not want the women to be imprisoned. Vladimir Legoida, head of the information service of the Moscow synod of the church, said, “Church officials have more than once said they do not support the idea of a real prison sentence in this case, but call instead for social condemnation.”

“Even the Bolsheviks in their time did not allow themselves such sacrilege, which was demonstrated during this so called ‘punk service’,” he told the respected online newspaper.

Memories in Moscow appear to be short, however. Christ the Saviour Cathedral in its original incarnation was blown up by Stalin in 1932 and turned into a swimming pool. It was rebuilt in 1996.

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