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12/04/2012 12:04 PM

'We Are Standing Our Ground'

Meeting with Pussy Riot†Members in Hiding

By Matthias Schepp in Moscow

As Moscow bans video clips by Pussy Riot, the Russian media celebrates the end of the protest band. But some of the women have gone underground and are using a hidden apartment as their headquarters. They plan to continue their fight.

"My name is Tomcat. Nice to meet you," the young woman says. She is standing in a derelict mansion on the banks of the Moskva River. A wooden door is hanging crookedly from its hinges, and the wind howls through a broken window. A snowstorm has been sweeping across the Russian capital for the last two days.

Like the other activists in the protest band Pussy Riot, who use names like Blondie, Terminator, Puck and Schumacher, the petite woman is using a fake name to conceal her identity.

To pose for a photo, she pulls a bright green wool cap over her head, into which she has cut three slits for her eyes and mouth. It's clear that she has long hair, but she doesn't want anyone to recognize much more than that about her.

Only three hours ago, a Moscow court banned four of the group's music and protest videos, and now anyone who disseminates the clips is committing a criminal offense. The judge hasn't seen any of the videos, but her ruling is based on a law that addresses extremism, which is normally used against pamphlets distributed by Chechen terrorists.

The women of Pussy Riot criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin and his political machine more coarsely than anyone has in a long time. After daring appearances in the country's most important cathedral and on Moscow's Red Square, three of the women were charged and two are now in a prison camp.

And the Kremlin still isn't letting up. The other women in the group have gone underground, knowing that they face the threat of persecution by the police and the intelligence service. Their disappearance enables Russia's propaganda machine to create the impression that the band is finished. Not so, say the women in a secret meeting with SPIEGEL; it's just that the fight has become more difficult.

A Daring Meeting

Tomcat also attended the performances that made the band world-famous. If she were caught, she too would probably end up in a prison camp. The pro-Putin, Kremlin-backed youth movement Nashi ("Ours!") is even offering a bounty for the fugitive women.

When the censorship decision was announced last Thursday, Pussy Riot had just had a rough few days. There had been quarrels between the female activists and Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of the group's imprisoned lead singer, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. She is seen as the feminist punk band's ideologue.

Then the attorneys who had been fired by the defendants accused activist Yekaterina Samutsevich of being an agent of the Kremlin. "Pussy Riot Finished," the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta cheered.

Another Russian newspaper, Izvestia, also announced the demise of the political activists-cum-musicians. The paper is owned by a wealthy friend of Putin, a man he knew in the years when former intelligence agents and organized crime figures in St. Petersburg were pilfering the assets of the former Soviet Union. The editors allowed Eduard Limonov, a well-known nationalist and leftist writer, to badmouth the band. He ridiculed Pussy Riot singer Maria Alyokhina, who is serving a prison sentence in a women's penal colony 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) from Moscow. According to Limonov, Alyokhina begged the camp warden to move her from the group barracks to an individual cell. "This red-haired and busty girl," he wrote, could no longer stand interacting with the other prisoners -- simple, working class women. "Pussy Riot has capitulated," he concluded.

When we meet with Pussy Riot member Tomcat, the Kremlin towers across the Moskva River are visible through one of the windows. The ruined mansion stands next to the headquarters of oil giant Rosneft, which is headed by another Putin friend. It's a daring move for Tomcat to meet with us in a place so close to the center of power, even though she has had to move from one apartment to the next to evade the police. "I want to show that we are standing our ground," she says. Pussy Riot must continue its fight, she adds, because it's the most visible sign that opposition still exists in Russia. "The gap between the people and the government is getting wider and wider."

Confronting Rumors

A few kilometers away, past endless rows of houses and glaring neon signs, a tiny apartment on the upper floor of a nondescript concrete high-rise apartment building serves as a refuge -- and as headquarters -- for other Pussy Riot members and supporters. Several boxes containing Tolokonnikova's belongings are lined up against the kitchen wall. From one of the boxes, a stuffed tiger that belongs to her four-year-old daughter Gera stares down at milk cartons and beer bottles. Gera is living with her grandparents now. Her tiger is wearing a pirate hat.

The women of Pussy Riot keep the address a secret, not even revealing the location to their own attorneys. Tolokonnikova's husband Verzilov lives in the apartment, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, the activist released on probation, is also staying with a friend. But they are not naÔve. They suspect that the domestic intelligence agency is familiar with the apartment, if only because Samutsevich occasionally has to use her mobile phone, which can of course be traced. Other women and sympathizers never stay very long. The group doesn't even want anyone to know how many members it has.

Samutsevich is wearing a grey tracksuit top with the word "Outsider" printed on it in red letters. Sitting at a makeshift desk in the living room, she communicates with supporters via Facebook, as she tries to put the group on the offensive once again. "They always portray us as silly geese on state television," Samutsevich explains. "Many people are against us, even though they've never heard of our ideas."

