From punk protest to world renoun, check out who’s profiled in Vanity Fair? Pussy Riot has made the pop culture grade, acquiring glamour as well as a reputation for standing up for freedom of speech in Russia.
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“‘How do you pronounce this word? En-door? Endure. Endure.” Masha Alyokhina repeated the word several more times. She and Nadya Tolokonnikova were getting ready to give their first speech in English, to an audience of more than 2,000 women at New York’s Lincoln Center. Their biggest applause line was “Be Pussy Riot! Anyone can be Pussy Riot!”
Though often called a punk-rock group, Pussy Riot is actually a Russian protest-art collective started by non-musicians a little less than three years ago. By the rules of the group as devised by Tolokonnikova, members are always anonymous: they are Pussy Riot only when wearing their trademark neon-colored balaclavas. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are two exceptions: they were unmasked and arrested two and a half years ago after performing what they called a “punk prayer” inside Moscow’s biggest cathedral. The song appealed to the Virgin Mary to “chase Putin out.” Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were sentenced to two years in penal colonies and served 22 months in Gulag-like conditions.
It is these conditions—the slave labor, the system of punishment and control that involves holding women outside in the cold for hours and days and at times denying them even the right to wash—that they have been working to publicize ever since they got out of prison, at the end of 2013. As Pussy Riot, they have recorded a clip called “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland,” its centerpiece a real-life scene, captured on video, in which Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and several others are attacked and horsewhipped by Cossacks in Sochi. (The Cossacks, a paramilitary force, have long been menacing Russian artists and L.G.B.T. activists with the Kremlin’s explicit encouragement.) As prisoners’-rights advocates, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have traveled to various Russian regions to document human-rights abuses. In Nizhny Novgorod, they were attacked by self-identified Russian-patriot thugs, who sent Alyokhina to the hospital with a lacerated forehead and left Tolokonnikova with acid in her eyes.
After all they’ve had to endure, it is their stubborn belief in the power of information and their insistent hope for a brighter future for Russia that strike one most about Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina. That, and the fact that when they are outside of Russia they feel nothing so strongly as the need to get back to work in their own country—where, they’ve realized, they will now have to hire bodyguards….”