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Behind the Sochi Curtain: Vladimir Putin put them in jail for speaking out, but Pussy Riot refuses to shut up

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

Yahoo Sports reporter Martin Rogers and video producer Alan Springer traveled to Russia during July and September 2013 to get an up-close look at Sochi and its surroundings, plus focus on the bigger social issues facing these Winter Olympics. This is Part 3 of our seven-part "Behind the Sochi Curtain" series.

MOSCOW – Katya Samutsevich thinks she's being followed. She doesn't care. She ducks into a Moscow hotel for a secret rendezvous anyway.

She probably shouldn't be talking with reporters. It's July 2013 and two of her bandmates are still in prison. She said she thinks the Russian secret police trail her constantly, and she's certain the president of the country wants her in jail. All that seems like plenty to muzzle most. Not Samutsevich. She's got a story to tell.

It is about a country she loves in spite of itself, a country Samutsevich said she believes imperils women, a country whose policy serves the rich and powerful – and a country that finds itself squarely in the world's spotlight for the next two-plus weeks.

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In 2012, Pussy Riot staged a protest at the Church of Christ the Savior that led to their arrest. (AP)

The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi begin with the threat of terrorism and potential backlash over strict anti-gay laws. Looming just under the surface, always primed to create a little controversy, stands Samutsevich, her two since-freed friends and the rest of the collective called Pussy Riot that serves one purpose and one purpose only: to remind everyone that no matter how Russia tries to present itself to the world, the truth is not some glossy camera shot piped out to the world in high definition.

"If the Olympic Games go smoothly," Samutsevich told Yahoo Sports last July, "then the Russian government will win."

The balance between anarchy and change is delicate, the sort Samutsevich understands must be handled with finesse as some 90 nations have descended on Sochi. A smile played around her lips when asked about the Sochi Games. It appears the Olympics offer an opportunity to create havoc and headlines on a scale far greater than Pussy Riot's initial protest calling for president Vladimir Putin's ouster from inside one of Moscow's most sacred churches.

On the night of February 21, 2012, Pussy Riot entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, leaped onto the pulpit and began performing a song attacking Putin and his closeness with the Orthodox Church, before being stopped almost immediately by security guards and then arrested.

Pussy Riot's ultimate goal is awareness, but their tactics – demonstrations that, while possibly crass, remain relatively peaceful – fly in stark contrast to terrorists threats that, if carried out, would make these Games memorable for all the wrong reasons.

"There will be attempts to interrupt the Games," Samutsevich says, while taking a sip of orange juice. "If we managed to do something, to say something – this will be our victory."


Aside from his black belt in taekwondo, Vladimir Putin has never shown a deep interest in competitive sports. Yet no medal hopeful at these Winter Olympics has more at stake over the next few weeks than the Russian president.

While Putin craves a seamless Olympics to portray Russia as a bastion of organizational prudence and financial strength, he is up against a number of determined opponents. Compared to the lurking terrorist organizations of the Caucusus, Pussy Riot falls firmly on the harmless end of that continuum. The majority of the Russian public seemed to agree with the treatment meted out to the band, with Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina given two-year jail sentences for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Samutsevich was freed first, released on appeal in October 2012.

"Most people in Russia think what they did was impolite or bad," said Maxim Pozdorovkin, a film director who came to know the women during production of the HBO documentary "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer." "And the [Russian people] are really used to a justice system that is kind of punitive and harsh and hands out sentences that seem absurd even in cases that aren't political in nature."

[Behind the Sochi Curtain: The hidden country of Abkhazia]

Yahoo Sports' interview with Samutsevich took place less than two miles from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the scene of Pussy Riot's infamous protest that was deliberately crude yet compellingly effective at snaring attention from Madonna, Elton John, Sting and more than 100 musical luminaries in addition to a sympathetic public worldwide. Even closer was the Kremlin, with its imposing walls, tight controls and the all-powerful Putin at the heart of it all.


Samutsevich is still smiling, even after telling Yahoo Sports video producer Alan Springer and me that we should mail footage of our interview back to the United States, or risk it being confiscated by agents at the airport.

She is soon back to the topic of Sochi, and not because she has any affinity for speed skating or luge. It is because the Winter Olympics became Putin's pet project a decade ago. He charmed the International Olympic Committee hierarchy with a rousing speech to help get the bid in 2007 and has authorized lavish spending, making this the priciest Games ever.

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Revellers wear Free Pussy Riot t-shirts in England in 2012. (Getty Images)

"I understand that the main purpose of the Olympic Games is to serve the professional interests of sports, but the level of human rights violations is too high," Samutsevich says. "Definitely Russia may fail the Olympic Games and if it does not go smoothly, I am sure the Russian authorities will find an explanation for it.

"For Putin, Sochi is another cover story to deflect attention from the real problems, the violation of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of art."

The next question for Samutsevich: Is she already concocting a plot to create a stir in Sochi – maybe those balaclavas are being dusted off for a protest that this time would surely be broadcast on the world's biggest television networks rather than leaked through the internet?

"We never tell about our plans and we like to be unexpected," she says. "So I cannot share our plans with you."


