Music

Will Pussy Riot prove to be Putin's undoing?

Carole Cadwalladr

Russian women punk band Pussy Riot's trial - which began on Monday - seems certain to become a defining moment in Vladimir Putin's political career.

Three young women from feminist punk-rock band Pussy Riot sang a song in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. They were arrested, imprisoned, refused bail, and now face up to seven years in jail. (AFP)

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 in the 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 – which began on Monday – 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 5 000 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.

Vindictiveness
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, or journalist, or opposition figure, or public personality has created quite this much fuss. Or 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.

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.

What people can do
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!"

'Like Batman'
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."

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 Krupskaya 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.

'Action'
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."

'Assign roles'
He's become the group's de facto spokesperson, a slightly difficult position, given that they very carefully choose not "to assign roles" and that a strong feminist (and in Russia, utterly alien) message is at the heart of their work. He's also a key part of the creative team. He told me about the morning that he and Nadia, his wife, were arrested. "These men in suits with guns came running towards us shouting. There were around 25 to 30 of them shouting 'This is the FSB' and we were thrown to the floor.

"They were all wearing these expensive suits. You never see police officers looking as sophisticated as this. And then they transferred us to an expensive-looking SUV and we were taken to a police station and separated. Eight investigators arrived and we waited hours and then, from around 3am to 8am, I was interrogated."

Pyotr – or Peter as he calls himself to foreigners – was released. Nadia wasn't. A lot of people have suggested it's because Verzilov, who went to high school in Canada and holds dual Russian-Canadian citizenship, would pose an international problem that the Russian government doesn't want to face. "But I don't think it's that," he says. "It's just 'where do you stop?' If they try the other girls, if they try me, how many people would they try? The camera operator who was there? The AFP journalist? Where do you stop? Once you start arresting innocent people – and the police came to the church right after it happened and found no crime had been committed – where do you draw the line? Do you just start arresting everybody?"

The crime in question occurred on February 21 and took precisely 51 seconds. The five women and a film team, plus various supporters and a couple of journalists, entered the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, jumped over a gold rail, stood on the steps of the pulpit (a place where only men may stand) and performed the opening bars of a punk song. You can watch it on YouTube. It starts out as a religious hymn, then mutates into something Sex Pistols-esque, the women kneeling, genuflecting, crossing themselves, jumping up and down and, after a few seconds, being intercepted by security guards and led away.

It's not hard to see why religious believers would be shocked and offended. There's an elderly startled nun clearly visible in the video, and even if you're not a believer, the lack of respect accorded a place of worship is still pretty shocking.

After being ejected by cathedral guards, "the police came and they didn't even open a case," says Verzilov. "It was only after it appeared on YouTube under the name 'Virgin Mary Chuck Out Putin' and got all this attention -Patriarch Kirill watched it and, so the investigators told us, rang Putin and the head of the Moscow police – that it became this great big deal, that they decided that it was some sort of crime."

In the press, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, called it "blasphemous", saying that the church was "under attack" and that "the devil has laughed at us".

'God condemns what they've done
'The church's spokesperson, Vsevolod Chaplin, said: "God condemns what they've done. I'm convinced that this sin will be punished in this life and the next, God revealed this to me just like he revealed the gospels to the church. There's only one way out: repentance."

A warrant was issued for "hooliganism" and, two weeks later, the three women and Verzilov were arrested. Nothing has been usual about the case. Nikolai Polozov, one of their lawyers, says that there's been a blatant disregard for due process: the imprisonment without trial; the refusal of bail; the lack of time they have to prepare the case.

Amnesty International has declared them Prisoners of Conscience. And Polozov says that "several key events point to the fact that the Kremlin is involved", not least blanket coverage on federal TV channels designed "to ruin the reputation of my defendants. Only one person, or people close to him, can do that."

In another extreme step, the trial was due to be streamed live on the internet. It's a move designed to give the appearance of transparency, Polozov says, but will actually have the reverse effect, allowing them to exclude press from the very small courtroom, and at contentious moments to simply "lose the feed".

