Yoko Ono was sitting backstage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, frail and dressed in black, and turned to Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina with words of wisdom. “Every step you take will change the world,” she said.
The two women, recently released from jail as members of Pussy Riot, possibly the world’s most famous, undefinable punk collective, had just finished getting 18,000 people to scream “Russia will be free!” in unison, and were now antsy and fidgeting, saying nothing; they don’t really understand English, which doesn’t help. Their appearance was the most anticipated moment of this all-star concert organized by Amnesty International to raise the profile of political prisoners worldwide, despite the fact that they are not, and never were, an actual band.
“I did things like the ‘bed-in,’ and at the time people didn’t know,” Ono continued, “but now it’s all over the world.” She waited for a reply.
Finally, Nadya’s husband, Petya Verzilov, chimed in: “Yoko, we’re staying four more days in New York. If you have time, we’d love to meet.” With that, they were off, ushered toward the arena’s garage and into a waiting SUV, and Ono strolled back to her dressing room. Madonna, who introduced them onstage, was expecting them at dinner.
The six weeks since Masha, 25, and Nadya, 24, were suddenly released from prison as part of an amnesty issued by President Vladimir Putin have been a whirlwind. When they were first arrested in February 2012 after performing an anti-Putin punk anthem in Moscow’s main cathedral, they were unknowns, disguised by balaclavas in a video that would become the single best-known piece of art to emerge from post-Soviet Russia. One chaotic, revelatory trial and lengthy prison sentence later, they find themselves being flown first-class to Singapore, Holland, Ireland, Sweden, and now New York. Berlin is next. They’ve met government ministers and rock stars, drag queens, and Stephen Colbert.
Nadya and Masha entered prison at the height of a promising era. Moscow had risen up against Vladimir Putin. Protest was alive; change appeared to be around the corner. Pussy Riot took this further than anyone, adopting striking visuals and a form of protest Russia had rarely seen. Wearing bright clothes and masks, they would storm sites — Red Square, churches, fashion runways — and shout and dance around while someone filmed. Though often referred to as a band, they never actually played instruments during these guerrilla performances. They never had plans to put out an album — that would be against their anti-capitalist ethos, they said. Their arrest signaled the beginning of the end. But they don’t seem to have realized this. In the two years since they were arrested, a small handful of opposition activists have issued reports on corruption, environmental catastrophe, and decline in freedoms, upping their output in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics. It lands in a void.
“I don’t know where this apathy comes from,” Nadya told me the day before the Barclays Center show, standing in fresh slush outside the the U.S. mission to the United Nations, where they held a closed-door meeting with envoy Samantha Power. Usually, Nadya speaks in slogans, short and clipped statements full of unflagging determination, always on, playing the part of the professional revolutionary. Now she was confused. In prison they fought the system — writing endless complaint letters, going on hunger strikes, trying to publicize the horrific conditions within. “If you’re apathetic in jail, that’s it, that’s the end.” Masha added: “There’s some apathy in society, we have to admit. [Putin] achieved that. Our task is to turn that around.”
There is no such disinterest abroad. Abroad, Masha and Nadya are rock stars. They are surrounded by hangers-on and handlers. At home, they are opposition activists and wacky performance artists. At home, things are more complicated.
Amnesty International press conference, Feb. 4, 2012. Photograph by Macey Foronda for BuzzFeed
Forty-five minutes before the Barclays Center show was to begin, I got an email, subject line: “An Open Letter From Pussy Riot.” It read, in English, that the group was “very pleased” by Masha and Nadya’s release, before softly praising their decision to focus on prisoners’ rights. “Unfortunately for us, they are being so carried away with the problems in Russian prisons, that they completely forgot about the aspirations and ideals of our group — feminism, separatist resistance, fight against authoritarianism and personality cult, all of which, as a matter of fact, was the case of their unjust punishment.” And then the kicker: Masha and Nadya are no longer part of Pussy Riot, because of their devotion to their new cause. “Unfortunately, we can not congratulate them with this in person, because they refuse to have any contact with us. But we appreciate their choice and sincerely wish them well in their new career.”
As we’re in our seats before they take the stage, I ask Masha and Nadya if they’ve seen Katya’s letter. They look at me and smile and say nothing.
