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Pussy Riot: symbol of the new, bold anti-Vladimir Putin opposition

world Updated: Dec 23, 2013 14:38 IST

AFP
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The jailed members of Pussy Riot, one of whom was released on Monday after receiving amnesty, went from being almost unknown rebel punks on the fringes of Russian society to the stars of a global cause celebre symbolising the repression of civic dissent under President Vladimir Putin.

The all-girl punk band, with their home-made balaclavas and neon dresses, staged impromptu performances of protest songs in public places such as a subway station and even Moscow's Red Square from October 2011 to February 2012.

But their most notorious action was when the masked band members on February 21, 2012 climbed onto an area around the altar of Moscow's biggest church, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and performed a "Punk Prayer" with the title "Virgin Mary, Redeem Us of Putin".

As security rushed to the area, several members escaped. But Maria Alyokhina, 25, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 31, were identified, eventually arrested and in August last year found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

WATCH:Pussy Riot Band members In Russian orthodox church







Read: Pussy Riot punk Alyokhina freed from Russian prison, says lawyer

Read: Freed Pussy Riot punk slams Kremlin amnesty as 'PR stunt'

Samutsevich was released that October after being given a suspended sentence but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina had their two-year prison camp terms upheld by the Moscow city court.

While some in the Russian opposition movement have said the cathedral performance was ill-judged and in poor taste, their plight became a rallying cause for anti-Putin activists outraged by the severity of the sentence.

Above all, their emergence symbolised the new breed of young opposition activists embracing the Internet and willing to use bold and original methods to challenge the Russian strongman.

Their jailing aroused a wave of international condemnation and support from luminaries ranging from Madonna to Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Alyokhina was released from her prison in Nizhny Novgorod early on Monday, after receiving amnesty under a bill passed by Russia's parliament last week. Tolokonnikova was also expected to be released shortly.

Members of the all-girl punk band 'Pussy Riot' Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina in a glass-walled cage during a court hearing in Moscow. (AFP file photo)

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

The most visible and telegenic member of the group, Tolokonnikova was born in the Norilsk nickel mining city above the Arctic Circle that Stalin developed using Soviet prison labour.

She studied at Russia's top-rated Moscow State University and is married to Pyotr Verzilov, one of the leading members of the controversial Voina (War) performance art group to which Pussy Riot is closely linked. They have a young daughter.

In 2011, Voina won a prestigious Russian prize for painting a 65-metre (210-foot) phallus on a drawbridge opposite a security service building in Putin's native Saint Petersburg.

But most notoriously, Tolokonnikova, Verzilov and several Voina members had public sex in a Moscow biological museum in 2008 in a stunt to mock Putin's protege Dmitry Medvedev. Tolokonnikova, heavily pregnant at the time, gave birth days later.

During the trial and appeals process, Tolokonnikova always insisted that the cathedral stunt was aimed against Putin, not religious believers.

"It hurts me every time I hear that I am accused of rebelling against religion," said the dove-eyed brunette.

After her appeal was rejected, Tolokonnikova was sent to Penal Colony Number 14 in the central Russian region of Mordovia where she had repeated brushes with other inmates and prison authorities.

Read: Pussy Riot hunger-striker Nadezhda Tolokonnikova put in isolation

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, standing in the defendant's cage in a court in the town of Zubova Polyana, in the Republic of Mordovia. (AFP file photo)

She went on hunger strike after releasing a letter complaining that women at the penal colony were treated like "slaves" and worked 17-hour days in a sewing workshop.

She also said the deputy prison governor had hinted she could be killed by inmates if she complained about abuses.

Tolokonnikova was then moved to a new prison in Siberia's Krasnoyarsk region, where she has been kept at a hospital for convicts rather than the prison itself.

Maria Alyokhina

The single mother of a young son was an environmental activist who has campaigned and scuffled with police in the past during environmentalists' passionate defence of a small forest outside Moscow.

Maria Alyokhina, a member of punk band Pussy Riot waves as she is escorted to the court in Moscow. (AFP file photo)

The campaign against the road building there proved fertile ground for Russian political activism by developing many of the leaders who spearheaded opposition to Putin's return to a third presidential term last year.

Alyokhina's software-engineer mother recently revealed that her daughter was also religious and was only protesting against the Church's open backing for Putin.

A slight figure with curly hair, Alyokhina is a highly articulate individual and has given graphic descriptions about the routine of her prison life in Corrective Labour Colony No 28 in the Perm region of the Urals.

"The hardest thing? It's to realise how this system works, how it forms a slave mentality in people, how people fall into line," she told the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

She was then moved to a facility in the Nizhny Novgorod region after proving "inconvenient" for the Russian prison authorities according to her lawyer.