One day in October, three women in fluorescent masks and minidresses mounted a scaffold in a Moscow metro station, grabbed guitars and amplifiers, and began to play their first hit, “Loosen the paving stones!”
“Egyptian air is good for the lungs! Let’s make Tahrir in the middle of Red Square,” they sang, punching the air in unison, as alternately bemused and shocked commuters watched and filmed them with their mobile phones.
Five months later, these lyrics seem clairvoyant, after Moscow was convulsed by street demonstrations following flawed parliamentary elections in December. The all-female punk group, known as Pussy Riot, has become a household name in Russia, embodying a brazen push for female emancipation in the country’s stiflingly macho, conservative society. To their critics, they are simply publicity-seeking blasphemers.
The group declined to be interviewed in person, fearing for their safety but agreed to chat with the Financial Times over Skype. A band member who gave her name only as Shayba described them as adherents of “third wave feminism” and the Riot Grrrl movement of underground feminist punk rockers in the US. Their lyrics target in equal measure Vladimir Putin, authoritarian government, sexism and rape.
The sine qua non of any Pussy Riot performance, according to Shayba, is “illegality”.
“Illegality is an essential element of our art,” she said. “We never get permission for our performances.”
In January and February they pulled stunts such as performing the song “Putin wet his pants” in the middle of Red Square, and most infamously, “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, Expel Putin!” next to the altar at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The band has gone to ground after several members were arrested this month. Two are in jail awaiting trial for alleged “hooligan behaviour” in the cathedral stunt, threatened with eight-year prison terms that have come to symbolise a new crackdown by the Putin regime against dissent.
A third member of the group was arrested on Friday, according to their lawyer.
“The proposed punishment of up to eight years of criminal liability is absolutely incommensurate with the girls’ actions,” Human Rights Watch said this week.
The threatened jail terms may reflect the level of fury of the Kremlin.
“This is an insult, blasphemy, sacrilege and a desecration of the Orthodox church,” Maxim Shevchenko, a pro-Kremlin television spresenter, told a radio station in late February. “The church is not a place for gay and lesbian activists”.
The informal leader of the band is one of the two in jail, Nadezhda Tolokno, a 22-year-old philosophy student at Moscow state university. She is also a member of the “War” Art Collective, a guerrilla art movement famed for painting a 65m long phallus on a drawbridge next to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service in St Petersburg in 2010.
Her husband Pyotr Verzilov, speaking outside court on Wednesday, said: “She is interested in everything and reads a lot of philosophy”.
Shayba refused to dwell on the personal stories of members of the band. The overriding principle of the group is anonymity.
“Masks are our visual style and a core principle of the group. We don’t want people to focus on us as individuals or biographies. We want people to look at us an idea,” she said. “It’s a principal of universality. We want people to think that anyone you see walking down the street can be a member of Pussy Riot.”
She counted 11 band members, with names like Balaklava, Cat, Seraph, Terminator and Blondie but said: “There is no fixed number, entrance is not limited – in principle anyone can join.”
Another band member, Garadzha, said musical ability was not a limiting factor in potential recruits. “You don’t have to sing very well. It’s punk. You just scream a lot,” she told daily newspaper Moskovkie Novosti.
Shayba said Russia’s president-elect had become a symbol of all that was wrong with the country. “[Putin] has repeatedly made sexist statements that the main task of women is child bearing and being in a passive position relative to men,” she said.
A September 2011 announcement by Mr Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the president, that they would swap jobs proved a catalyst for the band’s formation. “It was so disappointing to us, it showed us what kind of a country we were living in,” Shayba said.
Then came the rigged parliamentary elections. Demonstrators clashed with riot police, sparking a street movement that culminated on December 24 with a protest of 100,000 in central Moscow, the largest since the early 1990s.
That, she said, was the inspiration for the song “Putin wet his pants”. “We saw how troops were moving around Moscow, there were helicopters in the sky, the military was put on alert. The regime just wet its pants on that day. And the symbol of the regime is Putin”.
Get alerts on Russia when a new story is published