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Pussy Riot: 'We're Stronger Than the State'

August 28, 2012

by Anastasia Kirilenko, Daisy Sindelar

MOSCOW -- It's not always easy to meet with members of Pussy Riot, whether they're in jail or not.

For family members, opportunities to meet with Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich -- the three Pussy Riot members convicted last week for hooliganism -- have been distressingly few and far between.

Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, has to rise at 6 a.m. to rush to the Pechatniki detention center and add his name to a long list of relatives hoping to visit their loved ones.

Their 4-year-old daughter, Gera, has not seen her mother since she was detained in February; Alyokhina's young son, Filipp, has gone months without seeing his mother. And Samutsevich's father, a 73-year-old pensioner, is able to see his daughter only sporadically. The situation is expected to grow worse if and when the women begin to serve their two-year jail sentences.

But even outside prison, other members of the punk protest group are just as elusive.

The two other members of the feminist punk rock collective who participated in the Christ the Savior Cathedral protest have left the country to avoid prosecution.

For the remaining 12 to 15 Pussy Riot members remaining in Russia, many remain so leery of authorities they concoct elaborate schemes for meeting with journalists, often conducting interviews only once all voice recorders have been turned off and their anonymity guaranteed.

'Our Phones Are Bugged'

During a recent interview with RFE/RL, three unnamed Pussy Riot members gathered in a darkened studio. All three wore brightly colored stockings and the group's requisite balaclavas in gold, orange, and blue.

"Any girl who takes off her balaclava automatically leaves the group," said one. Innocent people living in a secular state were jailed according to the laws of the church."

They immediately extracted a promise that no personal questions would be asked -- including any queries about whether they had children.

"Our phones are bugged, so we're trying to be careful," said one. "When we're talking on the phone, we never discuss the addresses of where we're going to meet."

The women are cautious, but far from cowed. Asked whether they would curb the group's activities as a result of last week's sentencing, the response was a resounding no.

"The sentence was aimed at stopping us, stifling us, so we would give up our activities," said the woman in the blue balaclava. "We won't give up under any circumstances."

"It makes things more complicated," Orange balaclava acknowledged. "But we'll continue."

Women's Rights Still Vulnerable

No one agreed to discuss what concrete actions the group might be planning next, but they brushed off suggestions that they'll pair up with some of their better-known supporters.

"We're flattered, of course, that Madonna and Bjork have offered to perform with us," said Orange. "But the only performances we'll participate in are illegal ones. We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets."

The women defended Pussy Riot's feminist agenda, saying women's rights remain vulnerable in Russia.

"Women carry a double burden -- work, as well as raising children," said Gold, noting that Tolokonnikova and Verzilov divided their time evenly in caring for Gera.

"During protests, it surprises me when I hear someone say, 'You can't beat women!' she added. "So it's OK if it's men who are getting beaten? Isn't that sexism? Let's talk about how it's not right to beat up anyone."

Orange chimed in again. In her opinion, there are many weak men -- and not only in Russia but across the world. She cited the Lars von Trier movie "Melancholy," which offers strong portrayals of women but presents men as quislings who commit suicide or run away.

All three women nodded when asked if they attended the trial of their fellow Pussy Riot members. Asked about their thoughts of the sentencing, Blue answered, "What kind of thoughts can you have? Innocent people living in a secular state were jailed according to the laws of the church."

Preparing For The Worst

Did they worry that Pussy Riot was not seeing as many balaclava-wearing supporters as the group would hope? No, said Orange. "It's already happening. It's taken on such a scale that it shows that Pussy Riot is stronger than the state."

Lawyers for Pussy Riot have already filed an appeal in hopes of scaling back the two-year sentences for Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova, and Samutsevich.

But at the same time, they're preparing for the possibility that the women may be forced to serve their terms. Supporters have already purchased underwear and clothing for the women to wear in jail -- all black, in accordance with prison policy -- and the legal team has proposed that the women be sent to penal colonies in either Mozhaisk, Oryol, or the republic of Mordovia.

"Unlike the male prisons, there's no clear hierarchy with the women," said Nikolai Polozov, Alyokhina's lawyer. "But all the same there are fights and violence, including rape and murder. And at a time when televisions are portraying Pussy Riot as a major public enemy, anything can happen."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Anastasia Kirilenko in Moscow


Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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