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Putin’s trigger Ten years after they first caused the Russian authorities to clutch their pearls, Pussy Riot has been almost entirely forced out of the country

Source: Meduza

In November 2021, the feminist protest group Pussy Riot turned 10 years old. For the entirety of the group’s existence, the Russian authorities (among others) have been trying their damnedest to shut them up. After staging a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2012, three Pussy Riot activists were sentenced to two years in prison. After a demonstration at the 2018 World Cup, other Pussy Riot members, who ran onto the field in police uniforms, were arrested — and the group's unofficial spokesman Pyotr Verzilov was promptly poisoned. In the last two years, arrests and prosecutions targeting Pussy Riot activists have only become more frequent. Just last month, members Maria Alyokhina and Lyusya Shtein went on hunger strike while serving two-week stints in jail. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova spoke with past and present members of the group to find out who exactly they were in 2011 — and who they are now.

“We didn’t have time to decide where to go. We didn’t have time to pack our things. Our friends bought our tickets and grabbed our suitcases for us. Now I’m in a different country, and my whole life fits into a tiny, peach-colored suitcase,” Pussy Riot member Veronika Nikulshina told Meduza.

Six months before this conversation — on May 7, 2021 — the dress rehearsal for Russia’s annual Victory Day parade was taking place on Red Square. On the other side of Moscow, Nikulshina was getting ready to shoot a documentary film. She found five police officers waiting outside the entrance of her apartment. “If the chief said to arrest you, you must be guilty,” she recalls an officer saying when she asked him to explain. The next day, the court sentenced her to five days in prison for disobeying a police officer.

Nikulshina knows why she was really arrested: she’s taken part in “some pretty high-profile demonstrations,” and the authorities simply “drew some very false conclusions.” “When I tried to film my movie, they thought I was preparing a protest,” she said.

But that arrest wasn’t the end of it. Over the summer of 2021, they detained her three more times. Altogether, she spent a month in a detention facility.

After her first 15 days in prison, Nikulshina returned to her apartment to find a police vehicle parked in front of the entrance. Unable to go home, she and her boyfriend, artist Roman Durov, rented an Airbnb in a village on the outskirts of Moscow. The next day, a crowd of unknown men in black jackets burst into the rental, took the couple’s phones, forced them onto a bus, and drove them back to Moscow.

“We’re on the bus and there are eight Center E officers around us. Nobody’s telling us anything. Roma turns toward me and says, ‘Nika, what do you think — a hunger strike?’ And that’s the first time I thought, ‘Yeah, the best option is probably a hunger strike,’” said Nikulshina.

Once again, the court found Nikulshina (along with Durov) guilty of disobeying the police and sentenced them to administrative arrest.

Nikulshina wasn’t the only Pussy Riot member to get arrested this past summer; many other members, along with their friends, were arrested multiple times. Most of the time, the arrests were based on police reports that described the circumstances of the detainments inaccurately (we know this from videos of the detentions taken by Pussy Riot supporters).

Veronika Nikulshina soon realized the authorities would continue to detain her and other Pussy Riot members until they either left the country or the government came up with a reason to charge them with felony offenses.

On July 18, Nikulshina was once again released from detention. She was met outside the gates by Roman Durov, who had been released the previous day, and his lawyers. The two went straight to the airport. The whole way there, they were followed by officers from Russia’s Anti-Extremism Center (Center E).

“We had to stop in a mall to replace our SIM cards. It was nerve-racking: we were standing in [the cell phone store], and behind us were three guys in [medical] masks, filming us,” said Nikulshina. “They filmed all the way until we reached our gate. Apparently, they needed confirmation that we had actually left the country.”

In her suitcase, Nikulshina currently has two books by Yulia Latynina about Jesus Christ, “some kind of philosophy book,” and “something about art theory.” She had also planned to bring the Quran, but changed her mind at the last minute.

She also left all of her winter clothes in Moscow. “I really didn’t realize I would be out of the country for so long,” Nikulshina told Meduza.

After the last wave of arrests, a lot of other Pussy Riot members have left for Tbilisi, too. In fact, there’s hardly any members of the group left in Russia at all.

Chapter 1

Voina

It’s August 2011. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is leading a reform of the Interior Ministry, dubbed the “recertification”: the police, officially called the “militsiya” since Soviet times, have been renamed the “politsiya,” and the number of officers has been reduced. According to the authorities, this will improve Russian law enforcement’s reputation and mitigate corruption.

Everyone’s talking about the reforms, including the street art group Voina (“War”), which is famous for its bold demonstrations against politicians and law enforcement agents. The group is currently working on a piece called “Road Wet Nurse,” in which they imagine that the “suddenly poverty-stricken relatives of cops have been forced to go out onto the roads, take up highway patrol posts, and bum food from the drivers, on whose bribe payments their livelihoods previously depended.”

VoinaArhiv

A video from the project shows director Taisiya Krugovykh and a dozen people pretending to be police officers’ relatives setting a table on the side of the road next to a highway patrol outpost. On the white tablecloth, there are pickles, grilled chicken, and bottles of clear liquid. They start offering food and alcohol to highway patrol officers.

“Vasily, come on, let’s drink to your ‘recertification!’,” one of the performance artists tells an officer. They don’t neglect any of the cops, holding umbrellas over some and shining the shoes of others. They flag down passing cars; every time one stops, they explain with plenty of emotion: “We’re just a family. A family! We’re helping him earn a living. We depend on him.”

The real police officers look bewildered; for the most part, they look around silently, refusing to take the food, occasionally telling the activists to “go to the station right now!”

