Pussy Riot: symbol of the new anti-Putin opposition

Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova talking to journalists

Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova speaks to the media after she was released from prison in Krasnoyarsk, 23 December 2013. Reuters/Ilya Naymushin

By Stuart Williams | AFP

MOSCOW, Russia, 24 December 2013

Russian punk rockers Pussy Riot, whose two jailed members were freed in an amnesty on Monday, went from nearly unknown rebels to a global cause celebre for their defiant opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

The all girl band, with their home-made balaclavas and flashy neon dresses, decried repression of civic dissent under the Russian strongman in impromptu public performances.

Starting in October 2011, they staged shows in locations like a Moscow subway station and even the Red Square. But notoriety hit on 21 February 2012 when they climbed onto the altar of Moscow’s biggest church for their most provocative stunt.

Before the gold-leaf Orthodox altarpiece, they jumped around and attempted to sing what they called a “punk prayer” entitled “Virgin Mary, Redeem Us of Putin”.

As church security officials rushed into the Catherdral of Christ the Saviour to break up the performance, some of the band members escaped and their identities never made public.

But Maria Alyokhina, 25, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 31, were identified, later arrested and in August found guilty on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

Samutsevich was released in October after being given a suspended sentence, but a Moscow city court upheld on appeal the two-year prison camp terms for Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina — both mothers of young children.

Each woman had barely two months left to serve when they walked free on Monday.

Pugnacious even on release, they denounced the amnesty as a publicity stunt and vowed to continue fighting for the rights of prisoners.

Some in the Russian opposition movement feel the ?athedral performance was ill-judged and in poor taste.

But the women’s plight became a rallying cause for anti-Putin activists outraged by what they called the severity of the sentence.

Above all, they came to symbolise a new breed of young opposition activists embracing the Internet and willing to use bold, novel methods to challenge Putin’s authority.

And their jailing echoed far beyond Russian borders, sparking a wave of international condemnation and support from luminaries ranging from Madonna to Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Tolokonnikova was born in the Norilsk nickel mining city above the Arctic Circle that Stalin developed using Soviet prison labour.

She studied at Russia’s top-rated Moscow State University and is married to Pyotr Verzilov, one of the leading members of the controversial Voina (War) performance art group to which Pussy Riot is closely linked. They have a young daughter.

But most notoriously, Tolokonnikova, Verzilov and several Voina members had public sex in a Moscow biological museum in 2008 — a stunt to mock Putin’s protege Dmitry Medvedev whose name means bear.

Tolokonnikova, heavily pregnant at the time, gave birth days later.

During the trial and appeals process, Tolokonnikova always insisted that the cathedral “punk prayer” was aimed against Putin, not religious believers.

After her appeal was rejected, Tolokonnikova was sent to Penal Colony Number 14 in the central Russian region of Mordovia where she had repeated brushes with other inmates and prison authorities.

She went on hunger strike after releasing a letter complaining that women at the penal colony were treated like “slaves” and worked 17-hour days in a sewing workshop.

Tolokonnikova was then moved to a new prison in Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region, where she was kept at a hospital for convicts rather than the prison itself.

“Prisoners should be treated like normal human beings … not like trash,” the telegenic brunette said after her release, vowing to create alongside Alyokhina a rights group for prisoners.

Maria Alyokhina

The single mother of a young son was an environmental activist who has campaigned over passionate defence of a small forest outside Moscow.

A slight figure with curly hair, Alyokhina is a highly articulate individual and gave graphic descriptions about the routine of her prison life in Corrective Labour Colony No 28 in the Perm region of the Urals.

She was then moved to a facility in the Nizhny Novgorod region after proving “inconvenient” for the Russian prison authorities, according to her lawyer.

After her release, she told the Dozhd channel that given the choice she would have stayed in prison as the amnesty that released her was a sham.

“I don’t think it’s an amnesty, it’s a profanation,” she said. “I don’t think the amnesty is a humanitarian act, I think it’s a PR stunt.”

She said she planned to continue fighting for the rights of her fellow inmates in the Nizhny Novgorod prison camp whose rights she said were being violated.

“The hardest thing in prison was to see how people give up, they lose heart, and turn into a mass,” she said.


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