Now, with the Games under way, the landscape has changed. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are free, not as a result of Samutsevich's long struggle to battle Russia's complex legal appeals process on their behalf, but because of a sweeping amnesty granted by Putin to several political dissidents.

Putin's critics decried the move, just a few months before the end of the women's two-year sentence, as a mere publicity stunt strategically timed to take place just before the Games. Even then, Putin was not going to let Pussy Riot go without a further reprimand.

"I feel sorry for Pussy Riot, not for the fact that they were jailed, but for the disgraceful behavior that has degraded the image of women," Putin said in his televised annual address to the Russian nation in December.

Putin understandably wants everything to go off without a hitch, but his means for avoiding negative attention have been heavily questioned. After initial reports that any form of protest during the Olympics would be considered illegal, Kremlin officials announced a special Games "protest zone."

[Related: Behind the Sochi Curtain: Olympics' arrival stirs up a grim reminder in Beslan]

The international organization Human Rights Watch released a report insisting the zone was situated in a village some 10 miles from Sochi itself, in an area where few Olympic visitors would visit. The organization accused Russian officials of "blatant harassment and intimidation" of environmental and civic activists, plus international journalists. Despite this, the formal stance of the International Olympic Committee gave a positive slant on the protest zone, highlighting it as an indicator of improved free speech rights.

"The IOC has done a huge disservice to Russian activists by not challenging the Russian authorities' efforts to silence [them]," said Jane Buchanan, Human Rights Watch's associate director for Europe and Central Asia. "The Olympic charter clearly calls for the Olympic movement to promote human dignity, but the Games in Sochi are instead taking place in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation."


Samutsevich doesn't come across as a woman who is easily intimidated. She has been talking for half an hour straight and isn't slowing down, becoming more animated as she starts to discuss the origins of her band.

She had distanced herself from her loved ones to shield them against interference from the authorities and says she was drawn to the Pussy Riot group, which began in 2011 as a loose collective of artists dissatisfied with the social system of modern Russia.

"Our group consists only of women with a combative stance, ready to oppose Putin's regime," Samutsevich says. "The specificity of the Russian system is that everything in it is ugly. We want to see our country from a better perspective; we want it to be different."

Much of her commentary is intensely political, steep monologues about her perception of the philosophical wrongs in Putin's political ideology. She rails against a system that sees much of Russia's wealth unevenly distributed among an elite core of uber-rich oil bosses, with 110 Russians controlling 35 percent of the nation's wealth, according to a 2013 Credit Suisse report.


If Putin expected Pussy Riot to go quietly following the recent prison release, he was sorely mistaken. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina hosted a news conference days after leaving jail and directly discussed Sochi, saying that anyone attending the Games was actively supporting the president.

"As for Vladimir Putin, we feel the same about him," Tolokonnikova told the Associated Press. "We still want to do what we said in our last performance, for which we spent two years in prison. Drive him away."

They have since made a visit to see inmates at Correctional Institution for Women No. 2 in Nizhny Novgorod, where Alyokhina spent the final months of her term, and showcased some of their punk-themed artwork at a display in Singapore. Just before the Games began, they appeared at an Amnesty International human rights awareness concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

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Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L) and Maria Alyokhina help a press conference on Feb. 5 in New York. (Getty Images)

So what next?

"If we have heard the last of them, it would be a surprise," said Sean Guillory, a post-doctoral fellow in Russian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and author of a blog about Russian life and politics.

"This is a band that thrives on the spotlight, primarily because that is what they feel the object of their displeasure, Putin, is most fearful of. We will hear from them again, and Sochi is their best opportunity to get a lot of attention. Without that, there is a real possibility they could drift out of the spotlight and that wouldn't help the cause they are fighting for at all."

[Related: IOC's backhanded slam of President Obama a joke]

Perhaps the oddest thing about the Pussy Riot saga is that a huge part of their notoriety and relevance has flowed directly from the hardline stance of the government. Without jail time for the women, the furor would surely have died down much quicker.

The answer to the puzzling actions of the authorities may lie in the different perception of Pussy Riot's actions within Russia itself, compared to internationally. For all the championing of the Pussy Riot cause that took place overseas, few stood up and beat the drum on their behalf within Russia's borders.

"Remember, [Russia] is just a couple of generations removed from the days of communism," Guillory added. "In America we are used to people having the right to speak up about whatever they like, without restriction. Historically that has not been the case in Russia and it is not a right people necessarily expect to have. Pussy Riot's protest might be seen here [in the U.S.] as peaceful exuberance, but there it could be taken as a direct attack on the system."

Samutsevich knows hardline activism is not to everyone's taste, that many could never condone the sacrilege of busting into a church and singing obscenities, even in the name of human rights.

She knows publicity is Pussy Riot's greatest weapon, perhaps their only one. That's why she met with us, even if it meant being tailed.

"That is what we want," she replied, turning sharply at the doorway. "To be memorable. If we are noticed, so are the abuses we are trying to highlight."

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Pussy Riot timeline for Sochi Curtain. Yahoo Sports graphic.

 

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