There are two types of hooliganism.
Peter B. Maggs, law professor and Russian law expert, tells BuzzFeed Shift that the Russian legal code identifies two types of hooliganism: petty and criminal. Petty hooliganism is more or less like disorderly conduct — Maggs says 90% of those convicted for this offense are "obnoxious drunks." The punishment is usually a fine or brief imprisonment.
Criminal hooliganism is more serious. It has to be "a gross violation of public order, showing a disrespect for society." It must involve weapons or objects used as weapons, or be done for motives of political, ideological, racial, national, or religious hatred, or hatred toward a social group. It can carry a sentence of up to 5 years if committed by an individual, or 7 years if committed by an organized group.
Pussy Riot was convicted of the second type.
The band — which Maggs says is really more of a social-activist group — was convicted of criminal hooliganism because their performance in a church "disrupted the peace of a religious institution." Maggs explains that while the performance didn't appear to interrupt an actual service, people often pray in Russian churches even when services aren't going on, and Pussy Riot may have "disrupted the atmosphere" of the church for them. The band argued that they did so as a form of protest, and not out of hatred, but the judge ruled against them.
The word actually came from English.
William Burnham, co-author (with Maggs) of Law and Legal System of the Russian Federation, says "hooliganism" is actually "a direct transliteration of the Russian word хулиганство (huliganstvo)." Russia borrowed the word from English when they first made it a crime, in the early 20th century.
An aviator was once charged with it for making an illegal landing.
In 1987, Mathias Rust flew an airplane from Finland and landed it in the Red Square, penetrating the then-Soviet Union's air defenses. His goal was to create an “imaginary bridge” between the Soviet Union and the West. According to Burnham, he was charged with "malicious hooliganism." He was sentenced to four years in a labor camp, but released early, in 1988.
The closest American analog would probably be a hate crime charge.
Maggs says many people feel the charge of criminal hooliganism is appropriate not for protests like Pussy Riot's, but for crimes like a neo-Nazi defacing a synagogue — something that would be classified as a hate crime in many US states.
But in the US, what Pussy Riot did wouldn't be a crime in the first place.
Burnham adds that some types of hooliganism wouldn't be a crime in the US at all: "public expressions, in song or otherwise, of religious or political animosity would not be punishable in the US because it would be protected speech under the First Amendment." They might, however, be classified as "hate speech" in some countries in western Europe.
It's not clear if Pussy Riot would've been prosecuted for their performance elsewhere in Europe — but their conviction may be part of a uniquely Russian phenomenon. Maggs says that in cases like Pussy Riot's, "once there's been a decision to prosecute, the outcome is a foregone conclusion." So once someone's been arrested for a high-profile crime that involves criticizing the government, the government will make sure they get convicted — a truly fair trial may not be possible. Maggs adds that Pussy Riot's real crime was "showing disrespect for the regime," and that such disrespect has become more common in Russia in the wake of allegations of voter fraud. So more cases like Pussy Riot's could be coming soon.