This is the young director’s first experience with political activism. She doesn’t have any experience with Voina, having met its members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich just a few months ago, in the spring of 2011, when they were working on a film that included a shoplifting scene and Krugovykh wanted to talk to “someone in the know.” An acquaintance put her and Bogatov in touch with Voina.

“We met up with them and immediately started discussing ideas for new Voina projects. We didn’t even talk about shoplifting. But at least I got to see for myself how skilled they were at this,” said Krugovykh.

By then, Voina’s founders — Moscow State University alumni Oleg Vorotnikov, Natalia Sokol, Pyotr Verzilov, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova — had been arguing amongst themselves for a year. The group had effectively split into two factions: the St. Petersburg faction, which included Vorotnikov and Sokol, and the Moscow faction, which included Tolokonnikova, Verzilov, and Samutsevich.

The infighting began when Ukrainian artist Alexander Volodarsky tried to recreate the group’s earlier performance, “Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear!,” a public orgy protesting Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008 election to the presidency. This time, Volodarsky and another member pretended to have sex next to the Ukrainian Parliament building. Volodarsky was arrested and spent the next month and a half in a pre-trial detention center. The Voina members who helped him — Verzilov, Tolokonnikova, and Samutsevich — managed to escape.

“That’s when the Ukrainian police started going around to people’s apartments, including ours. And for some reason, that was the tipping point,” said Yekaterina Samutsevich. “Vor [Oleg Vorotnikov] got this idea that it was all our fault: mine, Petya, and Nadya’s. That’s when the fingerpointing started, the idea that we had supposedly conspired against him — really weird stuff, in other words.”

On Voina’s website, former members Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol are still the only ones mentioned on a page called “Provocateurs and Informers.”

“We really tired each other out,” Pyotr Verzilov said. “And that personal exhaustion, the endless arguments, the inability to come to an agreement eventually forced us to acknowledge we couldn’t work together.”

“At some point, it became clear that Vor [Vorotnikov] and Koza [Natalia Sokol] had a different vision,” said Yekaterina Samutsevich. “The [political] situation in our country was getting worse, and they decided we needed to make our art more radical in response. To move away from symbols, references, irony. That was the beginning of a pretty big disagreement, because I would never flip cars upside down and call it art, or light anything on fire. To me, that’s not art at all, it’s something completely different.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had her own irreconcilable differences with Vorotnikov. She recalled the discussion she had with Samutsevich about women’s rights and women’s art. They both gradually came to the same conclusion: that Voina was “phallocentric,” and that this was largely “due to [Vorotnikov’s] fairly patriarchal influence.”

“We [Katya and I] walked around grumbling to ourselves for a year or two,” said Tolokonnikova. “Then the conflict came to a head. Vorotnikov started saying some really unpleasant things, like that women can’t make art, so we split up.”

But the conflicts continued. “They were pouring all this dirt on us: that we weren’t the real Voina, that we were traitors and just the worst people in the world,” said Tolokonnikova. “We realized we didn’t want to keep making art in a toxic situation like that. So Katya and I just said to hell with it and decided to start something new.”

In September 2011, Dmitry Medvedev announced his intention to nominate Putin for a third presidential term. Less than a month later, on October 11, 2011, Russia’s top activists held a forum called The Last Autumn — a response to the pro-Kremlin “Nashi” movement’s Seliger forum.

Pyotr Verzilov was one of the event’s organizers. Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich also took part, preparing a lecture about punk feminist art. At the end of the lecture, they announced that even Russia had a feminist punk band — its name was Pussy Riot. They put on the song “Kill the Sexist,” which they’d recorded on a playground several hours before the forum, and ran off of the stage so that nobody would guess that Pussy Riot was actually them.

For some audience members, though, including Taisiya Krugovykh and her boyfriend, director Vasily Bogatov, it was obvious. Over the next six months, they would film all of Pussy Riot’s public demonstrations. After that, they would film a high-profile and unexpected trial resulting from Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, which would lead to the creation of Russia’s law against “offending religious sentiment.” This footage, along with footage taken after the women were released from prison, became the basis of two documentary films, both called Pussy Against Putin.

But back then, in October 2011, Krugovykh listened to the band’s first song and thought, “What wonderful music! It’s like someone’s picking at your head with a screwdriver!”

Chapter 2

‘A distortion of feminism’

In 2008, according to Samutsevich, Voina came to an exhibit at Moscow’s Rodchenko Art School in search of participants for one of their new projects. Voina’s work had been included in the school’s curriculum, and student Yekaterina Samutsevich was a fan. She readily agreed to help. “Katya was one of a small number who were interested,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova told Meduza.

Over time, Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova — then a philosophy student at Moscow State University (MGU) — became friends. After Voina split into two factions, the two women decided to work together.

At some point, according to Krugovykh, they had an idea for a demonstration called the “Moscow News” and made plans to hold it outside a metro station, but “for some reason, it didn’t work out.” So they decided to start a punk band.

“What was the original idea behind Pussy Riot? The idea behind Pussy Riot was to stop being Voina, which was so macho. And to create a group based on something totally different: equal rights, feminism, and LGBTQ issues,” said Krugovykh.

Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich confirmed that their desire to distance themselves from Voina had a strong influence on Pussy Riot’s image — for example, the predominantly female lineup and the colorful hats with eyeholes and mouthholes to hide the women’s faces.

Anyone could become a Pussy Riot member. “Not literally, but in the democratic, equal opportunity sense, though taking into account your beliefs. You had to be a woman, preferably with feminist views,” said Samutsevich. “We just met with all kinds of people and invited them to join. But we also made sure not to invite everyone at once, because we still wanted to work with people we could trust.”

