Masha, Nadia and Katia (Pussy Riot) - Punks against Putin

Pussy Riot emerged in 2011 on the waves of popular discontent with the rule of Vladimir Putin, who was preparing to get elected for a third term as Russia’s president. The mass protests of the so-called ‘creative class’ found various unexpected ways of expression. The surprise performances of young women in colourful balaclavas singing anti-Putin songs in unusual places, elicited smiles from bystanders.

Pussy Riot quickly became a hallmark of resistance against the Putin regime and the ever closer ties between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. Their most daring act became a performance from the altar of Moscow’s landmark Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where Easter and Christmas services are held in the presence of the patriarch and often one or more of the country’s leaders.

Pussy Riot hardly managed to stage their act before being expelled from the church after one minute. Shortly afterwards, three members, Mariya (Masha) Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were detained, tried and convicted for hooliganism. ‘We knew that sooner or later something like that would happen, but we did not know when,’ says Samutsevich. 

State-sponsored Russian television lashed out against the women, calling their performance an act of blasphemy and a well-coordinated attack against traditional Russian values. After their appeal, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were sentenced to two years in a labour camp, while Samutsevich received a suspended sentence.

Alyokhina was sent to a camp in the Urals and later transferred to Nizhny Novgorod. Tolokonnikova started her sentence in Mordovia and was subsequently moved to Siberia. Both were released under an amnesty law in December 2013, just months before the end of their sentence.

A decision by a Moscow court to consider all video clips produced by Pussy Riot ‘extremist’ has not been revoked, however, and showing them in public remains illegal. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have become true celebrities, travelling the world to share their experience of life in Russia’s penal colonies and call for attention for the state of its penitential system. They seek to register a new human rights group focusing on the situation in prisons and penal colonies.

According to Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, their mission is to change the current system and save lives. ‘There are people who are now on the brink of death,’ Alyokhina said after her release. ‘We have drawn our conclusions while in prison. We want to devote ourselves to human rights.’

By Geert Groot Koerkamp