The letter was signed by six masked members of Pussy Riot, leading with one named Garadzha. It was the name Katya Samutsevich sometimes used.
Sergey Ponomarev / DAPD / AP
I called Katya a few weeks after Masha and Nadya got out of prison.
“Honestly, we’re not really in touch,” she said through the crackle of a Skype call reaching from Moscow to New York. “They’re totally involved in their new project and it’s really hard to talk to them. I saw Masha once, Nadya not at all. We haven’t found time. It’s difficult.”
It was around 3 a.m. in Moscow and Katya, 31, had eaten and napped after braving the January cold to join several hundred other people at an annual march commemorating the double murder, five years ago, of a crusading lawyer named Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, a young journalist for Russia’s only opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. The two were gunned down in broad daylight — Markelov by radical nationalists upset at his defense of anti-fascist activists, Baburova caught in the crossfire trying to save him. Their framed photographs sit under an arch in central Moscow, in the shadow of the gold-domed Christ the Savior Cathedral, to mark the spot where they were killed. Masha and Nadya had called on their followers to attend. They were there in spirit, but physically in Singapore, flown in by the organizers of the inaugural Prudential Eye Awards, a new program promoting contemporary artists in Asia and sponsored by companies like Rolls-Royce and Singapore Airlines, as well as London’s Saatchi Gallery.
I asked Katya how she felt about the release of her two former groupmates, but Katya has never been really good at talking about feelings. Ask her about art or protests or lawsuits and she’s fine. Ask her how she felt when her mom died or when a nation turned against her, and she clams up. “I feel physical lightness,” she said, eventually. “For a long time it was like this heavy rock. They were jailed for so long and now it’s over. More than anything, I feel lightness.”
Katya was there when five members of the group, as well as a small handful of journalists and Verzilov, Nadya’s husband, walked into Christ the Savior Cathedral to perform their anthem against Putin. She was there in a Moscow detention center where the three women were subsequently held, on separate floors, for six months awaiting trial. She was there, inside a glass cage in a stuffy Moscow courtroom, as prosecutors and lawyers exchanged insults while a black dog growled in a corner during Russia’s trial of the century. And she was there when the three women were found guilty, sentenced to two years in prison — labor colonies, really — after being convicted under Article 213 of the Russian penal code for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.
But that’s where their stories diverge. Six weeks after the women were sentenced in mid-August 2012, they entered a Moscow courtroom for the last time, going through the motions of asking for an appeal. Few thought it would lead to anything. The trial, like all high-profile trials in Russia, was orchestrated from above, Pussy Riot’s supporters said. Why would Putin let them out now?
Katya had switched lawyers at the last minute, and they had chosen a new approach: They would argue that Katya, kicked out of the church before the women managed to rip off their overcoats and shout and dance near the altar, hadn’t really taken part. The appeals judge bit. Katya walked free.
The accusations started immediately: The former lawyers, Mark Feygin, Nikolai Polozov, and Violetta Volkova, hinted repeatedly that Katya had made a deal with the Kremlin in exchange for her release. Katya reacted the only way she knew how. The judicial system — notoriously politicized, corrupt, and rotten — had released her, and that’s where she would turn, issuing lawsuit after lawsuit against the lawyers, trying to get them disbarred, trying to get them punished for landing the women in jail in the first place. It’s hard to believe Katya was released, in a trial watched by the whole world, without the explicit approval of someone on high. But that’s what Katya had to believe: “It’s hard to say what really happened,” she told me once. “What the documents say is that I had no real legal defense, that they violated my rights to defense.”
It was a classic divide-and-conquer move, perfected by the Kremlin over centuries. Putin, a former KGB agent drunk on an equal mix of power and paranoia, may be its best practitioner. In the process, he helped destroy Pussy Riot as the world had come to know them.
Aleksey Nikolsky / RIA Novosti / Kremlin / Reuters
After a brief stop to check in at the Ace Hotel (“We can do any hipster shit!” Masha shouted upon entering), it was time to rush to the West Side studios of The Colbert Report. I was nervous — Masha and Nadya tend toward the serious. They were in New York on a mission. They didn’t always break into easy jokes. They had landed in New York not four hours before. Would they understand what Colbert did was sarcasm?
And would the audience understand them? At least one audience member asked, “Do you think they’re going to perform?”