There were men on the team, too — for example, Pyotr Verzilov, who Tolokonnikova married in 2016 — but they played a secondary role.

Pussy Riot didn’t have a permanent membership; in fact, they made sure to point out that “everyone [was] interchangeable.” When speaking to journalists, the women used pseudonyms, which they regularly changed.

The only constants in the group were Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich. “I don’t think I was working or studying anymore,” said Samutsevich. “And I’m pretty sure Nadya also took a year off from MGU in order to dedicate all her time to the group.”

Pussy Riot’s first music video (declared extremist by a Russian court in November 2012, along with three of the group’s other videos) was for the song “Release the Cobblestones,” dedicated to that year’s State Duma elections. The video was filmed in October 2011 in metro stations and on top of a trolley. Despite the women’s determination to completely break away from Voina, that’s exactly who officers from Russia’s Anti-Extremism Center believed they were, according to Taisiya Krugovykh. “Those days were so quaint,” she added — back then, there were “only” ten agents tracking Pussy Riot.

“We met at a metro station, and our friend said, ‘We’re being watched.’ I didn’t believe it, but it was wildly fun. We managed to get away about two trains later,” said Krugovykh.

The Center E officers can even be seen in the video. They’re standing next to other spectators and passersby, filming on their phones as the women in bright-colored hats, dresses, and stockings scream from a repair tower about how it’s not too late to “become a mistress” and call for people to spend a “wild day among strong women.”

At the end of the video, the performers quietly leave. In reality, the women’s first day of shooting ended with their arrests — just like the other eight days of filming for the video, according to Taisiya Krugovykh. One day, when the police showed up after a filming session, Krugovykh ran up the repair tower with the Pussy Riot performers. When she came back down, they handcuffed her.

Pussy Riot did their best to stay anonymous even when they were detained, giving strangers’ information they had obtained from the then-still-public database of traffic offenders. “It seemed like a victimless crime,” said a former member of the group who requested her name not be used. “They would be fined, which they could contest in court, and we would be spared a 10-day jail sentence. On balance, it looked okay.”

Finding herself behind bars for the first time in her life, Krugovykh spoke to Tolokonnikova about feminism: “I told her, ‘Listen, look at me. I’m a camera operator, I’ve carried a 16-kilogram [35-pound] camera. Where are my rights being violated? I’m doing a completely so-called male profession.’ But Tolokonnikova, as always, answered very calmly: ‘Just because you don’t have problems doesn’t mean that other people don’t have problems.’”

These early detentions didn’t have serious consequences for the women; usually, they got released after just a few hours. “Some police chief would usually come up to us and say, ‘What are you guys still doing here?’ Today, of course, that seems unimaginable,” said a former Pussy Riot member who requested anonymity.

Garadzha Matveeva

In total, Pussy Riot managed to hold five demonstrations before their “punk prayer” and the criminal trial that followed. A lot of people were not fans. On LiveJournal, feminists from the group feministki criticized the group for their socio-political positions, their “distortion of feminism,” and their superficiality, insisting the activists “don’t care about women or their problems.”

One Pussy Riot member recalled how feministki members stopped shaking her hand when they learned she had joined the group. “This made a strong impression on me, of course,” she said. “Then Nadya [Tolokonnikova] told me the exact same thing. When she first got into feminism, she would log onto LiveJournal, and everyone would troll her: ‘What the hell are you doing here?’”

Pussy Riot often got called “superficial” in the art community as well. “They’re actually really theory-based, a lot of people know that, but their work itself is very simple. It’s full of calls for violence and deliberately badly-sung punk songs,” said Rodchenko Art School professor, curator, and critic David Riff in a 2012 interview with Bolshoi Gorod.

They were criticized for their music, too: for its poor sound quality, its simple rhythm, and the fact that they screamed instead of singing. “Pussy Riot is a mix of direct action, primitive suburban music, saliva-laced teenage cursing, and aboriginal dancing at a chief’s wedding ceremony,” Novaya Gazeta columnist Alexey Polikovsky wrote in 2011.

“We get that it’s hard for people to get used to new art forms,” Pyotr Verzilov explained to him. “People have pretty conservative tastes and ideas about art in the political world, too. So people who are used to regular old protests find this [Pussy Riot’s demonstrations] horrifying.”

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

According to Taisiya Krugovykh, the group didn’t get taken seriously until their piece “Putin has Pissed Himself,” held in January 2012 on Red Square’s Lobnoye Mesto platform. Vasily Bogatov agrees; while their earlier pieces looked “rowdy” and “fun,” it was after the performance on Red Square, where artists from Moscow’s first wave of actionism had worked, that Pussy Riot became a contender for “a place in actionist history.”

With eight participants, “Putin has Pissed Himself” was Pussy Riot’s biggest piece yet. As they climbed on the centuries-old architectural monument and sang their couplets, they echoed the 2011–2012 protests that were still fresh in everyone’s memory. One woman held a light-purple flag with a drawing of a clenched fist — a symbol of the feminist movement. Another one lit a torch, also light-purple. They also tried to set fire to a drawing of then-prime minister Vladimir Putin kissing Muammar Gaddafi, but it wouldn’t light.

Everyone who participated in the demonstration was arrested. “We told the cops who picked us up that we studied at a drama school and we were preparing a play and decided to rehearse a bit. We gave them fake names [from the database of traffic offenders]. It worked for everyone except me,” wrote Maria Alyokhina in her book Riot Days.

