comments_image Comments

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.

Continued from previous page

 
 
Share

There's so much history in Moscow. The streets are named after writers, the metro stations revolutionaries. On practically every corner, there's a statue. Earlier in the day, I'd met Pyotr Verzilov, Nadia's husband, at a statue of Engels, near the metro station named after Kropotkin – the anarchist. The day before, the country's most influential art critic, under a bronze Pushkin. Hanging about outside the metro station Kurskaya on the way to meet the women, I glance up and notice its old name still chiselled on the roof: Metropolitan Station VI Lenin. It's a city of ghosts and echoes, where a mummified body of a revolutionary lies in a windowless bunker next to a curlicued palace built by the tsars he had plotted to overthrow. And which is now inhabited by a man who once worked for the KGB.

Russia's leaders have always understood the potency of the visual imagery of power. Of hammers and sickles. Of nuclear warheads and a well-muscled man doing manly, bare-chested outdoor pursuits. And, in the latest instance: of five young women in brightly coloured balaclavas jumping up and down in the symbolic heart of the Russian state: Red Square.

It was this "action" in January – the fourth of the five they've done so far – that first brought them to the world's attention. They formed just after Medvedev had announced that Putin would return once again as president in November. And people realised that Russia was becoming, quite simply, a dictatorship.

Miriam Elder, the Guardian's Moscow correspondent, who has covered the case assiduously, met a group of them shortly afterwards, one of the very few journalists to have interviewed them. "They were just very determined. Very purposeful. Everybody was so angry at that time. But what came across was just how educated they were. How well thought out their ideas were. They quoted everybody from Simone de Beauvoir to the Ramones. It wasn't just a silly prank. There was a real message behind it."

Their concert in Red Square, which happened amid the huge public demonstrations that rocked Moscow last winter in the lead up to the elections, was so brilliant, so visually striking, so blatantly cheeky. But it was carried out at such great personal risk. A risk that became even more acute after they performed inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. A performance that led to three imprisoned women who could be jailed for up to seven years. Two of them – Nadia and Masha – have young children who they may not see grow up.

Did they have any idea of how much trouble they might get themselves in, I ask Elder.

"No, I don't think so," she says. "Though some of the things that they said slightly haunt me. Almost the last thing I said was something like, 'Aren't you scared of being arrested?' It was at the time when hundreds of people were being arrested. And one of them said, 'No, they're nicer to women, and when they throw you in the police van, you meet really cool people'.

"With hindsight, it seems obvious that something would happen to them." What do you mean? "It wasn't just performance art. It's taken things to a whole different level."

And it's that level that is so scary, that has scared so many people across Russia. "The Khodorkovsky trial [former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky who is now in jail] demonstrated that Putin would go after the oligarchs," says Pyotr Verzilov. It sent a very clear, unmistakable message to the oligarchs. And what the Pussy Riot trial is showing is that they'll go after anybody. Nobody is safe."

 
See more stories tagged with: