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Pussy Riot: symbol of the new anti-Putin opposition
by Staff Writers
Moscow (AFP) Oct 10, 2012

The three convicted members of Pussy Riot, almost unknown one year ago, grew into the stars of a global cause celebre symbolising the repression of civic dissent under President Vladimir Putin.

The all-girl punk band, with their home-made balaclavas and neon dresses, from October 2011 to February 2012 staged impromptu performances of protest songs in public places such as a subway station and even Red Square.

But their most notorious action was when the band members on February 21 climbed onto an area around the altar in Moscow's biggest cathedral and performed a "Punk Prayer" with the title "Virgin Mary, Redeem Us of Putin".

Several members escaped and remain at large but Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were arrested and in August found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

Samutsevich was on Wednesday released after being given a suspended sentence but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina had their two-year prison camp terms upheld by the Moscow city court.

While some in the Russian opposition movement have said the Cathedral performance was ill-judged and in poor taste, their plight became a rallying cause for anti-Putin activists outraged by the severity of the sentence.

Above all, their emergence symbolised the new breed of young anti-Putin activists embracing the Internet and willing to use bold and original methods to challenge the Russian strongman.


Possibly the most visible member of the group, Tolokonnikova was born in the Norilsk nickel mining city above the Arctic Circle that Stalin developed using Soviet prison labour.

She studied at Russia's top-rated Moscow State University and is married to Pyotr Verzilov, one of the leading members of the controversial Voina (War) performance art group to which Pussy Riot is closely linked.

Voina won a prestigious Russian prize for painting a 65-metre (210-foot) phallus opposite a security service building in Putin's native Saint Petersburg.

But most notoriously, Tolokonnikova, Verzilov and several Voina members had public sex in a Moscow biological museum in 2008 in a stunt to mock Putin's protege Dmitry Medvedev. Tolokonnikova, heavily pregnant at the time, gave birth days later.

During the trial and appeals process, Tolokonnikova always insisted that the Cathedral stunt was aimed against Putin, not religious believers.

"It hurts me every time I hear that I am accused of rebelling against religion.

This is scary indeed. I do not have and have never had religious hatred inside me. I ask for forgiveness and I have asked for forgiveness before."


The single mother of a five-year-old son is a Greenpeace member who has campaigned and scuffled with police in the past during environmentalists' passionate defence of a small forest outside Moscow.

The campaign against the road building there proved fertile ground for Russian political activism by developing many of the leaders who spearheaded opposition to Putin's return to a third presidential term this year.

Alyokhina's software-engineer mother recently revealed that her daughter was also religious and was only protesting against the Church's open backing for Putin.

In her final appeals hearing statement, she mocked Putin who had described the name of the group as indecent.

"It's hardly more indecent than calls by you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, or your confidants to waste enemies in the outhouse or have the livers of protesting citizens smeared over the asphalt," she said, referring to the colourful pronouncements by Putin and his team.


The eldest of the three worked on designing computer software for the Nerpa class nuclear submarine after graduating from a Moscow physics institute.

She left to study photography and eventually graduated from a Moscow multimedia centre.

She joined the Voina performance art group at the same time and was regarded as one of the most active members of a March 2011 campaign to kiss as many policewomen as possible in public.

Samutsevich unexpectedly told the appeals court on October 1 she wanted to replace her lawyer due to differences of opinion over the case. Her new lawyer Wednesday successfully argued that Samutsevich had been apprehended by security before being able to join in the Cathedral performance and she was freed.

"It was a political and not a religious affair... I do not consider the Punk Prayer to be a crime," she said at the appeals hearing.


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