Nadya and Masha defied all expectations and broke into easy banter. They teased Putin about the anti-gay law and joked about prison. They talked about Bolotnaya and invited Colbert to join Pussy Riot. They looked beautiful under the studio lights, and not at all out of place.
Alexander “The Surgeon” Zaldostanov, leader of the Night Wolves: “It’s great when the government provides the power and the church provides the soul.” Photograph by Max Avdeev for BuzzFeed
In December, I flew to Moscow to try to see the women, their relatives and supporters, and the people who wanted to see them jailed. They were set to walk free in March, at the end of a two-year sentence. Their arrest had ushered in a new wave of conservatism in Russia, pushed on by the Kremlin and its partner in crime, the Russian Orthodox Church.
Vladimir Putin and Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill. Alexei Nikolsky / RIA Novosti / AP Photo
Putin had long appealed to the church for legitimacy. Lacking any ideology of his own, Orthodoxy filled the void. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the church dogged by rumors that he had been a KGB agent in Soviet times, took up the appeal and issued grand statements. He likened anti-government protests to blasphemy. He called the Putin era a “miracle of God.” Putin repaid him in kind, with funds and property and lots of attention.
A host of new laws followed Pussy Riot’s arrest. On one day in June, the Russian parliament passed a law banning “gay propaganda” and hours later passed a law banning “insults to religious believers.”
I had begun to think of Pussy Riot as “holy fools,” a term that has existed in Russia since the 15th century. They are people who take on the affectations of madness or extreme behavior with the explicit purpose of shoving a mirror into the face of society and showing how mad it has become. For the past five centuries, they have dressed in rags and carried props, shouted from the rooftops or pretended they couldn’t speak, hung around churches and city squares. Various Russian rulers have treated them with a mix of awe and horror, harbingers of truth and dangerous outliers. Pussy Riot, with their bright clothes and crude lyrics, seemed to fit the mold. That they were arrested after a performance in a cathedral while hoping to highlight the all too close relationship between the church and state only reinforced the idea.
On a cold Wednesday morning, I stood inside the Church of St. Nicholas on Three Mountains in central Moscow. The air was filled with incense, the light was soft and gold, and dozens of people took turns approaching the icons that lined the church’s wall to kiss them or lean their heads against Jesus Christ’s feet. The service was led by the booming voice of Father Vsevolod Chaplin, one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s best-known figures. As head of the church’s Department for the Cooperation of Church and Society, he is near the very top of its leadership and acts, in effect, as its spokesman.
As the service ended and people began to stream out of the church, Chaplin invited me to join a small feast he was holding in the church’s annex just down the road. He had gathered two dozen members of the Orthodox intelligentsia — magazine editors, the head of a school for deaf children, onetime advisors to governments past. The wine was plenty, accompanied by smoked fish, beet salad, and other usual Russian fare. It was 11 a.m.
Chaplin sat at the head of the table, plump in a long black frock outfitted with a chest pocket for his iPhone. He invited me to sit to the right of him, a distinguished place for his “distinguished foreign guest,” and pointed out a man named Alexander Zaldostanov, better known as “The Surgeon,” to his left. He’s a tall man with broad shoulders and his wardrobe invariably includes leather, except for the soft black scrunchie holding back his long hair. The right side of his neck features a massive spider tattoo.
The Surgeon is the head of a biker gang called the Night Wolves. They shout about God and the church, the importance of serving God and the Kremlin, which in their rhetoric is often the same thing. The Surgeon, too, is now part of the Orthodox elite, a fixture in churches but especially on state TV, riding his motorcycle into the sunset alongside Putin. In a way, he is Putin’s crudest but clearest messenger. I asked him what the Night Wolves stand for.
“What do you mean ‘stand for’?” he asked. “Of course we are for Orthodox Christianity. As the role of the church grows in Russia and the more de-Christianization grows in the West, the more important it is for the government to be with the church. It’s great when the government provides the power and the church provides the soul.”
In the nearly two years since Pussy Riot were first arrested, Putin has used the Church to build his own brand of “family values” while presenting those opposed to him as agents of the West. He picked up the national outrage provoked by Pussy Riot’s performance, goaded on by state television, to say repeatedly over the course of six months that the country was under attack from the U.S. State Department as well as U.S. “soft power,” liberal values like human rights and acceptance of homosexuality. A slew of laws followed in June and July of 2012 — NGOs that received funding from abroad were forced to declare themselves “foreign agents”; offending religious feeling became a crime, as did the propaganda of “non-traditional relations among minors,” which was theatrical shorthand for same-sex relationships.
