World News

02.21.14

Pussy Riot Whips Sochi

The punk rock activists performed a new project called “Putin will teach you how to love the motherland”—and became the targets of a spectacle of violence that quickly went global.

On Thursday, shortly before running to the airport, the punk protest group Pussy Riot had farewell drinks with their friends from local civil society organizations at the  Munich bar in Sochi. The discussion at the table buzzed around the “dumb” and “self-discrediting” treatment of the activists by Russian authorities in the midst of the Olympic Games. Maria Alyokhina, who was recently released from jail under an pre-Olympic amnesty, said that after spending almost two years incarcerated for a protest punk performance, she was not surprised with “typical actions by authorities in Sochi against people with different opinions.”

The activists had arrived in Sochi with the aim of performing a new song called “Putin will teach you how to love the motherland.” But thanks to the security lockdown, the project proved more difficult than the band expected. “They tried to stop us by beating us with whips, by spraying gas into our eyes and onto our faces,” Alyokhina told The Daily Beast.

 In the five days of their Sochi visit, Pussy Riot and their local friends had been detained three times, beaten, injured, whipped and sprayed with pepper gas by police and Cossack militias. The abuse, documented by dozens of the world’s best television crews, did not look good for the image of Olympic city of Sochi, nor for the rest of Russia. Alongside the images of god-like athletes in uniform, now this image from Sochi beamed around the world—the girls in balaclavas, crying out as men in black and red uniforms brandished a long whip.  “Authorities miscalculated: their violence and injustice became a part of the video we released this morning,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova told The Daily Beast.

Video screenshot

One of the friends at the table, Aleksei Kniadliakovsky, had a fresh bandage around his head. During Wednesday’s performance, he said, several Cossack militia members had twisted  his arms, grabbed his guitar and smashed his face with it. “They beat us right before the eyes of police, who were supposed to protect people during the Olympic Games,” Kniadlikovsky said. “Both our governor and the Olympic committee promised to investigate the attack on us. The Olympics are almost over, I hope that the investigation actually happens.”

In this way, both state officials and local police became the visual illustration to the band’s new song. Tolokonnikova explained that the band devoted their song to political prisoners arrested for protesting in Moscow, and to the ecologist Yevgeny Vetishko, recently sentenced to three years of prison on a pretext after criticizing the Olympic preparations.

Tolokonnikova said that, underneath her dress, she still had red lines from whip marks on her arms and back. But she said that doctors did not believe her story. “The doctor suggested that my red lines came not from Cossack whips but from the rubber belt of my underwear,” Tolokonnikova said. In response, the activists showed a video of the beatings to dozens of journalists at a press conference the next morning.

In the five days of their Sochi visit, Pussy Riot and their local friends had been detained three times, beaten, injured, whipped and sprayed with pepper gas by police and Cossack militias.

A local activist at the table, Olga Noskovets, with Environmental Watch, said she appreciated “reviving” Pussy Riot’s visit. “The band identified and exposed all the sore points we have in our life,” Noskovets said. “Under Pussy Riot’s wing I had a chance to tell a crowd of journalists about Olympic refugees who lived right around the corner,” she said.

State officials had different reaction to what happened to Pussy Riot in Sochi. Putin’s adviser, Sergei Markov, said that “whoever Pussy Riot’s producers were, they had a brilliant strategy.”  He then said that that, if it hadn’t been for Putin’s security forces, “Cossacks would have killed Pussy Riot” in Sochi. Meanwhile, United Russia parliament deputy Robert Shchlegel told The Daily Beast, that “it was a mistake to let Pussy Riot come to Sochi.” 

Foreign journalists covering Pussy Riot’s odyssey this week wondered how officials learned about the band’s movement around Sochi. “As a journalist, I often find it difficult to pin down the band and film their actions but police and Cossacks had exact information about the band’s movement and even brought somebody dressed as a rooster with them,” VICE News reporter Simon Ostrovsky said to The Daily Beast in an interview in Sochi.

(The rooster was a reference to the fact that pro-Kremlin youth movements and militias have a tradition of discrediting Pussy Riot by reminding Russians of a controversial project that involved chickens, wherein an activist put a chicken in her underwear to steal it from a supermarket. In fact, the activist belonged to the art collective Voina, and not Pussy Riot. Nevertheless, at Pussy Riot’s Sochi press conference, pro-Kremlin activists showed up with dead chickens. Tolokhonnikova and Alyokhina appeared highly amused.)

Apart from Western observers, the reaction to Pussy Riot’s visit in Sochi was often negative. Pedestrians mumbled that women in bright dresses and balaclavas jumping with guitars in Sochi streets must be drunk or insane. “Our people stay politically passive when others devote their lives to fighting against authorities’ violations, and that is the biggest trouble of Russia,” Pussy Riot’s Alyokhina said. And added a sad smile: “ But Putin will teach them how to love the motherland.”