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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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How does that feel? "It feels like a unique position to be in, but at the same time it's really scary. Because it's a great responsibility. Because we are not only doing it for us, we're doing it for society," says the one called Squirrel.

Most amazingly of all, perhaps, they've done it with art and rock music. The sledgehammer that they've used to take on the great might of the Russian state? That would be the colourful clothes they dressed up in. The jumping up and down they did. The funny lyrics they wrote. The loud songs they sang. That brilliant, witty, killer name.

The outfits are cartoonish, with bright, primary colours, but the masks aren't just there to shield their faces from recognition – their anonymity is both symbolic and integral to their entire artistic vision. They all have nicknames which, they say, they swap at random: Sparrow, who is 22, Balaclava, who is by some way the eldest at 33, and Squirrel, who is just 20 years old.

"It means that really everybody can be Pussy Riot… we just show people what the people can do," says Sparrow.

"We show the brutal and cruel side of the government," says Squirrel. "We don't do something illegal. It's not illegal, singing and saying what you think."

Sparrow is painfully shy and self-conscious at first. She is worried, especially that her English isn't good enough – that she won't be able to express herself properly – and she explains how she feels when she puts on the balaclava.

"When I'm in a mask I feel a little bit like a superhero and maybe feel more power. I feel really brave, I believe that I can do everything and I believe that I can change the situation."

Balaclava interrupts. "I disagree. We are not superwomen – we are pretty ordinary women and our goal is that all women in Russia can become like this without masks."

The film battery goes at that moment. And as Khristina Narizhnaya, the Moscow-based journalist who's filming the interview, changes the battery, they collapse theatrically on the floor, laughing and breathing heavy sighs of relief. "It's so strange," says Sparrow. "Seeing Pussy Riot in the papers, and on the news and the internet. You have friends saying, 'Did you see the last action?' And you have to say, 'Yes I saw it on TV'."

Do your parents know?

"No!" says Squirrel. "My dad would kill me!"

The details are so brilliant. Do you get a call, I ask, when you're out shopping and you have to dash home and put on your balaclava?

"No," says Sparrow. "It's like Batman: you always have it with you, just in case."

Just before I went to meet Pussy Riot, I'd been listening to an interview I'd done with Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, the co-founder of the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, a cultured and sophisticated man who's worked with Rem Koolhaas to devise a programme to train a generation of young people to change the physical and social landscape of the city, and whose conversation is steeped in Russian history.

It's an anxious time, he was saying. "I cannot think about anything else. I am literally thinking about it all the time. It's interesting that in a country that is so full of horrible things – bad and unjust and unfair things – the symbolism of this really stands out.

"Because they are so young. Because they have children. Because what they have done is so unimportant and silly and has all of a sudden become so huge because of this disproportionate reaction. Because it touches so strangely on so many things, and this is where it becomes an event of almost historic proportions. It touches everything: the church and the state, believers and non-believers, the judge and the tsar, and this Russian thing that never ever ends."

 
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