Jailed, whipped, in exile – but Pussy Riot won’t stop taunting Vladimir Putin

A decade of Kremlin oppression – and Western disdain – haven’t quashed the punk activists’ spirit

23 September 2022 • 6:00am

Four members of Pussy Riot: Maria Alekhina, Diana Burkot, Olga Borisova and Taso Pletner
Four members of Pussy Riot: Maria Alekhina, Diana Burkot, Olga Borisova and Taso Pletner CREDIT: Rii Schroer

A few hours ahead of their gig at the University of Kent, Russian punk collective Pussy Riot are laughing at a clip of a chat show where Kremlin MPs discuss the Ukraine war. The politicians are debating Russia’s next move, and their suggestions are not the kind of thing you hear on the BBC’s Question Time. One MP suggests nuking Britain, saying: “If we turn the British Isles into a Martian desert in three minutes flat, Nato won’t respond.” 

Then the Pussy Riot giggles stop. “After years of hearing this kind of stuff, we make jokes about it, but of course it’s not funny – it’s frightening, evil,” says Maria Alyokhina, 34, one of the group’s founding members. “It took the Nazis years to come up with this kind of propaganda – Russia has taken just a few months.” 

Nobody can say that Pussy Riot didn’t warn us. Ten years ago, they became the balaclava-clad face of Russia’s protest movement, after sneaking into a Moscow cathedral to perform a raucous “punk prayer” against Vladimir Putin. In outrage terms, it was Russia’s answer to the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, although the penalties were more than just tabloid fury. Maria and two others were jailed for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. 

Since then, the collective have toured the world, their mix of Slavic girl power and LGBT politics earning namechecks from Madonna to Hillary Clinton. They have been jailed multiple further times, pepper-sprayed, squirted with Holy Water and whipped. Human rights groups have declared them prisoners of conscience. God-fearing Putin supporters suspect they may be witches. But for a long time, their warnings that his rule was becoming a dystopian nightmare seemed perhaps a bit overblown. Not anymore. 

When we meet at the Canterbury campus on Wednesday, the band are digesting Putin’s comments the night before that he is not “bluffing” in his threats to use nuclear weapons against the West. He has also announced the mobilisation of 300,000 army reservists to try to turn the tide in the war. In refusing to accept that Ukraine is no longer Russia’s vassal state, Alyokhina observes that Putin is acting like an abusive husband. “It is like a domestic violence case,” she says. “The aggressor cannot accept that the other partner now wants to live independently.” 

Pussy Riot protesting in Moscow's Red Square in 2012
Pussy Riot protesting in Moscow’s Red Square in 2012 CREDIT: Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

She herself has already quit Putin’s controlling influence. Having served six jail stints in the last year and a half alone – she was behind bars when Putin invaded in February – Alyokhina was put under house arrest upon release, with security agents watching her flat. Rather like the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine, though, they proved less formidable than one might expect. She escaped by the simple ruse of dressing as a food courier, leaving her phone behind to avoid being tracked. In April, she crossed into Lithuania, aided by a travel document issued by a friendly European country. 

She has now hooked up with current bandmates Olga Borisova, Diana Burkot, and Taso Pletner, who left using their normal passports. Despite the tensions with Europe, Russians are still largely free to come and go – although whether Pussy Riot would be advised to return home is another question. 

For it is fair to say that their current European tour – scheduled for the student circuit in Britain and also Ireland and Norway – is unlikely to get rave reviews in Russian state media. 

The content – a blend of performance art and industrial techno – is a none-too-subtle rant against the “bitch” Putin, who “Botoxed his cheeks and puffed up his chest”. Ticket revenues, meanwhile, will go to help Ukrainian refugees. Putin supporters may regard such benefit gigs as treason. So can they really return home afterwards? 

“Er… physically, yes,” says Borisova, 28. A pause follows, suggesting this is not an option to be taken lightly. “Right now, though, we are focusing on our tours and raising money for Ukraine, rather than being arrested and silenced.” 

Pussy Riot in 2012
Pussy Riot in 2012 CREDIT: Vanya Berezkin/Corbis

On which note, should you wish to see them in action, it may also be worth first girding yourself by watching their acclaimed 2013 documentary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. It charts the origins of the group’s punk ethos – a protest not just against Putin’s government, but the macho, traditional Russian Orthodox values he promoted, with young women encouraged to breed for Mother Russia. 

Musically, their early influences included British bands such as the Angelic Upstarts, whose song “Police Oppression” they once sampled, but in the true spirit of punk, the message always mattered more. The documentary shows footage of their infamous 2012 performance at Christ the Saviour Cathedral, when they leapt around the altar shouting “Mother of God, Rid us of Putin”. A furious nun chases them, shouting: “God will judge you!” 