What's not in dispute is that Pussy Riot did cause offence. But that was the point. "The Church of Christ the Saviour was chosen for very specific, symbolic reasons," says Verzilov. "It was blown up by Stalin to show his power against the church and in the 60s was turned into a swimming pool."

And then the Soviet Union collapsed. "And Moscow's first post-Soviet mayor, Luzhkov, decided to rebuild the cathedral. At that time, in the early 90s, the most successful commercial enterprise in the country was organised crime, and he said I need $1bn and whoever doesn't pay is going to jail.

"It became a very important governmental symbol. And it's supposed to be the most sacred place in Russia. But it's very commercialised: there's a massive parking garage under it, and banqueting halls you can hire out for $10 000 a day.

"More than this, though, is how the church has started to act as if it is the propaganda wing of the government. Before the election, Patriarch Kirill said that it was 'un-Christian' to demonstrate. And then he said that Putin had been placed at the head of the government 'by God'. No one was talking about this before. And now everybody is."

'They want to control culture'
Everybody is talking about it. Andrei Yerofeyev, one of the most respected curators of modern art in Russia, who in 2010 was himself tried (and found guilty) on charges of inciting religious and ethnic hatred by staging a show called Forbidden Art, compares it to Iran. To Saudi Arabia. He sees it, as many do, as the beginnings of a Christian fundamentalism. "They want to control culture. They want to control everything. People have great respect for the church. They fought the communists. The priests were persecuted. But this trial? It shows that the church is untouchable."

Others have called it Russia's Dreyfus affair. The anti-Pussy Riot propaganda on the main government-run TV channels (ie all of them) has been relentless. The opinion voiced by one of the prosecution lawyers a telling illustration of how they've been portrayed. The women are being controlled by "the global government", they say, who ultimately are themselves controlled "by Satan".

But the tide is turning. It's the severity of the penalty that has shocked most Russians. Even conservative, religious Russians who thought their act was silly or offensive. Very few defendants are imprisoned pre-trial. Certainly not ones with young children accused of non-violent crimes. More than 200 well-known public people signed an open letter condemning the trial, including many Putin supporters, and another 41 000 rank-and-file Russians have added their signatures.

And when I go to take a look around the cathedral and speak to some middle-aged women in headscarves leaving after prayers, they all think it was awful, disrespectful, inappropriate and deserving of punishment. But even the most hardline of them, who thinks they should be punished for their other "crimes" (their previous performances), turns down the corner of her mouth and shakes her head when Khristina translates my question about the possible seven-year sentence. And even I, with my odd scrags of Russian, understand her reply. "Trudna," she keeps on saying. "Ne znayo." It's difficult. I don't know.

Just a few hours before meeting Pussy Riot, I'd seen a very small example of the Russian state's apparatus of repression. The massed police vans and armoured vehicles that were parked in streets around where the demo was scheduled to take place. The phalanxes of officers marching through a neighbouring square.

Earlier that day, I'd arranged to meet Pyotr Verzilov at a cafe. He doesn't show up. I text. I call. He carries two mobiles with him at all times and is constantly taking calls from TV stations, journalists and campaigners. "We're trying to get Sting to wear a Pussy Riot T-shirt at his concert tonight," he'd told me the day before (Sting wore the T-shirt). Franz Ferdinand and Red Hot Chili Peppers had both already come out in support.

'Reaching out to Madonna'
And they were "reaching out to Madonna", who's due to play in Moscow next month. He's engaged in all aspects of a modern political campaign: monitoring Twitter streams, tweeting news, updating the Facebook site. I assume something has come up. Before I arrive in Moscow, I talk at length to two British documentary makers who have been filming the trial, and one of them warns me to "be prepared to do a lot of waiting. They're just under so much pressure".