“Putin has Pissed Himself” was Alyokhina’s first experience with Pussy Riot. It was also her first time being detained by the police. She’d been introduced to the group by a childhood friend — a former Voina member who often let Pussy Riot meet up and record songs in her apartment. “At some point in the fall of 2011, I heard them discussing future demonstrations. I said I wanted to join in,” said Alyokhina.

When she was arrested on Red Square, the police obtained a copy of her passport with her real address. Later, after the “punk prayer” in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, it was her apartment they went to first. They didn’t immediately arrest her, but they notified her that she was required to report to the police station.

After the police showed up at Alyokhina’s home, the Pussy Riot women decided to go into hiding. In her book, Alyokhina recalled her last conversation with her four-year-old son Filipp. While he watched cartoons, she packed a bag, told him she’d be back soon, and left. It was two years before she saw him again.

Chapter 3

With a little help from my friends

In February 2012, five women in balaclavas entered the Christ the Savior Cathedral and asked the Virgin Mary to drive Putin out of Russia. The name of the fourth woman — artist and musician Diana Burkot — was kept secret until 2020.

Diana has said in several interviews that she may have been spared by police because she hid separately from Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich, and Alyokhina. The fifth participant, whose name is unknown to the public to this day, took the same approach. She declined to speak with Meduza; she asked another former Pussy Riot member to deliver the message that she didn’t see a point in “discussing something so many years later.”

Mitya Aleshkovsky / TASS

In the spring of 2012, several Pussy Riot members who hadn’t taken part in the punk prayer decided to leave Moscow. After the detention on Red Square, according to one of them, police photographs of them began appearing on the Internet. “A lot of unpleasant trolling and threats began. Someone hacked into one girl’s VKontakte account and threatened to kill her family. The cops went looking for another one at her home. Really scary.”

On the other hand, other members said the Red Square detentions only encouraged them to double down on their activities to support the women who had been detained. They delivered them gifts, searched for lawyers, held picket protests, and organized rallies in their defense. “A bunch of people gathered in my little one-room apartment every day, we sat there for entire days,” said Vasily Bogatov. He said that was the first time he “felt like a part of Pussy Riot.”

Taisiya Krugovykh also began calling herself a Pussy Riot member; it was during this period that she gave her first Pussy Riot interview, clad in a balaclava along with other members.

“At that point, the media wanted someone to comment. They were asking what kind of group we were, where we’d come from, our whole story, our ideology,” said Krugovykh. “But then, they [Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich] started speaking for themselves in court, and the demand to hear from the people who were still free went away.”

Later, in the fall of 2012, Krugovykh performed as part of Pussy Riot — in a balaclava and with her voice altered — at a conference in Oslo organized to support the group with the help of the Nobel Peace Committee.

Fundraising at a Pussy Riot concert in Brooklyn. 2012.
Rebecca Smeyne / Getty Images

“Pussy Riot became a global movement. All kinds of different forces, people, and activists got involved,” said Pyotr Verzilov. “It was no longer the case that anyone could join — everyone was joining.”

“I’m Pussy Riot, too,” dozens of people in bright-colored hats with holes cut out said on camera that spring. Olga Kuracheva, an employee at the Czech Cultural Center, took part in a flash mob organized by Pussy Riot allies. She told Meduza that she’d been following the women for a while and if she’d known them earlier, she might have gone with them to the Cathedral, too. She didn’t think twice about joining the flashmob in support of them.

“One time, the girls and I gave an interview,” Kuracheva recalled. “There were about eight of us in balaclavas. One of the Pussy Riot members said, ‘I have no fear that every one of us sitting here is ready to go to prison. And that’s what’s scary.’ And that’s really how it was.”

According to Kuracheva, the protests in support of the group didn’t always follow the original Pussy Riot format. In addition to songs and music videos, for example, they would put up stickers, hand out flyers, and organize “judicial festival-meetings,” or gatherings of Pussy Riot supporters at the courts. Later on, supporters would hold similar meetings outside of the prisons where the women were serving time.

“Right now, hundreds of people are being detained for the smallest reasons, they’re coming up with absurd ‘legal’ cases based on ancient posts on social media, and they’re sending people to jail for as long as they want. But back then, everything was different. Obviously, the Putin administration lied and suppressed dissidents from the very start. But at the same time, there was a time when Russia was perhaps the freest country in the world in terms of creativity. Just think of [performance artist Alexander] Brener masturbating on the high dive at the Moscow pool, [performance artist Oleg] Kulik’s dog, or Voina’s work, like the infamous orgy, ‘Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear’ in the Zoological Museum, or ‘Dick Captured by the FSB,’ which earned them not a prison sentence but the 2011 Innovation prize — one year before the Pussy Riot case!” said producer and international festival art director Alexander Cheparukhin. Pussy Riot’s arrest shocked Cheparukhin — and he joined those protesting in their defense.

At one of the Pussy Riot supporters’ meetings, Cheparukhin recalled, Pyotr Verzilov approached him and asked for help — he wanted to get famous Western musicians to help draw attention to Pussy Riot’s cause.

“To be frank, Pyotr correctly realized that I might have access to a unique resource in this country,” said Cheparukhin. “Not only did I have direct connections to the top stars — I could make the decision to start an active campaign to get them to support Pussy Riot. No other promoter would have been bold enough.” Back in the 1990s, Cheparukhin had brought world-famous artists to Russia: Kraftwerk, King Crimson, Michael Nyman, Philip Glass, and many others. He had the ability to get directly in touch with most Western stars, and anyone he couldn’t reach directly he could get to through their agent or through mutual friends.

