Pussy Riot activists storm New York. What do the two Russians hope to achieve?

Pussy Riot ex-members, lately freed after almost two years in Russian prisons, take their defiance of President Putin and Russia's human rights record on the road. Despite their rock-star status in New York, their tour might not accomplish all they hope.

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Former members of Pussy Riot, Maria Alekhina (l.) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, speak at Amnesty International's 'Bringing Human Rights Home' concert at the Barclays Center on Wednesday in Brooklyn, New York.

They have shared a stage with Madonna, joked with Stephen Colbert, and met the US ambassador to the United Nations. They have visited Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, The New York Times newsroom, and City Hall. To each, and everywhere, they have repeated the same message: President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, however well-dressed for Olympic pageantry, still wants for progress on human rights issues.

Punk rockers Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, formerly of the Russian Pussy Riot collective, are in New York this week, as part of a world tour after their release from a Russian prison, where they served almost two years. Their tour does not exactly come at a good time for Mr. Putin, undoubtedly by design.

The two activists’ New York visit joins a list of seemingly incongruous subjects, from Chobani yogurt to toothpaste, that have been stand-ins this week for weightier concerns about the Sochi Olympics – from Russia’s human rights record, to its provisions for athletes and visiting journalists, to its security measures. It also coincides with the Russian government's bid to deflect criticism of its politics and to focus on the show of sportsmanship – and of modern Russian proficiency – that opened Feb. 7 in Russia.  

“Everything is uncomfortable for Putin right now,” says Nina Khrushcheva, a professor in the Graduate Program of International Affairs at The New School. “This is just one of many things that aren’t going well for him.”

“Russia looks increasingly like an international clown that is just pretending to be an international king,” she says.

On Feb. 12, 2012, five members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot staged a flash mob “punk prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in Moscow. It was as much a concert as it was a political protest, a high-octane call for improved rights for woman, homosexuals, and political dissidents.

The Russian government moved aggressively to silence it. Three women in the group – Ms. Tolokonnikova and Ms. Alekhina, as well as Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was released from prison in October 2012 – were hastened through a trial, convicted, and sent to separate penal colonies.

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina spent almost two years in prison before their release on Dec. 23, under a new amnesty law. Human rights advocates characterize that law as a brushstroke attempt by Putin to head off criticism ahead of the forthcoming Olympic pomp.

Since then, the two performers have been on a world tour that included stops in Asia and Europe before their visit to New York in February. The women are no longer Pussy Riot members, though. In a statement, current group members, all of them anonymous, said they are distancing themselves from Tolokonnikova and Alekhina, explaining that the ex-band members’ public personas didn’t jibe with the band’s underground motif.

But for the two women, fame seems to be a fitting platform on which to build a human rights campaign that takes aim at Putin just as Russia opens the 2014 Olympic Games.

On Tuesday, the two lampooned Putin during an appearance on "The Colbert Report," using acerbic wit – through a translator, no less – to comment on Russia’s antigay laws and treatment of political dissidents.

“We sang a fun song in a church,” is how Alekhina described the crime that put her and her band-mate in penal colonies.

On Wednesday, the activists appeared at Amnesty International’s benefit concert at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, not to sing but to draw world attention to what they see as Russia’s blighted human rights record.

“For Putin, the Olympic Games are an attempt to inflate the inflatable duck of a national idea, as he sees it,” Tolokonnikova told The New Yorker, before the concert. “In Russia today, there are no real politics, no real discussion of views, and meanwhile the government tries to substitute for this with hollow forms of a national idea – with the Church, with sports, and the Olympics.”

The women have also met with, or are due to meet with, high-profile figures in the US, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by Russian officials. After the former Pussy Rioters met with Ms. Powers, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, bitingly asked reporters if Powers had invited the two women “to perform at the National Cathedral in Washington” and whether she had joined the band.

Even as Tolokonnikova and Alekhina travel the world to decry Putin as a human rights violator, it's entirely possible that Russia's president could yet be a beneficiary of their crusade, some observers of geopolitics note.  

Putin has worked to shape his battered image into one of benign kindliness, and by freeing the ex-band members and saying nothing as they tour New York, he appears to be gesturing to the world that he is not an autocrat, says Janet Johnson, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College.

At the same time, the women’s appearance in New York, on a Brooklyn stage brimming with American pop culture, also buttresses the view in Russia that Pussy Riot is a fringe group whose liberal, feminist message is a foreign one – thus helping Putin cement favor with his nationalist fan base, she says.

“It allows him to have it both ways,” says Johnson. “He can play the kindly father who has liberated these ‘girls,’ while also currying favor with the nationalists.”

The ex-Pussy Riot activists are expected to meet with Mayor de Blasio at 5:30 p.m. Friday. Their visit to the US will also include tours of American prisons; the two have said they hope to learn how Russia's prison system could be improved.

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