He'd also told me that Verzilov "will blow your head off. It's phenomenal that he's only 25. It's just the most incredible story. It's just so rock'n'roll. It really is punk. What they did was as shocking as what the Sex Pistols did. Maybe more so. Because it was against this dictator. It's punks against Putin."

It is also so incredibly visual: the women sit in a cage in the middle of the court. They're all attractive, "but Nadia, she looks like she's in a perfume ad or something. They're all so cool, but you should see Nadia walk into court in her handcuffs. It's an incredible sight. She's like Simone de Beauvoir. I'm romanticising a bit, but she's Simone de Beauvoir. And Peter is Russia's Sartre."

And there's a reason Verzilov misses my appointment, it transpires. An hour or so later, I get a text. "Carole! I was suddenly taken today at 8.30am to the investigative committee by a team of officers and they took my phone and all my personal things."

When we finally meet, he shrugs it off, though when I take him to a cafe, he eats like a horse. "You look tired," I say. "Well, you know, four hours of interrogation …" What sort of questions do they ask. "You know. When did you meet with foreign governments?" Do they really believe that? "They try very hard to make the Russian public believe that."

He wants to know what everyone has been saying to me. What did Ekaterina Degot say, he asks? She's probably Russia's most influential art critic. "She said what you were doing was incredible. That it's going to change Russian history. That there is no question that what you are doing is art and that no Russian artist has brought about this much change, ever," I say.

Breaking the spine of a tyrant
And Artemy Troitsky, Russia's foremost rock critic? "That three girls might be the ones to break the spine of a tyrant." He looks pleased. But then, Pussy Riot are musicians and artists, and some are members of a group called Voina, Russia's most outrageous performance artists, whose work included painting a massive penis on a bridge opposite the FSB headquarters in St Petersburg (Dick Captured by FSB), and staging an orgy in a museum on the eve of Medvedev's election in 2008 (Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear), and who captured the imagination of Banksy among others – he sent £80 000 to support them when two of their members were arrested and imprisoned. But they're activists first and foremost.

"How is Peter?" Ekaterina Degot asks me. Worried for Nadia, I say, and their four-year-old daughter, Gera. But not displeased about the situation. "I understand this well. They have the mentality of activists. The more attention they get the better it is. The more effective they are being."

Degot was on the jury that awarded Voina the biggest prize in Russian art. And Katya, one of the imprisoned women, is a student of hers. What will happen next, I ask her? "I don't know. But it can't continue. Putin can't continue. In a year, I am sure we will see a different country, though I'm not sure it will be a better country."

But it's the words of Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, the co-founder of the Strelka, that echo most in my ears. In Russian history, he says, there's an old tradition of mad, half-witted saints. "This idea that it's only the crazy, half-witted fool who can tell the truth to the nation and to power. There is something that all Russians know even if they're not aware of it. In Russia, you never call it St Basil's Cathedral, it's Vasily Blazhenny, Vassily the Mad. And this is what these girls are. The truth-tellers to the Russian nation."

We're sitting at a table in Strelka while he tells me this, a beautifully designed space right opposite the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, scene of the crime. "I remember swimming in that pool as a child. And sometimes, I have a feeling that in another 70 years the pool will have to be restored. And we will live through this endless cycle of destroying the churches and then rebuilding them."

It's extraordinary what Pussy Riot have done. How they have taken feminism to one of the most macho countries on Earth. How they have revealed the faultlines at the heart of the Russian state, the moral bankruptcy of the Putin regime. It's hard to reconcile that with the women I met, with their skinny shoulders and thin wrists and lack of any weaponry bar guts and wit. The word absurd has been worn thin with use, but there's no other way to describe what is happening in Russia today.

"Putin is scared of us, can you imagine?" says Squirrel. "Scared of girls."

"It was just a prayer. A very special prayer," says Sparrow. "The most important dictator, Putin, is really afraid of people," says Squirrel. More specifically, he's afraid of Pussy Riot. Afraid of a bunch of young, positive, optimistic women unafraid to speak their minds." – © Guardian News and Media 2012

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