The laws encouraged various vigilantes to impose this new conservative vision. A group called Occupy Pedophilia began going around the country, luring gay men into meetings via online chatrooms and then humiliating them on camera before posting the result to YouTube. Orthodox groups multiplied. One, called God’s Will and led by a young man named Dmitry Enteo, became a regular at LGBT rights protests, shouting down demonstrators as godless. Once, they stormed on stage to interrupt a play at Moscow’s most storied theater, the MKhAt, founded in 1898 and home to Russia’s most famous playwright, Anton Chekhov. Enteo rushed the stage during a play that lambasted government officials and hinted at same-sex liaisons. “How can you stand this insult to our faith?” he screamed at the audience. “Why do you hate Christ so much — after all, he was crucified for us!”
Vsevolod Chaplin and the Surgeon. Photograph by Max Avdeev for BuzzFeed
The Surgeon, and his group, also took up the cause, turning from tough-guy bikers into defenders of Orthodox Christianity in general and Putin in particular. I asked him what he thought about gay people, because what else do you ask a man in a biker outfit with a massive neck tattoo? “It’s disgusting,” he said. “Especially those who support it, this snake. They’re all links in one chain — this homosexuality that’s obnoxiously making its way here. These are all processes geared toward the destruction of Orthodoxy.”
I wanted to talk more but it was time for the feast. The Surgeon invited me to visit his bikers’ club, in the north of Moscow. “Come on Saturday night,” he said. “We wanted to call it Mad Max, but that sounded too American. So we called it Bike Center.” (I stopped by briefly later in the week. It was a cavernous club filled with burly men in leather vests, sitting at tables decorated with knives and skulls and Orthodox crosses. In the middle of the room stood an ATM machine and an ad for how to get mortgages. It was that ubiquitous reminder that nothing in Russia is real.)
Chaplin is the most public face of the church’s campaign to boost conservative values, and had led the charge against Pussy Riot, saying they were doing the work of the devil and the West and sometimes both. But he is a more complicated figure, surrounding himself with relative liberals after turning to religion as a teenager in the 1980s, when that was what dissidents did to show their discontent with the Soviet government.
Chaplin took great swigs of wine and told the room I was researching holy fools. “Look at all the holy fools here!” Chaplin recalled the holy fools that hung around his neighborhood as a child. “There was Igor Notkin. He walked around in a white suit, a white hat, and collected money for his soul — he honestly said he was collecting money for vodka. It was the beginning or middle of the ‘80s.”
A magazine editor leaned over and whispered: “Craziness is contagious, you’ll see. You’ll catch it, and everything will open up to you.”
There were endless toasts, and Chaplin was getting drunk. One man, from the Kremlin administration, stood up to cheer him on. “I would like to wish that, on this holiday, as on all other holidays, we always have in front of us global — you could say, strategic — goals,” the man, Andrei Tretyakov, said, his glass still raised. “We must think in the scope not of one year, not just the present situation, but about a decade, and understand that these productive relations are the fruit of mystical and historical events.”
Chaplin smiled and drank. It was the lunch of a victor basking in his own glory. Out of nowhere he addressed the room: “There are two words that are banned from use in this building.”
His guests waited.
“Pussy Riot.” And then he laughed. Everyone laughed.
Those two words were first spoken in public on Oct. 1, 2011, when Nadya and Katya, inseparable friends since they first met in 2009, held a class at festival organized by opposition activists in Moscow’s outskirts. There had been debates and music, speeches by Russia’s leading activists: Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov talked about upcoming parliamentary elections, anti-corruption fighter Alexey Navalny talked about ways to highlight fraud, environmentalist Evgeniya Chirikova talked about the links between ecological destruction and Russia’s ubiquitous corruption.