When she wants to distract herself, Samutsevich, who studied at Moscow's Rodchenko School of Photography, reads a book about the history of the film industry. A suitcase and two backpacks are on the floor. Boxes from the supermarket serve as wardrobes. The books lying around in the apartment include an illustrated book about Chinese concept artist Ai Weiwei, a book by Russian dissident and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Joseph Brodsky, as well as "The Strategy of Conflict," a classic by American economist Thomas Schelling that addresses geopolitics in the nuclear age.

Pussy Riot is currently fighting on more manageable fronts. The women's first goal is to confront the rumors about the band. Her friend Maria didn't break in the penal colony, as Izvestia wrote, says Samutsevich, nor did she voluntarily move to an individual cell to avoid the other prisoners. According to Samutsevich, the prison management segregated Maria to prevent her from agitating among the other prisoners.

Putin Capitalizes on Controversy

Samutsevich also says the accusation that Pussy Riot is now trying to capitalize on its fame is false. Last Monday, Tolokonnikova's former attorneys held a press conference in Moscow and presented a document that seemed to show that the members of Pussy Riot had given their permission for the registration of a company to market the group's name. It even included the notarized signatures of Samutsevich and the two others.

"But we reject any form of commercialization," says Samutsevich. "The attorneys came to the pretrial detention center and surreptitiously obtained the blank signatures." According to Samutsevich, the attorney had claimed that they needed the signatures for formalities during the subsequent course of the proceedings.

But the worst slander came from Putin himself, says Samutsevich. In a meeting at the Kremlin in mid-November, he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the activists were anti-Semitic. He was referring to an event in September 2008, one that Samutsevich herself attended.

The choppy video of the event depicts a group that preceded Pussy Riot, Voina ("War"). In the film, Voina crudely imitates the execution of three migrant workers from Central Asia and two homosexuals, wearing hot pants and feather boas. It was intended as a campaign against xenophobia and homophobia, and perhaps it was tasteless. But, says Samutsevich, "we didn't portray a Jew."

It's unclear whether Putin was given the wrong information by his aides. It is clear, however, that he has benefited from the polemics in Russia.

Many Russians are receptive to propaganda that demonizes Pussy Riot. In a film depicting another Voina campaign that is often shown on television, a young woman in a supermarket shoves a frozen chicken between her legs in protest of excessive consumption. It's the sort of performance that makes it easy for Putin's propaganda experts to portray the artist-activists as eccentric oddballs -- and the entire opposition along with them.

Is There an Informant?

It's a battle of David against Goliath, a few women challenging the power of the Kremlin and its media organizations. And perhaps another biblical figure also plays a role in the drama surrounding Pussy Riot: Judas. "When we entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, I had the feeling that someone had already leaked the entire event," says Samutsevich.

The women had planned to shoot a provocative video in the area surrounding the altar. It was Tuesday, Feb. 21, and the cathedral was mostly empty. But to Samutsevich, it seemed as though the cathedral guards had been waiting for them. She also thinks it's strange that a member of a radical Orthodox church group was in the cathedral on the day of the performance, even though there was no mass being read and nothing else was going on.

The radical Christian group has only a few dozen active supporters throughout Moscow. But the man's testimony would later play an important role in the trial, when he said that the performance had offended his religious feelings. The judgment against the women who had been apprehended was based on the man's statements.

Was the whole thing staged by Putin's omnipresent intelligence agents? The campaign against Pussy Riot helped Putin mobilize his conservative voter base directly before the presidential election.

The affair also split the opposition, whose rigidly nationalistic wing didn't like it when Pussy Riot disparaged Patriarch Kirill, the religious head of the Russian Orthodox Church, as a pig in the sanctuary.

Even the patriarch himself, viewed critically by the Kremlin as a rival over moral leadership in the country, has now been damaged. When a heated debate erupted in the church over whether the women should be punished or forgiven, Kirill vacillated back and forth, and his popularity suffered greatly as a result.

Accusations Called Ridiculous

Putin, however, benefited from the affair, partly from the suspicions it generated about the opposition that are now serving to destroy it, a situation typical in surveillance states. Prominent Putin critic Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister, even believes that Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova's husband, is working for the intelligence service.

Milov describes an odd appearance by Verzilov and Tolokonnikova at an anti-Putin demonstration in April 2007, when the couple had incited the crowd to attack police officers. According to Milov, marshals grabbed the couple and turned them over to uniformed police officers, fearing that they could trigger an escalation.

But suddenly, says Milov, men turned up in civilian clothes, apparently government officials. They then spoke to their uniformed colleagues and "prevented the provocateurs from being arrested."

Verzilov calls the accusation ridiculous.

It's become dark in the apartment being shared by several Pussy Riot members. Samutsevich slips on a parka and walks to the post office in downtown Moscow. She wants to send her friend Tolokonnikova a telegram at the penal colony with the latest news and some words of encouragement.

Some youths recognize Samutsevich in the subway. During the trial, images of her and the two others were broadcast on TV almost every day as they sat in a glass cage in the courtroom.

The young people stare at the Pussy Riot woman with big eyes, as if she were an evil spirit.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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