• Fri
  • Nov 21, 2014
  • Updated: 2:32am
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RUSSIA

Pussy Riot play the media and Russian authorities on visit to Sochi

Band, whose membership is in doubt, grabs headlines by being detained, whipped by Cossacks and harassed by man dressed as a chicken

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 6:09am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 6:09am
 

Some marvel at their brazen nerve. Others condemn the young women as anarchic and enemies of the state.

One thing's for certain, Pussy Riot are media savvy.

Their surreal tour of Sochi provided enough material for the newsmen gathered for the Winter Olympics there - as the band members were detained several times, got whipped at the hands of Cossacks and were harassed by a man dressed as a chicken.

Then the band - or at least four women proclaiming themselves as the band - released a new song called Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland at a bizarre press conference.

They met the media outside the Golden Dolphin hotel, a few kilometres from the venues of the Winter Olympics. They claimed every hotel they had called to arrange a press conference had turned them down, except the Golden Dolphin, which then called them two hours before and cancelled the event.

It was hard not to feel the Russian authorities have played into the hands of the women. Much of the new video shows the women being manhandled by police and whipped by Cossacks; instead of leaving them to jump around unmolested, the authorities provided a striking visual illustration of the sentiment in the lyrics.

In surreal scenes, the men waved raw chickens as the Pussy Riot women spoke, and shouted, "We like sex with chickens" in English for the duration of the meeting. One of the men was dressed up in a purple chicken costume.

The chickens were apparently a reference to a 2010 stunt carried out by Voina, a radical art collective to which some Pussy Riot members previously belonged, in which a participant stole a whole raw chicken from a supermarket and inserted it into her vagina. The man in the chicken costume said: "We don't like people who have sex with food. We don't want them here."

The group is - accidentally or by design - amorphous and members come and go. The two women detained for a few hours in Sochi, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, spent nearly two years in jail for their Pussy Riot activities, but some members contend they are no longer part of the group. That's how chaotic it is.

A letter published by original Pussy Riot members in recent weeks attacked Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina for seeking publicity and going against the original values of the band.

But Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina appeared without balaclavas on Thursday, and were joined by two women wearing the group's traditional headgear. They said they were "part activists, part artists".

Pussy Riot started out in 2011 as an anonymous feminist punk band. Most prominently, they staged unannounced performances outside a Moscow jail and on Red Square aimed against President Vladimir Putin.

Police issued an arrest warrant for the members when five women wearing garish balaclavas stormed Moscow's main cathedral and started singing a song entreating the Virgin Mary to drive Putin away. That was less than a month before Putin was elected president again.

Three women who were at the cathedral were identified and subsequently put on trial: Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Police have never found the other two members. In August 2012, Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich, all in their 20s, were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison.

Samutsevich was subsequently released and given a suspended sentence.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina served nearly their entire terms before they were released under an amnesty granted in late December. Their release, along with the pardoning of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was widely viewed as a Kremlin effort to deflect criticism of its human rights record before the Olympic Games.

While the Pussy Riot members were under arrest and later in Russian prison, their cause attracted some celebrity followers abroad, including Madonna and Paul McCartney.

Madonna dedicated her 2012 Moscow gig to Pussy Riot and met the band members during an Amnesty International concert in New York earlier this month.

Shortly after her release, Samutsevich distanced herself from Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina. She continued to publicly support them while they were in jail but did not take part in any Pussy Riot performances. Samutsevich, an arts graduate, fell out with Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, who has clearly been managing the group and attracting international support for the jailed members.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, inseparable since their release, insisted they were no longer interested in performing and set up a rights group, pledging to devote all their time to helping prison inmates. Both women made multiple appearances overseas these last two months to press their campaign for improved conditions in Russia's notoriously difficult prisons and were introduced as Pussy Riot members.

This didn't sit well with other Pussy Riot members who have spent the past two years in the shadows. The band's anonymous members announced in their official blog this month that "it's an open secret that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have left the band".

Alyokhina, a vegan with a penchant for poetry, and Tolokonnikova, with a background in risqué performance art, provoked a harsh reaction with their activities in the Moscow church.

Over the past two years, the 24-year-old Tolokonnikova and the 25-year-old Alyokhina, who were initially disregarded as "silly girls" who were foolish and unlucky enough to cross a red line in Russian political protest, have raised their profile by shedding light on appalling conditions at Russian prisons and corresponding about lofty matters with leading Russian and international thinkers.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina seem so closely drawn to the plight of Russian inmates that they were routinely criticised for spending too little time with their young children. Both women called for the boycott of the 2014 Olympics, saying that, by visiting Sochi, world leaders would be justifying the persecution of activists and Putin's political rivals in the country.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina seem to have spent most of their time in Sochi meeting former prison inmates and publicising cases of abuse in Russian prisons. The women had kept a low profile since arriving last Sunday, apparently to film clips for their new song.

But when they were arrested on Tuesday, based on claims that a handbag had been stolen from the hotel where the group was staying, they live-tweeted their ordeal, leading to a media scrum outside the police station. This was followed by more detentions, and on Wednesday militia members attacked the group with horsewhips as they tried to perform under an Olympic sign.

The detentions and efforts by officials to curtail them only brought more attention to Pussy Riot and their cause, prompting a tweeter named Alex Voronkov from Novosibirsk in Siberia to write that the Sochi Games could well be known as the Pussy Riot Olympics in future.

Additional reporting by The Guardian, The Washington Post

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