Breakfast with Pussy Riot

This morning I had the opportunity to meet, along with several other journalists, with two members of Russian punk collective Pussy Riot at the Washington offices of Human Rights First. They are in Washington meeting with members of congress, State Department staffers, and NGO officials to advocate on behalf of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina -- the two members of the group who are still being held in remote penal colonies on hooliganism charges over a February, 2012 performance at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. There are currently eight members of Pussy Riot -- though membership is somewhat fluid -- including Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was released on probation last October.

It's an odd sort of publicity tour. For security reasons, "Fara" and "Shaiba," who appeared to be in their 20s, did not provide their real names, did not allow themselves to be photographed without their trademark balaclavas, and refused to discuss details about their backgrounds or travel itinerary. They did say that they have been in the United States for "several days" and the Guardian reported yesterday that they had made an unannounced appearance at a feminist bookstore in New York this week. 

According to Shaiba,  Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, who have a bit more than a year left on their sentences, are being targeted. 

In Masha's institution, according to the rules, when there's a first-time offender and a criminal who's been arrested several times, they're supposed to be separated. But in her colony they're all together. She lives with various murderers, drug addicts and other criminals.

[Alekhina is] completely isolated, her letters are blocked, calls to her are blocked. As of today, for more than four months she has not been able to receive any. She does not meet with her lawyer. According to the last information, we heard she has major problems with her health, tremendous headaches. We know that she did not receive medial treatment. We are very concerned about her."

Alekhina recently completed an 11-day hunger strike to protest conditions int he prison. Shaiba noted that both women are required to work sewing police uniforms, a "humiliation because they're making uniforms for the people who have imprisoned them." 

Shaiba also discussed the recent comments by Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and Steve King, who defended the Russian government's response to Pussy Riot's church performance while visiting Moscow. The two activists met with Rohrabacher along with Reps. Steve King and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and according to Shaiba, he has "somewhat changed his viewpoints toward the opinion that it was too harsh of a punishment."

Speaking with Fara and Shaiba over bagels and coffee in an office near K Street, it's clear that much of the discussion of the Pussy Riot case in the west downplays the actual ideology of the group, transforming aggresively anti-establishment radical punk feminists into passive symbols of resistance to Putinism. 

Shaiba described the group's origins:

We decided to create a female, feminist punk group to counter the sexist society that exists in Russia and also to oppose the president and his macho-man leader image. Our female group would be a contrast to that president. Our concerts were extremely offensive to the president and to the government, especially because it is expressed by young women.

In Russia, the media was always trying to find someone manipulating us behind the scenes. They used to say that we are the agents of the State Department or looking for some producers or mysterious leaders. They was even a myth that we were the Kremlin's agents. Whatever the say - it always come back to there being a man behind us.

Discussing the group's attention grabbing name,  Shaiba said they chose the first word because it "is very female, very soft, and sometimes humiliating for women," in contrast, of course, to "riot". The balaclavas, in addition to providing anonymity, were "originally a protest against the commercializing of female features. It was important for us to extricate ourselves from this. The exposure of facial features is completely opposed to our ideology."

All of this is to say, Pussy Riot come from a somewhat different place than much of the Russian opposition, which is largely led by (predominantly male) liberal intellectuals and ex-politicians. 

"Mostly they are very conservative," Shaiba said of the rest of the anti-Putin opposition. "Of course their attitude differs. When the criminal case started, many people in the opposition decided to take our symbolism as their logo without going into details of our ideology or concepts. They just raised the balaclava sign as a movement against Putin.  This is not really an adequate approach to what we were trying to say. We were not opposed to Putin as a person, but as a system. This is a cardinal difference."

Of course, since their legal difficulties have begun, most of Pussy Riots actions have been of another kind, communicating with journalists, and politicians in Europe and the United States --  the sort of people one can imagine they themselves protesting under different conditions.

Shaiba described this as a "forced transition." "Because of the legal issues, such meetings have begun part of our lives," she 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." Though Fara quipped that "I think you can perceive this" -- the meeting we were in "as just as much of an artistic activity or any." Fara and Shaiba would not discuss plans for future performances, but said they still plan on continuing to operate as a band. 

Fara also noted that while they were grateful for the support of western artists like Madonna, they're wary about Pussy Riot becoming a brand used to market the products of media companies.  "Statements by popular musicians were a great support and we valued them a lot because it attracts a bigger audience. We are against commerce, not against those people," she said. "We are against corporations using us as a brand or trademark. We're not selling anything."

When someone suggested that perhaps they're selling freedom, she countered: "You cannot buy freedom. It's not for sale, as far as I'm concerned."