So too did the Russian courts, which sentenced Alyohkina and two other then members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, to two years jail each – not that it acted as much deterrent. Two months after being released, Alyokhina did another gig upstaging Putin’s showcase Winter Olympics in Sochi, when she was whipped by Cossack security guards.

Orthodox Patriarch Kirill with Vladimir Putin
Orthodox Patriarch Kirill with Vladimir Putin CREDIT: YANA LAPIKOVA/AFP/Getty

The cathedral protest appalled the Russian Orthodox faithful, who struggle even with the group’s name. “The best translation is “deranged vaginas”, one baffled Orthodox believer tells the documentary. Yet the band’s ire was directed not at the church itself, but its head, Patriarch Kirill, for supporting Vladimir Putin’s conservative, imperialist vision. 

At the time of the protest, Kirill was little-known in the West, despite widespread reports that he once worked for the KGB. Since the Ukraine invasion, however, the grey-bearded cleric has become notorious as the war’s chief cheerleader, praising Russian troops as heroes.  The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has denounced Kiril for “actively supporting a war of aggression”. Kirill was even put on an EU sanctions list in June, but removed after objections from Hungary. 

“There is no such thing as an ex-KGB agent – Kirill is just Putin in plain clothes,” says Alyokhina, who doesn’t hide her frustration at Western caution on sanctions. Had Europe taken as tough a line on Putin over Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 as it did over Russian cheating in the Olympics, she says, things might be very different. “Europe cares about doping scandals, not activists in jail.” 

Pussy Riot members, from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in a Moscow court, 2012
Pussy Riot members, from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in a Moscow court, 2012 CREDIT: AP

Might her fellow Russians now rise up and get rid of Putin, given the war’s rising body count and the mobilisation calls? “Many Russians are still doing protest stuff despite the risk of prison, but the state has more resources than the protesters,” she says. “Another Orange Revolution [the protests in Ukraine between 2004-2005] could happen but only with international solidarity.” Our interview time comes to an end – somewhat to the relief of Canterbury’s events staff, who have noted that thus far, the band have not got round to doing rehearsals or soundchecks. 

Indeed, watching their show later – performed to a mix of students and Pussy Riot-curious locals – I am not sure anyone would have noticed. To a cacophony of industrial techno music, interspersed with drums and whistles, the group perform a loose narration of their battles in Russia, their lyrics subtitled in English on a giant screen showing footage of protests and menacing security police. Patriarch Kirill occasionally features, glowering sternly like a baddie Justin Welby. 

Raw, tuneless and discordant, it makes punkettes like The Slits look like the Nolan Sisters. Yet it is also captivating. These, after all, are musicians for whom an anti-authoritarian stance is not just a rock star posture. By comparison, Western agit-pop bands like Rage Against the Machine sound just Mildly Annoyed. 

Like all good punks, though, Pussy Riot are always innovating, and already have new stunts to get up Putin’s nose even more. “We have been invited for a gig in Kyiv,” says Maria, when I asked what happens after the scheduled tour finishes. 

Venue and dates are still TBC. But if any Kyiv promoters have a club with a missile bunker, perhaps they’ll get a call…   


Pussy Riot play at the University of Kent’s Gulbenkian Arts Centre in Canterbury tonight and tomorrow. They tour nationwide from late October.

5 comments

  1. ““There is no such thing as an ex-KGB agent – Kirill is just Putin in plain clothes,” says Alyokhina, who doesn’t hide her frustration at Western caution on sanctions. Had Europe taken as tough a line on Putin over Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 as it did over Russian cheating in the Olympics, she says, things might be very different. “Europe cares about doping scandals, not activists in jail.”

    Exactly right. I wish these girls were running Russia.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Just imagine what would have occurred after March of 2014 if the UN kicked Putin off the UNSC then. It seems to me he never would have jeopardized that veto and would have likely withdrawn but at a minimum I doubt the invasion of the Donbas would have happened and none of the current war would have happened.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “ After years of hearing this kind of stuff, we make jokes about it, but of course it’s not funny – it’s frightening, evil,” says Maria Alyokhina, 34, one of the group’s founding members. “It took the Nazis years to come up with this kind of propaganda – Russia has taken just a few months.”

    Their music may not be exactly my bag, but these are damn good girls doing an important job. The more they compare the putinazis to the nazis, the better.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “Venue and dates are still TBC. But if any Kyiv promoters have a club with a missile bunker, perhaps they’ll get a call…”

    That is not cool. I wish the writer had not spoiled this great article with such misplaced “humour.”

    Liked by 2 people

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