Pussy Riot Rocks the Barclays Center

Pussy Riot
"We demand a Russia that is free and a Russia without Putin," said Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova Carlo Allegri/Reuters

“I’m going to get to say ‘pussy riot’ a lot tonight—and I’m really happy about that.”

That was how actress Susan Sarandon, in a sparkly blue pantsuit that was not quite a cat-suit, kicked off Amnesty International’s "Bringing Human Rights Home" benefit concert at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Wednesday night. Though the bill purred with feline rockers and pop stars of varying ferocity—Madonna, Blondie, Lauryn Hill, the Flaming Lips, Imagine Dragon, The Fray, Yoko Ono—the arena seemed less a litter box of talent than a Russian nesting doll: acts within acts within acts.

Growling in the middle of this were the world’s two fiercest Pussy Rioters—Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova and Maria “Masha” Alyokhina—recently released after spending 21 months in Russian prisons. A punk collective comprised of about a dozen members, Pussy Riot stages guerrilla performances in Moscow. Two years ago the band had its most infamous flash gig—five members broke into Christ the Savior Cathedral and performed a punk prayer titled “Holy Sh*t” from the altar as a protest against the church's support for Vladimir Putin. “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin," they wailed, "chase Putin out!"

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were arrested the day before Putin was once again elected president of Russia. They were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, sentenced to two years in lock-up and dispatched to penal colonies in Mordovia and Perm Oblast, respectively. (A third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was also arrested and spent seven months in jail; the other two members of the group presumably fled the country). Thanks in part to Amnesty International, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were sprung from prison in December, having served 21 months of their sentence.

Amid thunderous cheers at the Barclays Center on the eve of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Madonna hailed the women’s courage, and thanked them for “making pussy a ‘sayable’ word in my household. Now, my eight-year-olds say it all the time.” Madonna also talked about death threats she received during her 2012 Russian tour, which coincided with the Pussy Riot trial. At the time, she was accused by Russian authorities of encouraging homosexuality. “Eighty-seven of my fans were arrested for gay behavior—whatever that is.”

Earlier this week on Comedy Central's Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert asked the women what crime they had committed. “We sang a fun song in a church,” Alyokhina cracked.

On Wednesday, Tolokonnikoya and Alyokhina took the stage not in their infamous neon balaclavas, but in black leggings and black blazers over billowy black and white tunics emblazoned with huge crucifixes. The outfits made them look like modern-day Joan of Arcs. Speaking Russian, as a friend translated their words into English, they delivered an emotional rebuke to the Putin regime. They slammed his crackdown on civil liberties, called for the release of anti-government prisoners and admonished the crowd, “Freedom is not a given. It is something we have to fight for every day. It is our duty to speak for those who are still behind bars…

"We will not forgive and we will not forget what the regime is doing to our fellow citizens… We demand a Russia that is free and a Russia without Putin."

They closed by leading the audience in a loud and impassioned chant: “Russia will be free! Russia will be free! Russia will be free!”

Now, that was some cat-call.

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