“At some point, I read yet another report from the trial, and yet again, Alyokhina’s words made an impression on me — Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova’s words, too, but most of all Alyokhina’s,” said Cheparukhin. “And I thought, what the hell? Why am I being so careful, feeling out Petya, losing time? At the end of the day, Petya’s wife is in jail! And none of this has anything to do with the law — it’s all being done at the behest of the Kremlin! I couldn’t remember anything like that happening before.”

In the months that followed, Cheparukhin got in touch with all of the artists and managers he knew. According to him, he wrote several dozen letters, then he started visiting festivals and approaching musicians directly, asking them to support Pussy Riot. His strategy got results: Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, Sting, Billy Bragg, Mark Almond, Antony Hegarty, Johnny Rotten, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Franz Ferdinand, Faith no more, and even Madonna all announced their support for Pussy Riot.

Red Hot Chili Peppers bass guitarist Michael Balzary and lead singer Anthony Kiedis at a concert in St. Petersburg. 2012.
Ruslan Shamukov / TASS

But the support Cheparukhin is proudest of is Paul McCartney’s. “All of the Western musicians and producers were telling me, ‘Don’t even try — Putin brought him to the Kremlin, he won’t even think about it.’ And for a long time, I didn’t dare write to him. But at some point, I thought, why am I listening to all of these skeptics? Why not just try it? After all, McCartney’s opinion means more to Russia than all the others put together!”

He wrote to McCartney two days before Pussy Riot’s sentencing. An hour later, the Beatle texted him back in support of the group. A year later, he convinced McCartney to send two handwritten letters to judges asking them to release Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina on parole.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova before her trial. August 8, 2012.
Mitya Aleshkovsky / Wikimedia Commons
Yekaterina Samutsevich in court. August 8, 2012.
Mitya Aleshkovsky / TASS
Maria Alyokhina in court. 2012.
Sergey Karpov / TASS

The court found Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich, and Alyokhina guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced them each to two years in prison. Two months later, however, Samutsevich was released on parole since she had barely participated in the demonstration itself; she’d been detained by a security guard almost immediately. After her release, Samutsevich immediately gave several interviews, then stopped speaking out completely.

Yekaterina still lives in Moscow; she now works as a programmer. “I don’t have a very highly-paid job right now. But I probably shouldn’t complain. All political prisoners have these problems. It’s very hard to find work (when you have a criminal record). But in general, I’m alive. It’s not hard, living. I have the money I need, I’m surviving.”

She’s no longer in touch with the other members of Pussy Riot. It’s been several years since she’s spoken with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova or Maria Alyokhina.

Chapter 4

Pussy Riot is dead

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were both released in a general amnesty in December 2013 — just a few months before their sentenced were scheduled to end.

Even in prison, they’d continued their activism — for example, both declared hunger strikes in an effort to change the prison’s working and living conditions. Tolokonnikova spoke out about forced labor at a sewing plant in the Mordovian prison colony where the women served their sentences in an open letter on Lenta.ru. Several years later, in 2018, Yury Kupriyanov, the deputy head of the prison, was fired. In July 2021, he was sentenced to probation for forcing prisoners to perform labor.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina’s press conference after their release
Gazeta.ru

Immediately after their release, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina announced that they would continue advocating for prisoners’ rights. To that end, they launched two projects: a news outlet called Mediazona and an organization called Zona Prava (“Rights Zone”). The two women raised money for the projects during their 2014–2015 European and American tours. They told journalists around that time that they were done with Pussy Riot the band.

But just a few months later, in February 2014, they donned their balaclavas again and went to Sochi, where the Winter Olympics were being held, to perform their piece, “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland.”

Evgeny Feldman
Evgeny Feldman
Evgeny Feldman

“There was all the same energy, all the same strength, but without Katya [Samutsevich],” said Taisiya Krugovykh, who filmed the piece along with Vasily Bogatov. “The only difference was that they had spent two years in jail. And even though Vasya and I laid low when we were filming, you could tell they had gotten used to constant surveillance.”

But, she admitted, the demonstration was a failure, mostly because of the authorities. “15 people followed us all around Sochi. To our left, to our right, in front of us, behind us. Any cafe we went into would be full of men in black t-shirts and shoes with pointed toes. The whole city looked like that,” said Krugovykh.

“We filmed the performance ahead of time, then we released the final product [on the Internet]. That’s how we did almost every new Voina project and every Pussy Riot project until 2014. After that, it became impossible, [the authorities] started working against us at every step of the way,” said artist Lusine Dzhanyan.

Pussy Riot

While the video was being shot, Pussy Riot was attacked by Cossack militiamen: they sprayed pepper spray in the women’s faces, beat them with whips, tore off their balaclavas, and dragged them by the hair. “In Sochi, the women lost their anonymity; after that, the masks had no meaning anymore,” said Dzhanyan. “None of the women would have removed them themselves.”

* * *

Tolokonnikova, Verzilov, and Alyokhina didn’t always get along. “Masha [Alyokhina] and I had done exactly three demonstrations together [before prison] and never became close friends. After our release, we traveled around, just like when [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov travels somewhere with Putin,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova told GQ.

“At a certain point, they [Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina] just started drifting apart because they’re very different people,” said Alexander Cheparukhin. In 2016, he and Alyokhina launched the musical theater show “Riot Days,” based on Alyokhina’s book of the same name about her time in the band, her criminal trial, and her prison experience. Several other Pussy Riot members were also involved, including Diana Burkot and director Vasily Bogatov.

