Quietly, Pussy Riot Lobbies Washington

TIME speaks with two members of the Russian dissident girl band Pussy Riot as their videos and music are banned in Russia.

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William Webster / REUTERS

Members of Russian female punk group Pussy Riot in Moscow August 13, 2012.

Correction appended: June 11.

The young women – they wouldn’t give their ages or any other personal information – looked decidedly nervous without their usual colorful balaclava disguises, and before we began they insisted through an interpreter that if I broadcast the recording of our interview that I disguise their voices. After months of living as fugitives within their own country, baring their faces and the voices was clearly tough. But there they were: two core members of Russian girl punk band Pussy Riot, meeting with Washington journalists on Friday morning trying to raise international awareness of their band’s plight.

The women – we’ll call them Fara and Shaiba – have good reason to be afraid, as they told me in an interview before their press conference on Friday. Of the roughly dozen members of their band, three were arrested for a 40-second 2012 performance of an anti-Kremlin song at Russia’s main orthodox church in Moscow. The others, including Fara and Shaiba, would be detained if Russian authorities could find them. The three women who were caught – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich – were sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Samutsevich was released on appeal in October but told to remain in Russia. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, whom her band mates call Masha, remain is separate penal colonies.

Fara and Shaiba said that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government have successfully quashed most press coverage of the imprisoned Pussy Riot members and that international attention is waning. Whereas the support from the likes of Madonna and Paul McCartney once drew headlines in Russia, today Pussy Riot videos and music are banned, as are balaclava masks and spontaneous demonstrations. Authorities even scrubbed works of art dedicated to or referencing Pussy Riot from a recent contemporary art show in Moscow, Shaiba said. “There’s been a decrease in attention and we’re trying to tell people that their support is necessary,” Shaiba said. “Russia has made a huge campaign against us. If foreign media take what Russian press says about us, they would be printing a lot of misinformation.”

Both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were recently denied bail. Tolokonnikova is in a penal colony for mostly political prisoners, Shaiba and Fara said. Alyokhina, they claimed, is serving time with murderers and other hard criminals – something that concerns her band mates since first time offenders are meant to be in a different group. In Alyokhina’s colony when one prisoner does something wrong, her whole group of roughly 120 women gets punished, and authorities have blamed Alyokhina’s for several infractions, provoking death threats from other prisoners and landing her in solitary confinement, Shaiba said.

Both women are treated differently than other prisoners, their band mates said, and are subjected to frequent interrogations where authorities try to coerce them into admitting they are enemies of the state and to give up the identities and locations of the other band mates. All communication to and from Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina is monitored, Shaiba and Fara claimed, and Alyokhina didn’t even have access to counsel, a situation that was only remedied when she went on a hunger strike for 11 days. Alyokhina, who has been experiencing debilitating headaches, does not have adequate access to health care, they said. “For Masha it is really bad,” Shaiba says. “We are very worried.”

While in Washington, Shaiba and Fara met with State Department and other Administration officials as well as members of Congress, including Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Dana Rohrabacher and Democrat Steve Cohen. Earlier this month on an official trip to Russia, Rohrabacher and fellow Republican Rep. Steve King said Russia was right to give Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina prison sentences for their anti-government protest. “If anyone came into my church…and did that, it would be difficult for me to stand up and say they had a human right to do that,” King said at the time. King added that the church “had been desecrated by those riots,” not seeming to understand that despite the band’s name, the protest was peaceful.

Shaiba said that after meeting with them, Rohrabacher, at least, “somewhat changed his viewpoints toward the opinion that it was too harsh of a punishment.”

Before coming to Washington, Shaiba and Fara – disguised in balaclavas — attended the New York premiere of an HBO documentary on Pussy Riot. That documentary, which traces the origins of the band, airs tonight.

Shaiba and Fara said they have never considered leaving Russia and believe that what they are doing is for the greater good of the country, even if another performance seems somewhat far off. “This is a forced transition… because of the legal issues, such meetings have become part of our lives,” Shaiba said. “We’re doing them to help our friends and help our issues. But it doesn’t mean that we’ve left our traditional artistic activities behind. Right now, they’re in parallel.”

*Corrects that Pussy Riot met with Democrat Rep. Steven Cohen, not Republican Rep. Steven King.

1 comments
formerlyjames
formerlyjames

It's no minor task for Russians to secure a US visa, let alone arrange an audience in DC.  Russia is hunting them down?  The article fails to resolve my confusion.