SOCHI, Russia - Some marvel at their brazen nerve. Others condemn the young women as anarchic and enemies of the state.
One thing’s for certain, Pussy Riot is media savvy.
Two members of the Russian punk group were detained in the host city of the Winter Olympics on Tuesday. By the time the group was released from a Sochi police station a few hours later, cameras were out in force to record the curious sight of the women running down the street wearing bright dresses and with colorful face masks concealing their identities.
It was their first public performance since they were arrested in March 2012, and raises questions about what they plan next.
The group is - accidentally or by design - amorphous and members come and go. The two women detained for a few hours in Sochi, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, spent nearly two years in jail for their Pussy Riot activities, but some members contend they are no longer part of the group. That’s how chaotic it is.
The Associated Press takes a look at Pussy Riot and what their future might hold.
WHO ARE THEY?
Pussy Riot started out in 2011 as an anonymous feminist punk band. Most prominently, they staged unannounced performances outside a Moscow jail and on Red Square aimed against President Vladimir Putin, who was running for his third term in office.
Police issued an arrest warrant for the members when five women wearing garish balaclavas stormed Moscow’s main cathedral and started singing a song entreating the Virgin Mary to drive Putin away. That was less than a month before Putin was elected.
Three women who were at the cathedral were identified and subsequently put on trial: Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Police have never found the other two members.
In August 2012, Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and Samutsevich, all in their 20s, were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison. Samutsevich was subsequently released and given a suspended sentence.
Tolokonnikova and Alekhina served nearly their entire terms before they were released under an amnesty in late December. Their release, along with the pardoning of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was widely viewed as a Kremlin effort to deflect criticism of its human rights record before the Olympics.
While the Pussy Riot members were under arrest and later in Russian prison, their cause attracted celebrity followers abroad, including Madonna and Paul McCartney. Madonna dedicated her 2012 Moscow gig to Pussy Riot and met the band during an Amnesty International concert in New York earlier this month.
Shortly after her release, Samutsevich distanced herself from Tolokonnikova and Alekhina. She continued to publicly support them while they were in jail but did not take part in any Pussy Riot performances. Samutsevich, an arts graduate, fell out with Tolokonnikova’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov, who has clearly been managing the group and attracting international support for the jailed members.
Tolokonnikova and Alekhina, inseparable since their release, insisted they were no longer interested in performing and set up a rights group, pledging to devote all their time to helping prison inmates. Both women made multiple appearances overseas these last two months to press their campaign for improved conditions in Russia’s notoriously difficult prisons and were introduced as Pussy Riot members.
This didn’t sit well with other Pussy Riot members who have spent the past two years in the shadows. The band’s anonymous members announced in their official blog this month that “it’s an open secret that Tolokonnikova and Alekhina have left the band.” They lamented in the blog post that the two “got so much involved in the problems of Russian prisons that they completely forgot about the strivings and ideals of our band: feminism, separatist resistance, fight against authorities and the personality cult.” The anonymous members said they were convinced that Tolokonnikova and Alekhina would not be performing anymore.
Pussy Riot has insisted that the group has a loose membership, and anyone who shares the ideals of feminism, freedom and equality is welcome to join. How the band recruits new members remains a mystery.
WHAT ARE THEY CAPABLE OF?
Alekhina, a vegan with a penchant for poetry, and Tolokonnikova, with a background in risque performance art, provoked a harsh reaction with their activities in the Moscow church.
Over the past two years, the 24-year-old Tolokonnikova and the 25-year-old Alekhina, who were initially disregarded as “silly girls” who were foolish and unlucky enough to cross the red line in the Russian political protest, have raised their profile by shedding light on appalling conditions at Russian prisons and corresponding about lofty matters with leading Russian and international thinkers.
Pussy Riot has never voiced any political views except for its opposition to Putin and his regime, which it calls dictatorial.
Over the months of the trial, appeals and parole hearing, both women seem to have mastered the legal profession, sometimes defending themselves in court and quoting Russian law by heart.
Tolokonnikova and Alekhina seem so closely drawn to the plight of Russian inmates that they were routinely criticized for spending too little time with their young children. Both women called for the boycott of the 2014 Olympics, saying that by visiting Sochi world leaders would be justifying the persecution of activists and Putin’s political rivals in the country.
Tolokonnikova and Alekhina seem to have spent most of their time meeting with former prison inmates and publicizing the cases of abuse in Russian prisons. Until Tuesday, there was no indication that the two wanted to engage in the fist-and-chant protests that made them famous.
Neither the women nor Verzilov would comment on the future of the band.