These were long-standing issues, but the small crowd was infused with a new anger. One week earlier, Putin had taken the stage before a crowd of apparatchiks and Kremlin youth activists gathered at one of Moscow’s Soviet-era stadiums to announce that he would be returning to the presidency after four years as prime minister, a move he had made to circumvent a constitutional ban on serving more than two consecutive terms in the Kremlin. It was a cosmetic move, but an important one to all involved — it allowed Putin to follow the letter of the law, to avoid accusations of “dictator”; it allowed Russia’s urban middle class to hope, despite themselves, that an alternative to the longtime leader was possible.
Katya and Nadya sat side by side and spoke quickly as they addressed the small crowd. “In our opinion, only when politics meets culture is something interesting born,” Nadya said into a microphone. She walked the mainly male crowd through a short history of feminism, quoting from a ’90s-era riot grrrl manifesto (“We live in a society that says women are dumb, women are bad, women are weak”) and thinkers like bell hooks. She called out Putin for his approach toward women. It was the only time she raised her voice. They went on to cite feminist bands and artists — Bikini Kill, Niki de Saint Phalle, Guerilla Girls, Pussy Riot. No one blinked an eye, or realized that Pussy Riot didn’t actually exist yet. To the crowd, they were all unknowns.
To Nadya, and to Katya, there was no way to fight Putin without feminism. It went beyond the macho antics for which he had become known — the shirtless photo shoots, the rough language (he once publicly threatened to circumcise a French journalist with whom he disagreed), the fact that his wife (whom he finally divorced last year) was hidden away from public view for years. Machismo, and a conservatism bordering on institutionalized misogyny, had become a very foundation of Putin’s policy.
When Putin first came to power on New Year’s Eve 2000, handed the presidency by Russia’s first post-Soviet leader Boris Yeltsin, his platform, insofar as it can be called one, was security. Russia was in the midst of a second war in the southern republic of Chechnya, waged by separatists and Islamist radicals, on whom the government blamed a series of apartment bombings that had killed hundreds across Russia just months before. The country was on edge, and it was tired. Putin was to be the strongman and the anti-Yeltsin, the outgoing president who was old, drunk, and plagued by indecision and health problems.
Putin waged a brutal war in Chechnya and won an uneasy peace — the republic, just 250 miles from Sochi, is now ruled by a ruthless strongman accused of an endless litany of human rights abuses, while the rebel violence has seeped beyond his borders.
Closer to home, Putin brought as many aspects of Russian public life under his control — starting with the media, moving on to oligarchs, and then to the country’s vast natural resources. It wasn’t an inherently obvious campaign; Putin always made sure to mask his moves with arcane Russian bureaucracy. When, shortly after coming to power, he brought down a channel called NTV to replace it with a friendly owner, he used tax charges. When he decided in 2003 to arrest Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the country’s richest man and his clearest potential opponent, it wasn’t under a decree saying opposition was outlawed — it was on charges of fraud and tax evasion. When he decided to boot Royal Dutch Shell from the country’s most promising oil and gas project in the Far East, the company faced an endless slew of charges of environmental wrongdoing. Putin created a mask of theatricality to all he undertook, technically unassailable by law. The apex came with his decision to step down as president only to return four years later — he never broke the letter of the constitution, if he did violate its spirit.
The vast majority of Russians were unbothered. They had inherited this theatrical legacy from Soviet times (which featured regular elections even though there was just one party to vote for), and were happy to see the chaotic and violent 1990s, epitomized by the mess that was Yeltsin, gone. The country was back off its knees, the saying in Russia went, even as restrictions on basic freedoms grew greater.
A tiny minority disagreed. And that’s what they called themselves — the nesoglasnie, the disagreed. They were an oddball mix of Soviet-era dissidents and rebellious youth who began taking to the streets of Moscow in 2009 for protests that were regularly dispersed by police. They would shout, “We disagree!” and wait to be bundled into arrest vans. They would sit for a few hours in detention centers around Moscow, be released and pay fines, and come out the next week or next month, whenever the next protest was held. They demanded the right to gather and the right to free speech. Some were punks, others were 80 years old. All had one thing in common: They were outside the system, proud of their nonconformity, and committed to shouting Putin out, even if no one heard them.
Katya and Nadya were natives of the protest scene. They had met in 2009, when Nadya and her husband, Petya Verzilov, attended an art exhibit at Moscow’s avant-garde Rodchenko School, where Katya was a member of the first graduating class. Katya was short and quiet and socially awkward, and declared unequivocally brilliant by her professors and fellow students. Talking and making art allowed her to come out of her shell. After years of trying to live a “normal life,” working as a computer programmer at a company that serviced nuclear submarines, she finally felt at home.
