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Russia's Pussy Riot: Unmasked and on trial

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Aug. 8, 2012, 10:16 a.m. | Russia and former Soviet Union — by Associated Press

Yekaterina Samutsevich's father had his first hint that his studious daughter was part of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot when he received a call to bail her out of jail.
© AFP

Associated Press

Associated Press

MOSCOW - Yekaterina Samutsevich's father had his first hint that his studious daughter was part of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot when he received a call to bail her out of jail.

Like other members of the political protest group, she wore a brightly coloured balaclava at performances and used various nicknames at interviews in the belief that anonymity was as vital to their militant philosophy as the ability to shock.

But any last hope of keeping her identity a secret died when she and two bandmates were arrested after Pussy Riot belted out a profanity-laced "punk prayer" deriding Vladimir Putin on the altar of Moscow's main cathedral on Feb. 21.

Samutsevich, 29, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, are now instantly recognisable for many Russians.

Television footage of their pale faces peering out of a courtroom cage are now beamed across Russia daily as they face trial on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for which the state prosecutor wants a three-year jail term.

"It was a shock the authorities made such a serious case out of this," said Samutsevich's grey-haired father, Stanislav.

His daughter, like her bandmates, is a well educated, middle class Muscovite, and graduated top of her class. But he is now preparing for the prospect of seeing her imprisoned.

In jail awaiting trial, Samutsevich has spent her time reading philosophical literature such as works by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zhizek and Frenchman Michel Foucault.

The women have been denounced by some Russian Orthodox Christians for doing "the devil's work" but are held up as heroes by the Russian opposition, whose leaders portray the trial as part of a crackdown on dissent by Putin since he returned to the presidency in May after four years as premier.

Pussy Riot has about 10 to 20 members at any given time and no fixed lineup. Its members make their appearances hiding their faces inside their trademark balaclavas, usually wearing short dresses and mismatched tights, and wielding electric guitars.

"The idea of the group is that taking part in Pussy Riot is absolutely anonymous and anyone can take part," said one member going by the name of "Sparrow", who took the stage in a ski mask along with several other Pussy Riot activists during the encore of a Moscow gig of U.S. heavy metal band Faith No More in July.

To join the group, the most important thing was "to not be afraid" and "be a punk," she told Reuters.

After letting Pussy Riot perform at his gig, Faith No More frontman Mike Patton returned to the stage in a brightly-coloured balaclava and Pussy Riot T-shirt. Countless other international rock stars, including Sting, Peter Gabriel and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, have spoken up in their defence.

The trial is proving life-changing for those around them. Friends and families are under surveillance and two band members have fled abroad. Members say the protests will continue.

"We don't have a choice. We want to change our country," a group of members said in an email. "When you live under such a government, you understand you can be jailed at any moment and for nothing."

ANGERED BY PUTIN RETURN

The collective protest group is rooted in a Russian tradition of radical performance art. Much about its members is secret but details have gradually come out about the three on trial, who were among the group's founders.

"They are all feminists. Nadia (Tolokonnikova) is a philosopher. Masha (Alyokhina) is a writer and Katya (Samutsevich) a media artist. Smart, sensitive girls, good friends and progressive people," their bandmates said.

Some believers would have it otherwise, regarding their protest as an insult serious enough to merit jail terms. State prosecutor Alexei Nikiforov said on Tuesday their actions "clearly show religious hatred and enmity."

The group was born in October last year after Putin and then-President Dmitry Medvedev announced they planned to swap jobs. Although Putin still had to win a presidential election, which he duly did in March, many Russians saw their decision as a slap in the face of democracy.

It also meant Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008, and prime minister for four years until May, would be back in the Kremlin for at least six more years until 2018.

"I couldn't sleep after that. I wanted to go out in the street, take a microphone and scream 'Russia without Putin!' because I had so much rage," one Pussy Riot member, w e aring a makeshift balaclava out of a green woollen hat, told Reuters in an interview in February.

