Pussy Riot's Arrest in Sochi May All Have Been a Piece of Performance Art

by Julia Ioffe | February 18, 2014

It’s hard to know how to tell this story. 

Pussy Riot members Nadia Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina were arrested while they were taking a stroll through downtown Sochi today. 

But that’s not quite true. Pussy Riot kicked out Nadia and Masha from Pussy Riot for straying from the ideological line by glamming it up in New York last month

So okay.

The artists formerly known as Pussy Riot were strolling in downtown Sochi when they were arrested for stealing from the hotel. 

But, well, they also happened to have a guitar with them and maybe some colorful balaclavas. 

And though the police said they had stolen from the hotel, it was unclear what they had stolen. Then the police clarified that they had stolen a woman’s purse—because, as one foreign correspondent here pointed out, in Russia, you do have to clarify whether a purse is a man’s or a woman’s. But they could not clarify how much money was in the purse probably because no purse was stolen by the artists formerly known as Pussy Riot, who were not, in fact, “just strolling.” 

In fact, they had come to film the music video for their new song—if one can call it that—called “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland.” (“Cut off Dozhd’s broadcast / Send the gay parade to the outhouse.”) 

In fact, they had been in Sochi since Sunday, and had been arrested every day since their arrival. Yesterday, they were arrested at the nearby border with Abkhazia. “They were just seeing the local sights,” their lawyer Aleksander Popkov said. Which sounds about as convincing as the purse story. Still, after their sightseeing jaunt—a video shoot, more likely—they were held at the station until 3 a.m. 

But the artists formerly known as Pussy Riot only let the world know of their arrest today during their morning stroll—in the rain, mind you—blasting it out over Twitter and predictably getting an instant crowd of journalists outside the black metal gate of a Sochi police station, waiting, shoving, cursing in the rain. 

Pyotr Verzilov, Nadia’s husband and the (splinter) group’s manager, gave a cheerful press conference outside in perfect English, telling the Western press how his wife and Masha had been bound and arrested face down on the sidewalk and then roughed up once they got to the station. He told the scrum about the music video the artists formerly known as Pussy Riot were preparing. The Western press ate it up and Verzilov did, too, stopping to take a photo of us

Then, the doors of the precinct opened and it wasn’t Nadia and Masha, but five girls in bright dresses and balaclavas, and, unmolested by police, they descended the station steps singing their song, which, depending on whether or not they were Pussy Riot, would make it Pussy Riot’s first public performance since their arrest two years ago. 

And then the press descended, devouring them as they moved chanting and singing down the street. Reporters fell on top of each other, they pushed and screamed running after them, blocking the road as enraged drivers leaned on their horns, alternately flashing people the middle finger or taping the proceedings on their phones. It’s a blue collar part of town, and wiry men in track suits hooted at the artists formerly known as Pussy Riot. “Girls, can I fuck your brains out?” one of them cat called. 

The girls, meanwhile, were giving a press conference. “At the moment this city is under occupation, under police control,” one of the artists, a girl in a blue balaclava and hot pink dress, said. 

“Nadia! Nadia!” a reporter called.

The girl in the blue balaclava turned around. We were now addressing them as Nadia and Masha, and they did not hide that it was them.

“We are always in a crowd of people not journalists but people who are following us and track our every move and look for any excuse to detain us,” Nadia, one of the artists formerly known as Pussy Riot in the blue balaclava, continued.

“What did they do to your hands?” an American woman was asking Nadia, running her hands along Tolokonnikova’s unblemished wrists. “What did they do to your hands?”

The crowd moved on. An American TV reporter grabbed one of the girls, her blonde hair peeking through her balaclava.

“What’s your name?” he asked her.

“I cannot tell you,” she said, in English.

“Why?” he asked. “Because you are afraid?”

“No, because the principle of the group is to remain anonymous.”

Now we were running, running through courtyards, following the pom-pons on the improvised balaclavas as they skittered toward the sea. Down steep concrete steps, spilling into the street below. The girls were running, colorful streaks through a gray day, a funnel of journalists nipping at their heels.

“Hail a cab! Hail a cab!” they began to yell to one another, running toward a grocery store parking lot. “Hail a cab!”

They descended on the cabs, the drivers too stunned to refuse them.

“One more, we need one more!” one of them yelled. “Okay, you two come with me! Go! Go!”

And they were off, right into the rush hour traffic, the journalists eddying in the parking lot, as dazed as the stunned grocery shoppers in the parking lot. 

Verzilov sauntered up to us. A Canadian film crew accosted him.

“Peter,” a blonde reporter said to him with television gravitas. “As a Canadian citizen, as a Canadian citizen, when you see what’s happened to your wife, what’s happened here in Russia, what goes through your mind? As a Canadian.”

Verzilov, who technically has Canadian citizenship (he lived there for a time after his parents divorced), didn’t flinch, or even laugh.

“Well, obviously, yeah, as a Canadian I think that if you would come to Vancouver and you would have some problems of the prime minister not liking you, it’s unlikely that you would be accused of being a hotel thief and detained,” he said, adding that, thankfully, the charges had been dropped. Apparently, the police, having realized that they had provided more publicity for the artists formerly known as Pussy Riot than they could've ever concocted themselves, decided to pull back and lick their wounds.

But the Canadians forgot to record it, so they asked Verzilov again what he, as a Canadian, thought. 

Meanwhile, a cab crawled by in the traffic behind Verzilov. Tolokonnikova hung out of the window, balaclava free.

“Petya!” she yelled. “Petya! The guitar! The guitar! We forgot the guitar!”

And with that, the thinning press scrum followed Verzilov back up the hill to the police station, where, untouched, he picked up the holstered guitar from the station steps and walked back out into the rain.

New Republic Senior Editor Julia Ioffe will be writing dispatches from Russia for the duration of the Olympics. For the entire collection of her pieces, click here.

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