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Punks vs. Putin: How Pussy Riot Managed to Give Russia's Leader His Biggest Political Headache Yet

Three members of the feminist punk band face seven years in jail for taking on the government (and the Russian Orthodox Church)--but they've kicked off an international movement.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Evgeniy Isaev via Flickr

 

For two very full, very long days in Moscow, I have talked constantly to people about Pussy Riot. About how, back in February, three young women from a feminist  punk-rock band sang a song in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. How they were arrested, imprisoned, refused bail, and now face up to seven years in jail. How the orders for this seem to have come right from the very top of the Russian government. And how their trial – starting tomorrow – seems certain to become a defining moment in Putin's political career.

It is, many people say (practically everybody, in fact), a moment when  Russia's future is, in some as yet undetermined way, being decided.

At 9pm on Thursday night, I'm at a rally of a couple of thousand anti-government protesters, hearing Pussy Riot's name being chanted in the crowd, and I think I have a grasp of the story. It's an astonishing tale of how three young women have brought Putin his biggest political headache yet. A story about art versus power. Of civil society versus church and state. Or as one film-maker who's documenting it says, "punks versus Putin". (He goes on to say, "It's Crime and Punishment, basically, but there's also a band in jail so it's a bit like The Monkees. Or a really warped Beatles film.")

I think I have it sort-of clear, and then three hours later, I'm led into a basement in an industrial art space and the story untangles. It becomes not just astonishing but absurd. Because here are Pussy Riot: in their balaclavas and brightly coloured dresses and tights, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a tiny, hot, brightly lit rehearsal room.

They're not the three young women in jail: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 – or Nadia, Masha and Katya, as they're known. Nobody has been allowed to see them. Not their husbands, families or friends. But Pussy Riot is not just three women. It's a collective of "more than 10" women, including two others who performed in the cathedral and are still at large. And all of them have vanished since the arrests. They've all gone to ground. This isn't surprising given the danger they're in. They've spent five months in hiding, waiting to see if they'll be arrested too. And this is their first interview for western media.

Although they're not the imprisoned women, they don't have to be. That's the intention of the balaclavas – they're meant to be anonymous, indivisible, representative. It doesn't matter which of them got arrested. That's the point – that they're not individuals, they're an idea. And that's the thing that has gripped Russia and caught the attention of the rest of the world, too: that the Russian government has gone and arrested an idea and is prosecuting through the courts with a vindictiveness the Russian people haven't before seen. An idea perpetrated by three young, educated, middle-class women, or devushki (girls), as the Russians call them.

And it's this that's the shock walking into the room. They're so young. So smiley. So nervous and bashful and embarrassed at the attention and not sure how to sit, or quite what they should and shouldn't say.

Pussy Riot aren't just the coolest revolutionaries you're ever likely to meet. They're also the nicest. They're the daughters that any parent would be proud to have. Smart, funny, sensitive, not afraid to stand up for their beliefs. One of them makes a point of telling me how "kindness" is an important part of their ideology. They have also done more to expose the moral bankruptcy of the Putin regime than probably anybody else. No politician, nor journalist, nor opposition figure, nor public personality has created quite this much fuss. Nor sparked such potentially significant debate. The most amazing thing of all, perhaps – more amazing even than calling themselves feminists in the land women's rights forgot – is that they've done it with art.

 
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