At Alyokhina’s request, Riot Days was edited by Olga Borisova, a former police officer who left the force to get involved in human rights work and activism (she’s currently a documentary film producer). In 2017 and 2018, Borisova and Alyokhina performed several times together as Pussy Riot — including in support of Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov and to mark the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Cheka, the FSB’s predecessor. 

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has performed as Pussy Riot, too, independently of Alyokhina and Borisova. On June 12, 2015, for example, she tried to sew a Russian flag on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square while wearing a prison uniform. She and Katrin Nenasheva, who also took part, were detained by police.

Evgeny Feldman
Evgeny Feldman
Evgeny Feldman

Today, Tolokonnikova herself makes no secret of where she’s located; she told Meduza she holds performances “whenever she can.” Most often, though, her name is associated with songs and videos released under the Pussy Riot brand. She began her professional musical career in 2015.

“In addition to music, I do human rights work and support various other initiatives, mostly related to feminism or LGBTQIAPP rights,” said Tolokonnikova. “But music is very important to me. I’ve never been able to say whether activism or art is more important to me, because they go hand in hand. The music I make is all about activism and social problems: domestic violence, inequality, police brutality and, of course, authoritarianism, the indignities suffered by activists and regular people who express themselves.”

Evgeny Feldman
Evgeny Feldman
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in a balaclava in front of the Christ the Savior Cathedral. Shots from an unreleased music video for a collaboration with Tom Morello. 2015.
Evgeny Feldman
Chapter 5

‘I would have felt incomplete’

On July 15, 2018, France and Croatia’s national soccer teams were playing the final match of the World Cup in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. At the beginning of the second half, four people in police uniforms ran onto the field, interrupting the Croatian team’s attack. Several minutes later, they were caught by security officers; France won the World Cup soon after.

Pussy Riot claimed responsibility for the demonstration, calling it “Policeman Enters the Game.” They published a manifesto calling for an end to fabricated criminal cases and political imprisonment, among other things.

The four “policemen” who ran onto the field were Veronika Nikulshina, Olga Kurachyova, Olga Pakhtusova, and Pyotr Verzilov, who previously had never spoken publicly about his involvement with Pussy Riot. Olga Kurachyova and Olga Pakhtusova had joined the group in 2012 during the campaign in support of Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich. This was Nikulshina’s first demonstration.

Aaron Chown / PA Wire / Scanpix / LETA
Evgeny Feldman
Evgeny Feldman

“Petya [Verzilov] and I had started dating two years earlier, but I still maintained that I was apolitical,” said Nikulshina. “Then, in 2018, I saw all the bullshit going on at the World Cup — how the cops were treating Russians versus how they were treating foreigners. And I realized I wanted to make some kind of powerful statement, something a lot bigger than writing posts on social media.”

The court found the demonstrators guilty of violating Criminal Code Article 20.31, section 3 (gross spectator misconduct at an official sporting event) and sentenced them each to 15 days in jail. as well as banning them each from attending sporting events for three years.

The police also announced that Pussy Riot could potentially face criminal prosecution. 

“I asked Petya [Verzilov] about the two-year sentence,” recalled Olga Kuracheva. “But Petya, as always, said, ‘What are you talking about, two years? They don’t want a scandal on their hands, everything will be okay.’ He’s a super-optimist. But I knew that, no matter what Petya said, those two years could happen. I would be really upset if I had to spend two years behind bars, but I couldn’t say no to such a cool demonstration with such cool people.”

Nikulshina wasn’t afraid of punishment either. “I knew there would be a few days [in jail], but I also knew that if I didn’t express the anger I had inside me in some way, the rest of my life would be like a prison. Because I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself — I would have felt incomplete knowing that I could have spoken out but I didn’t,” she said.

Veronika Nikulshina before going on trial for Pussy Riot’s demonstration at the 2018 World Cup
Anton Novoderyozhkin / TASS

After getting detained at the World Cup, Nikulshina called her mother as soon as she could. She explained what had happened.

“You’re not my daughter anymore,” her mother told her.

It was several months before they next spoke. “It wasn’t an attack on her personally,” said Nikulshina. “But it just goes to show the split in our society. I was a late child, and [my mom] was already around 55. She always told me, ‘Don’t rock the boat, you can’t handle it.’ In other words, she acted like that because she was scared for me.”

On September 9, 2018, Nikulshina was detained again — this time for allegedly driving in a public transport lane. She and the friend she was with spent two days in the police station before receiving a two-day sentence, which they had already served by then, for disobeying the police.

While the sentencing was still going, Pyotr Verzilov visited the Basmanny court to support Nikulshina. Several hours after he arrived, he started to feel sick: his vision became blurry, it became difficult for him to talk, and then to walk. He was immediately hospitalized, and a few hours later, he was flown to the Charité Hospital in Berlin for treatment (two years later, Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny would be treated at the same clinic after his poisoning). German doctors determined that Verzilov had been poisoned, but they were unable to pin down exactly what substance had been used.

“[Pyotr] was involved in a lot of things: the World Cup, all of the previous demonstrations, and [an investigation into the murders of three Russian journalists in the] Central African Republic. My guess is that the authorities were thinking, ‘We’re so fucking sick of him, let’s just poison him.’ He was a super-trigger, so they decided to get rid of him that way,” said Nikulshina.

Verzilov has been abroad for the past year. He told Meduza, however, that he’s not planning “any kind of permanent migration.” “I’ve actually traveled quite a lot because I have different projects in different parts of the world. [...] What’s happening in Russia might not bode well for my other projects, so I’ve had to concentrate on them,” he explained. “But that’s all temporary — it’s not a matter of security.”