Nadya and Petya had met in the dorms of Russia’s leading college, Moscow State University, drawn to each other by their mutual love of philosophy, contemporary art, and fucking shit up. “I think it really was [love at first sight],” Petya once told me as we sat in an Italian restaurant near his apartment shortly after his wife was sent to jail. “She had some knowledge of contemporary art and very few people in philosophy circles had any interest or understanding of it. So for me that was a huge surprise: A girl from Norilsk, she was 17, and she understands all this stuff — I was kind of shocked!”
They moved in together two months later. Nadya gave birth to their daughter, Gera, shortly after that. They flitted around Moscow’s underground galleries and art spaces, and in early 2007 hooked up with another couple, Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol; together they founded Voina, an art group that built upon the Russian art tradition of shocking performance art, known as “actionism.” In that tradition, Voina married politics and art — they threw live cats around a McDonald’s to protest for workers’ rights; staged an orgy in front of a bear at Moscow’s natural history museum to protest the election of Dmitry Medvedev, whose last name derives from the Russian word for “bear”; and, in later years, drew a massive phallus on a drawbridge across from the security services’ headquarters in St. Petersburg. They were also difficult personalities, and by 2009, three years after forming, the group split into rival factions, with Nadya and Petya taking over the Moscow scene while Oleg and Natalia focused on St. Petersburg. Katya, who had been drawn into the group by Nadya and Petya, stayed with her friends.
“Nadya and Katya always had this idea that inside Voina they should create a gender, a feminist faction,” Petya said. There was never a set membership in Voina — people came and went, took part in certain performances and not in others. The feminist faction would work the same way.
Nadya and Katya drew their friends into the group. One of them was a serious young woman named Masha, whom Nadya had seen at environmental protests. She was feisty and well spoken, outraged about Russia’s environmental destruction first and foremost, and a committed vegan and mother to her son Filipp, who she’d had, like so many other Russian women, at the young age of 19.
Together they — and nearly a dozen other women — became Pussy Riot.
Sergey Ponomarev / AP Photo
When I first met the group, they had no names. They had no faces.
It was late January 2012 and they were just starting to make a name for themselves after releasing a video called “Putin Pissed Himself,” featuring eight women in neon tights and dresses shouting “Revolt in Russia!” smack in the middle of Red Square. They uploaded the video to their LiveJournal account and it started making the rounds on opposition sites online. Previous clips — shouting atop scaffolding in the metro, disrupting a fashion show with a guerrilla punk performance — had gone largely unnoticed. “Putin Pissed Himself” made them the buzz of Russia’s online opposition community — because they managed to hold a punk performance on Red Square, because they cursed, and because as they did all that, they were women.
Women in Russia hold a bizarre dual role — at once carrying the nation on a day-to-day basis while almost completely absent from public life. Outside the home, (young) women are there to look pretty. They are there to have babies and cook and clean. They are not there to speak up. They are definitely not there to usher in change. By hiding their faces and raising their voices, Pussy Riot were challenging the entire social order — not just the man in the Kremlin at whom their anger was directed. I had to meet them. After a brief exchange of emails from an anonymous Gmail account, they agreed to an interview for my newspaper, The Guardian.
One snowy January evening, I emerged from the metro at Chistiye Prudy, a picturesque old part of Moscow dotted with churches and little lanes. A woman met me, wrapped in a big winter coat, a winter hat completely covering her face (with holes cut in for her eyes and mouth), and nodded her head in the direction we were to go. I tried to make chitchat, but she didn’t say a word. We walked in silence to a courtyard, down a set of steps, and into an underground bookstore. Two other women joined us. They had set up three chairs and a video camera and introduced themselves. One presented herself as “Tyurya,” who I would later learn was Nadya, wearing a shimmering black dress and a yellow winter hat, with makeshift holes for her eyes and mouth; “Garadzha,” who I would later learn was Katya, covered her face with a red hat fitted with eyes and mouth holes, and “Shaiba,” the tallest and quietest, her face covered in orange, whose identity I still don’t know to this day.
