World

Pussy Riot: We Were Pummeled and Pepper Sprayed in Sochi

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02/21/14
In the Magazine
Russian punk group Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, in the blue balaclava, and Maria Alekhina, in the pink balaclava, make their way through a crowd after they were released from a police station, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, in Adler, Russia. No charges were filed against Tolokonnikova and Alekhina along with the three others who were detained. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) Morry Gash/AP

Earlier this week, a group of local civil rights activists took their friends, members of the band Pussy Riot, on a sightseeing stroll around downtown Sochi. They had not got far, carrying their trademark balaclava helmets and with guitars hung over their shoulders, when a large group of police from an "anti-extremism" unit that monitors political activists arrived to detain them.

The reason given sounded peculiar: Pussy Riot and the activists were invited to accompany officials to the police station as witnesses in a case of a woman's stolen purse.

The detention order came from officials dressed in civilian clothes who were in charge of the operation. They refused to show their badges or any official ID.

Within minutes, the police had twisted the arms of the Pussy Riot members and their friends and bundled them into the back of trucks. "Never before have officials treated me as violently as in Sochi," Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova told Newsweek on Tuesday night at the hospital where she and her friends came to have their injuries tended. "They threw me  to the floor face down, bruising my hands and knees."

Tolokonnikova, 24, spoke from bitter experience: in December she was released after spending almost two years in prison. It was in jail that Tolokonnikova and her partner Maria Alyokhina, 25, decided to devote all the band's efforts in future to trying to turn Russia into a better place. Last month, both women went to Singapore for the Prudential Eye Ceremony -- an arts awards ceremony -- then to New York to speak at a human rights concert run by Amnesty International.

The main aim of their visit to Sochi during the winter Olympics was provocative: on the day they were arrested, Pussy Riot had planned to record a new song there, ironically titled, "Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland."

As if to help Pussy Riot succeed in causing a splash, Pussy Riot were welcomed in Sochi with a special program: detentions, interrogations, beatings, whipping and pepper gas sprayed in their eyes.  

"Our new song is devoted to our friends, Russia's political prisoners," said Tolokonnikova, sporting a pink Pussy Riot dress with her hair done up in a ballerina bun. "Sochi is the best place to shout out our protests as the entire world is here."

Tolokonnikova was good at shouting: her single Twitter post about the police dragging her face down along the floor alerted dozens of the world's photographers to stop taking pictures of the Olympics and race to Adler police station to record Pussy Riot's latest free show.

The Kremlin's image maker and Putin's trusted aide Sergei Markov sounded disappointed that the press had taken notice. "It's useless to cover it," he said. "If it were not for Putin's gentle democratic rule, the Cossacks would have torn the Pussy Riot girls into little pieces. It's only Putin's sense of discipline that is saving their lives."

The five band members and their Sochi friends were detained three times in the course of the first three days of their visit. On Sunday, traffic police stopped the car carrying Pussy Riot as they made their way to the Olympic venues . On  Monday, the Federal Security Service detained the activists, keeping them in custody for more than five hours for driving too close to the Abkhaz border.

"The Center for Extremism Prevention" detained 13 activists on Tuesday afternoon. "Putin's entire 'Ring of Steel,' with its 100,000 forces and thousands of surveillance monitors, is ready to hunt down anti-Putin activists in Sochi," explained Russian security services expert Andrei Soldatov.

Several dozen militia followed Pussy Riot's every step and those of their activist friends. Taisia Krughovykh, an artist, traveled with Pussy Riot from Moscow. On Wednesday afternoon police dragged her and two friends out of a McDonalds while foreign visitors were watching the Olympics on a big screen just a few step away.

"Today they beat us; tomorrow they will shoot at us," Kruglovykh told me outside the police station when she was released over six hours later and she showed me her bruised wrists.

Activist Semen Simonov is worried about the future of human rights protests when all the foreign visitors and the VIPs pack up and leave Sochi. Simonov was also detained with Pussy Riot on Ordzhonikidze street, though officials did not explain why.

Thinking about the "stolen lady's purse" story, Simonov smiled. "It was the only excuse the authorities had to keep Pussy Riot behind the bars for as long as possible, so the world would not hear how powerful their performances are," he said.

With thousands of foreign journalists in Sochi looking for stories, trying to hide the world's most famous punks behind bars was probably not the best idea. President Vladimir Putin wants the world to remember the Sochi Olympics for the sports, not the arrest of dissidents.

Earlier this week, Russia's major investor in Sochi, the state Saving Bank, gave me a tour around Gorki Park, Sochi. A new town of five-star hotels, luxurious apartment buildings and spas has emerged in the Sochi mountains in the last 18 months. The state jas invested billions of dollars to bring to the attention of the world the new modern, happy and open Russia.

"Putin's real Russia of lawless police and secret agents miscalculated," said  Tolokonnikova. "They spoiled all his efforts to impress the West and demonstrated to the press who came to report the Olympics the true ugly face of totalitarian Russia ."  

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