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Unexamined toxins Activists and journalists are frequently poisoned in Russia but the authorities almost never investigate these attacks. Here are five notorious cases that preceded Alexey Navalny’s recent hospitalization. 

* * * 

Photographer Alexander Sofeyev first heard about Pussy Riot during the “punk prayer” trial and immediately joined their supporters. “I started reading a lot about them, and I realized these were my kind of people,” he told Meduza.

Since 2012, Sofeyev has taken part in numerous Pussy Riot projects. When Tolokonnikova was in jail, for example, he traveled to the Mordovian prison colony to support her; he helped Alyokhina and Borisova demonstrate in support of Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov; and he worked with other activists to form the numbers 2036 on Red Square — the year until which Putin is allowed to stay in power since he amended the Russian constitution in 2020. In October 2020, he and Nikulshina carried out Pussy Riot’s highest-profile demonstration in years: on October 7, Putin’s birthday, 15 people hung rainbow flags on key government buildings in Moscow, including the FSB headquarters, the presidential administration building, the Supreme Court, the Culture Ministry, and the Basmanny District police department.

The rainbow flag on the Culture Ministry building in Moscow. October 2020.
Pussy Riot’s Facebook page / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Nikulshina and several other Pussy Riot members (including Alyokhina) were fined for the demonstration. Sofeyev, meanwhile, was sentenced to 30 days in a special detention facility. “I expected them to arrest me. But I didn’t want to hide my face or my name. It was important to me that this wasn’t just a statement for Pussy Riot but a statement from Sasha Sofeyeva,” he said. “That was the best day of the year. Because it was a sad year: the pandemic, Belarus, Navalny’s poisoning, my mother’s death. I wanted to have a bit of fun and support other people.”

According to Sofeyev, the demonstration seemed to resonate with people. “Earlier, in 2012, Pussy Riot was more misunderstood — a lot of people considered us freaks or provocateurs. But then came this great new generation of performance artists for whom Pussy Riot wasn’t shameful, it was cool!” he said. “Every year, we’ve gained more support. And I think we’ve become a trigger for the authorities: it’s not just that they don’t understand us — it’s that other people actually like us!”

But some of the people who were part of Pussy Riot in the early years disagree. “For me, this isn’t Pussy Riot,” said Taisiya Krugovykh. “It’s like they’re [the new demonstrations] done out of impotence or something. I mean, it’s good that they’re being done, but they occupy a totally different space — a bit of a capitalist space.”

“I consider it less of a movement and more of an art project done by a separate group of people who combine a variety of techniques, including marketing techniques, to achieve a large effect,” said a former Pussy Riot member who requested to remain anonymous. She noted that men play an active role in this new group, which would have been impossible with the old Pussy Riot. “Pussy Riot’s lost its queer undertone.”

Yekaterina Samutsevich and Olga Kurachyova see Pussy Riot’s current iteration as something more akin to its predecessor, Voina. “The story turned out rather circular,” said Kurachyova. “And I actually like that.”

Chapter 6

A chance to leave

For more than a decade now, the Russian police have regularly detained Pussy Riot’s members. In the past, the arrests usually occurred after demonstrations. In 2020, though, they became a preventative measure.

“Why [did the government start cracking down on protest artists]? Because art opens people’s minds,” said artist Lusine Dzhanyan. “If you allow just a little bit of freedom, the artists will appear, and the circus will begin again.”

On June 21, 2020, security agents broke down the door to Pyotr Verzilov’s apartment. They detained him and interrogated him about the 2019 Moscow protests. After the interrogation, Verzilov was attacked outside of the station. He was arrested again, and the following day he was sentenced to 15 days in prison. A source from a law enforcement agency told TASS at the time that Verzilov was allegedly planning to conduct a demonstration on June 24 during rehearsal for the Victory Day parade in Moscow; Verzilov denied it.

In the fall of that year, the police twice detained Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Rita Flores for leaving the house in blue-and-white dresses and kokoshnik headdresses. According to the police, the women’s outfits were part of an attempt to attract the attention of an “unlimited number of citizens and the media (bloggers)” and conduct a “mass demonstration” (the women themselves didn’t say why they were wearing the outfits). In December, a court fined them a thousand rubles ($13) each for violating isolation rules during the pandemic.

In May 2021, the day before Russia’s Victory Day parade, police arrested Veronika Nikulshina (for allegedly disobeying a police officer) and Alexander Sofeyev, who had gone to Tula for a Sasha Skul concert. Sofeyev was found guilty of disorderly conduct: according to the police, he “violated public order, harassed passersby, used obscene language, and behaved defiantly and inappropriately.”

Sofeyev was arrested two more times that summer for disorderly conduct. He spent a total of 27 days in a special detention facility, where he eventually contracted COVID-19. “I got pneumonia, which is still tormenting me to this day,” he said.

He wasn’t the only Pussy Riot member to catch the coronavirus while in detention — Rita Flores got it, too. That summer, she was jailed twice: once for 15 days for disobeying a police officer and once, again for 15 days, for displaying a Nazi symbol on her Instagram story. She declined to talk to Meduza “because of a lack of energy and the authorities’ general infernal paranoia. [...] I lost too much because of that arrest,” she said. “I urgently need to get back to my job and everything.”

Two other Pussy Riot members contracted the coronavirus while under administrative arrest: Maria Alyokhina and her girlfriend, Basmanny district municipal deputy Lyusya Shtein.