They were euphoric with the protests that had been gripping Moscow for the past month, in the wake of a parliamentary election that had clearly been rigged, part of the larger project to bring Putin back to the presidency. After years of political apathy, Moscow had risen up. The small circle of protesters had grown to several thousand. It felt like something was changing, and Pussy Riot wanted to do something shocking.
“We wanted to create a new form of protest — maybe not such a huge one, but we compensate for that with the bright, provocative, and illegal nature of our performances,” Nadya said, sitting between her two masked friends. “People ask us all the time, ‘Why are you involved with feminism, with LGBT rights, with the environment, when our main problem is that Putin has to go?’ But that’s why we talk about all these things — so they’re always at the forefront.”
Katya leaned back in her chair and said: “It’s not like we just want an overthrow [of the government]. We need to be prepared. We need to explain things to people — feminism, LGBT, so everyone can be prepared for the revolution.”
They were heady days, filled with the possibility of change. Weeks later, Nadya and Katya, as well as Masha, would be in jail. They had done audacious things before, but this performance — of a punk anthem calling on the Virgin Mary to “chase Putin out” — came after more than 100,000 people had taken to the streets of Moscow against Putin and went inside a building that was more than just a cathedral, but a symbol of the Russian Orthodox Church’s deep ties with the Russian government and its own corruption. Two weeks before the performance, Patriarch Kirill, the church leader, had called the Putin era “a miracle of God.” The women saw him, in effect, as campaigning for Putin, even as Moscow rose up. Putin needed a scapegoat, and he found one.
Masha, Nadya, and Katya behind bars before a court hearing in Moscow, July 20, 2012. Tatyana Makeyeva / Reuters / Landov
The protests continued as Masha, Nadya, and Katya languished in a Moscow detention center awaiting trial. Then, on May 6, a protest turned violent. It was the day before Putin’s inauguration, and the Kremlin was growing tired of the sustained demonstrations. Riot police blocked off access to the protest site, a square known as Bolotnaya, just steps from the Kremlin. The clashes were short but violent — riot police beat protesters with batons; protesters stole riot police helmets and hung them from trees like trophies. The next day, Putin rode through a Moscow sealed off from people to retake his post in the Kremlin. In the weeks that followed, police scoured Moscow for protesters, eventually arresting 27 people (some were later amnestied in the same procedure that freed the women of Pussy Riot). The youngest was 19; some were pensioners. Riot police injured in the clashes were compensated with apartments in the center of Moscow.
The trial of the three women began three months later, in the midst of a sweltering Moscow summer. It was like nothing Russia had seen since Soviet days. Gone was the pretense of propriety — the women weren’t charged with evading taxes, disturbing public order, or, as had been done with at least one opposition thinker, jaywalking. They were charged with being hooligans “motivated by religious hatred.” They gave heartfelt political speeches, and they were rebuked by prosecutors who said speaking of feminism in church was a sin.
On the last day of the trial, before they were found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison, Nadya addressed the court: “The three members of Pussy Riot are not the ones on trial here … This is a trial of the entire political system of the Russian Federation, which, to its great misfortune, enjoys quoting its own cruelty toward the individual, its indifference toward human honor and dignity, repeating all of the worst moments of Russian history.” She spoke for a generation: “The young people who have been flayed by the systematic eradication of freedoms perpetrated through the ‘00s have now risen against the state. We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo (‘the holy foolishness’) of punk.” It was the closest thing to a mission statement the group would ever have.
Nadya’s father Andrei Tolokonnikova and grandmother Vera: “If [Katya] looked like Brigitte Bardot, I would forgive her the treachery of the lawyers, the libel, everything.” Photograph by Max Avdeev for BuzzFeed
Two days after the celebration at the Church of St. Nicholas, halfway across the country, Andrei Tolokonnikov and his 80-year-old mother Vera sat around a small kitchen table in a rundown Soviet-era high-rise in the depths of Siberia. The electricity had gone out, as it does almost every day, and Vera lit candles so we could see the pancakes she’d made for dinner.
They’d gone to see Nadya, his daughter, that morning. She’d recently been transferred to the prison hospital in Krasnoyarsk, after publicly complaining of death threats and slave labor at the labor colony in the republic of Mordovia where she had been serving her sentence. They waited for three hours in order to pay 400 rubles (around $12) for a 15-minute video chat with Nadya, on the other side of a wall. There were 20 other people waiting to do the same with their relatives.