Pussy Riot declined invitations to perform on stage at winter opposition protests, with which they sympathised, because they wanted to adhere strictly to their concept of impromptu, unsanctioned appearances that have a shock factor.

They first made a splash in January when they sang "Rebellion in Russia/Putin pissed himself" under the Kremlin walls on Red Square. All eight performers were hauled away by police and fined. That was when Samutsevich's father came to bail her out.

They again donned their costumes a few weeks later to perform their punk prayer to the Virgin Mary to "Throw Putin out!" in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in central Moscow. Other performances on the subway, close to a prison and on a trolley bus became Internet sensations.

PUNK, NOT OPERA

"Our sound is punk. It's not opera. It's an emotional outpouring," said one member of the group in February.

The group says it was inspired by Riot Grrrl, a 1990s movement of underground U.S. feminist punk bands, and by the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous radical art collective founded in New York in the 1980s, whose members wear gorilla masks. Their name was in part a homage to Riot Grrl but also a play on words.

"Pussy is a cat and also how you can describe a women. The word play is based on a mix of something extremely soft and something extremely hard - Pussy and Riot," one of the women said in February. "That is how we look: We are very feminine but we have these scary masks. Some people see us and are scared."

Many members did not tell parents and friends about the protest project, knowing not everyone would approve.

"Honestly, I didn't like it. I don't see it as art," said Alyokhina's mother Natalya, a computer programmer who is caring for her five-year-old grandson while her daughter is on trial.

Before forming Pussy Riot, the three women were part of the radical art protest collective Voina (War) which once painted a phallus on a movable cantilever bridge in St Petersburg, making it look like an erection when the bridge rose.

In another of Voina's actions, Tolokonnikova - who was pregnant at the time - and her husband Pyotr Verzilov were among activists who had sex in public at a museum.

The protest, under a banner that read "Fuck the Bear cub heir", was against Putin steering Medvedev - whose name derives from the Russian word for bear - into the presidency in 2008.

Tolokonnikova and Verzilov met Alyokhina when she joined Voina in 2009. They had met Samutsevich in 2008, when she was a student at Moscow's prestigious Rodchenko art school.

In 2010, they released thousands of cockroaches in a courthouse to protest against a trial of two Moscow curators over an art exhibit seen as blasphemous by the Church.

Pussy Riot appear, however, to have been surprised by the degree of outrage among many Orthodox believers, and by church leaders who have said they are "under attack from persecutors".

The church's head, Patriarch Kirill, has called Putin's 12-year rule a "miracle of God" and aides have demanded tough sentences. Putin says there was nothing good in what the women did but has suggested they should not be judged too harshly.

FEAR OF HARASSMENT

The prosecution's case is built around the sense of offence felt by believers in a country where the Orthodox Church has enjoyed a revival since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Putin has increasingly courted the church's leaders.

The women have denied in the trial, which began on July 30, that they intended to insult believers.

Verzilov said his wife had "absolutely no regrets." He said it was proving hard for their four-year-old daughter who was drawing pictures showing "plans to break mummy out of prison."

Two members of the band fled to Prague after the January performance on Red Square to escape what they called harassment.

"They (police) went to see my family ... They asked for some personal pictures. They asked who I hang out with, where I go," said one of the women, who was aged 25.

The women met Reuters in a downtown Prague cafe last month. They came casually dressed, without balaclavas, but were visibly nervous talking to the media and asked that no photos be taken.

They said they had received threatening photo collages on social networking sites, set to the music of a funeral march.

"No one knew who could show up at their door at any moment, and everyone was afraid of living at their home address," said one of the two women.

Back in Russia, Pussy Riot's supporters, friends and family say the judiciary is not independent and fear the worst.

"There is no hope in this court. It is an especially organised tribunal to put pressure on the any manifestation of opposition in the country," Stanislav Samutsevich said.

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