Shtein spent 15 days in a detention facility. After that, she believes, she managed to avoid getting arrested again by staying inside her apartment. Alyokhina was detained for a month. Additionally, both women were found guilty in the Sanitary Case; as a result, Shtein was placed under parole-like restrictions and Alyokhina was put under house arrest.

“I’ve always lived in my car, out of suitcases, in random apartments where we prepared for demonstrations, in my loved ones’ homes, with my child — basically, I’ve always been on the move. But suddenly I’m stuck in one place. And it’s not an iron door, a jail cell, or a bunch of people in uniforms keeping me here — it’s the doors [to the apartment] where I spent my childhood,” said Maria Alyokhina.

The arrests reached Pussy Riot’s allies, too — even the ones who tried to keep their involvement a secret. Director Anna Kuzminykh said she began participating in Pussy Riot’s demonstrations in 2019, but she stayed anonymous because she was worried about it affecting her work. In 2021, however, she served two stints in a special detention facility for disobeying the police.

“Certain people — people I had already made deals with — refused to finance my movies because some media reports referred to me as a Pussy Riot member,” said Kuzminykh. “So I got a little burned, but now my feeling is: fuck it, I didn’t suffer for nothing, I can now openly say that yes, I’m one of them.”

Kuzminykh has bipolar disorder and fibromyalgia, which causes pain in her muscles, ligaments, and tendons. To deal with the pain, she takes a strong prescription medication every day. In jail, however, prison officials withheld her medication. 

“It was so hard that when I woke up, I couldn’t stand. They called an ambulance, and I gave them [the medical professionals] all of the documents related to my condition, but they still thought I was just a drug addict,” said Kuzminykh.

When she finally managed to convince them to give her her medication, she said, they gave her too small a dose. As a result, they had to call the ambulance again just several hours later. “This time, different doctors came, and I had to explain everything all over again.”

After she was released, Kuzminykh wanted to move to Nizhny Novgorod, where her parents live. As soon as she left her apartment, however, she was detained again. When she saw Veronika Nikulshina, who she had escorted out of prison the previous day, in the detention center, she started to think seriously about emigrating. She and other Pussy Riot members made their plans to leave the country while still in jail. “When they would let us out to walk, Sasha Sofeyev would stand in the window and we would shout back and forth. We shouted to Sasha [Sofeyev], ‘Sasha, we’re going to Georgia!’ He said, ‘Which Georgia?’ And we said, ‘The usual one!’”

After Veronika Nikulshina, her boyfriend Roman Durov, Alexander Sofeyev, and Anna Kuzminykh had all gone to Tbilisi, they were followed by another Pussy Riot member: Vasily Krestyaninov. In late November, Krestyaninov had witnessed a car crash. When he went to the police station to give his witness report, he was met by an FSB officer. According to Krestyaninov, the officer asked him to be an informer — and threatened to arrest him and cause problems for his family members if he refused.

Krestyaninov says he only participated in one Pussy Riot demonstration: the rainbow flag demonstration against homophobia in October 2020. After the harassment he faced as a result, he decided to become a journalist. “After all, Pussy Riot isn’t just hanging up flags and performing punk prayers in the Christ the Savior Cathedral. I believe it can be any activity, including human rights advocacy and journalism,” he said.

A week after hanging the pride flags, according to Krestyaninov, he and his father were called in to speak with the FSB.

“They made it clear he would be fired [from his job as a school director]. But they used phrases like, ‘You understand what’s going on, that your son has gone down the wrong path, that he’s gone against the state,’” said Krestyaninov. “It was very difficult for my father. He has problems with his heart, high blood pressure. I could see how hard it was for him, and I was in shock, too. He’s a Distinguished Teacher of Russia, he’s worked in that school his whole life, and I was following in his footsteps, and now… So in order to keep from causing him too much trauma, I decided to quit.”

“[The authorities] should be glad — they basically got their wish. There’s nobody left [in the country]: no political parties, no activists willing to demonstrate,” he said.

* * * 

In August 2021, Moscow’s Preobrazhensky District Court sentenced Lyusya Shtein to a year of non-custodial restraint as part of the Sanitary Case. In September, Maria Alyokhina received the same sentence. The court prohibited both of them from leaving Moscow.

“The court usually extends the restraint order until the sentence goes into effect — until the appeal, which is about a month later. But in our case, they canceled it. That means they removed my [electronic] bracelet, just to be put back on later. That’s a big, fat hint: ‘We’re giving you a chance to leave,’” said Shtein.

But that’s not what she wants to do. “If I leave, I won’t be able to come back. Or I will, but I’ll go straight to a correctional institution because they’ll immediately change my conditional sentence to a prison sentence. I want to wait. I don’t have that much time left on house arrest,” she said.

Maria Alyokhina doesn’t want to leave, either.

“You know, I’ve asked myself who has it worse: people who get sent to prison, or their relatives?” said Alyokhina. “Who has a worse time: the person on a gurney in the ICU because he was poisoned, or the person sitting next to him on the plane wondering every second whether he’s going to live? A prisoner, or a protester outside of the prison who’s getting tasered or beaten? I don’t think there’s an answer.”

Alyokhina’s son turned 14 this year. She took him to get his passport with her electronic ankle bracelet on.

“I don’t know what it’s like for a kid to have his mom with him all the time at first, and then to suddenly have her be in a prison colony and only see her on short visits. I’ve never had that experience, and I hope he’ll understand me one day. Because everything we do and everything we’ve done is for Russia now and Russia in the future, that’s just the way it is,” said Alyokhina. “Do I feel guilty? No, because I believe in what I do. And it might be small right now. But I believe that everything big was once small, and history will remember.”

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Story by Kristina Safonova

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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