“She was sad. Who knows why?” Vera said, rummaging through the kitchen drawers looking for another candle. “Maybe she’s not feeling good, maybe she’s tired; it’s monotonous there. Before, she was happy, she joked, laughed.”
Andrei had other concerns. The fight for Pussy Riot’s legacy began in August 2012, the moment they were jailed. There were vague whisperings over who owned the “brand,” who maintained the rights over their global mythology. The women had a team of three lawyers, there was Petya, there was Andrei. And in October, there was Katya, released unexpectedly on a suspended sentence.
Everyone turned against her — even Nadya’s father, who knew how close the two women had once been. “If she looked like Brigitte Bardot, I would forgive her the treachery of the lawyers, the libel, everything,” he said in the dark kitchen. “A woman is supposed to be…” he trailed off. “But such a little twerp? That goes around reading lectures to everyone about feminism, what’s the use?”
Nadya and Masha were released just a couple of weeks later, walking out of their respective prisons and into media scrums, fielding endless questions on what they would do next. Nadya announced that they would start a human rights organization devoted to prisoners in Russia, calling it Zona Prava, which translates as Zone of Rights or Zone of Justice. When I talked to them in the days following their release, they sounded filled with a mission: “It gives you bravery — you know that you better understand the law, your rights, you learn to speak,” Masha said of her time in jail. “You have basic legal knowledge, which you need to breathe in Russia.” Nadya chimed in to say, “We have to help those who are in a worse situation than we are.”
Hours before Masha and Nadya took to the stage in Brooklyn, the Bolotnaya defendants read their final statements to a court in Moscow. In court parlance, a judge will now deliberate. In fact, she will wait to hear which decision is correct. It might not even have to come to that — more than 99% of Russian court cases end in convictions. To be charged is to be convicted. The judge will formally issue her decision on Feb. 21.
Nadya opened her laptop and Masha turned on her iPad as soon as they got in the SUV that had been ferrying them around Manhattan. An interview with NPR was next, and they were tired. “I don’t want to go to NPR,” Masha said. Masha is full of nervous energy that she channels into endless cigarettes. One minute she’ll flash a smile, the next she’ll furrow her brows in confusion. Every emotion is written on her face. Sometimes her nerves stun her into silence.
In the car, they caught up on tweets from the Bolotnaya trial and chatted nervously about their appearance that evening. They had never addressed so many people before — especially people who expected them to sing. They said they weren’t thinking about that. They were there to deliver a message.
I asked Masha what this global tour, this Amnesty show, could achieve back in Russia. It’s a country ruled, for now, by the will of one man. Masha and Nadya have often said so themselves, not least when they called their release from prison a “PR stunt” carried out by Putin to win him points ahead of the Olympics. So when Steven Hawkins, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, says things like, “Amnesty’s network of activists were instrumental in the outcome of their case,” does that not undermine things?
“You can see it as naive or idealized,” Masha said, staring through the windshield onto the slushy streets of New York. “But with each action, you see that you’re doing what you exist for.”
Nadya was more blunt. She turned from her computer and said, “Why are you so cynical?”
That night, they lingered backstage as a crowd of thousands filled Barclays and sipped $18.50 cocktails. They took seats near the stage as Cake sang, “I want a girl in a short skirt and a long jacket.” (I thought of Katya’s letter, which said their newfound advocacy “is hardly compatible with radical political statements and provocative works of art … just as gender-conformity is not compatible with radical feminism.”) Moscow was a world away, Russia’s prisons even farther.
Madonna and Masha at Amnesty International’s “Bringing Human Rights Home” concert at the Barclays Center on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, in New York. Evan Agostini/Invision / AP
Masha and Nadya took to the stage after an introduction from Madonna (“I’d like to thank Pussy Riot for making the word ‘pussy’ a sayable word in my household”). They quoted from the closing statements issued by Bolotnaya defendants just hours before. Masha seemed nervous, while Nadya paced from one end of the stage to the other like she’d been doing it all her life.
Afterward, backstage, Masha stood looking a little shell-shocked. She wanted to have a cigarette, but there were pop legends competing for her time. Days earlier, she had just arrived in New York and was standing in a corner office at Amnesty International’s headquarters trying to understand what was happening. The human rights grou
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