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...

What Does Pussy Riot Mean Now?

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...

What Does Pussy Riot Mean Now?

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

Source:   Buzzfeed
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