Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina spent nearly two years in Russian gulags on charges of “hooliganism” for a punk rock performance protesting the regime of President Vladimir Putin. Released in December, the two came to New York in early February where they spoke at a concert sponsored by Amnesty International and promoted the fight for political rights in Russia and the rights of prisoners worldwide.
From the moment Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina arrived in Sochi Feb. 16 they were closely watched by government agents. They were arrested and held for seven hours that day and 10 hours the next.
On Feb. 18 Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and other members of Pussy Riot were shoved into a van by cops and paramilitary Cossacks and taken to a police station near Olympic Park.
“Dragged into the investigator’s office along the stairway,” Alyokhina said in a statement. “Everyone has bruises.”
When they were released, they marched out singing with their heads covered with brightly colored balaclavas.
Tens of thousands of cops and some 400 registered Cossacks were deployed for the Olympics. Cossacks — used as cavalry forces and drawn from nomadic tribes under the czarist empire — were barred from military organization after the 1917 Russian Revolution. They were resurrected in 1936 under the anti-working-class regime of Joseph Stalin and used as a paramilitary force ever since.
In 2012 Cossack units were introduced into Krasnodar Krai province, where Sochi is located, to be used against Muslim immigrants. “We will stamp it out, instill order,” Aleksandr Tkachev, the region’s governor, told local cops. “What you can’t do, the Cossacks can.”
On Feb. 19, as Pussy Riot began performing and filming “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland” in Sochi, they were attacked by uniformed Cossacks and plainclothes cops. They were knocked to the ground, pepper sprayed and beaten with a horsewhip.
After some band members were treated at local hospitals, Pussy Riot restaged and taped their performance under the Olympic rings outside Sochi’s city hall.
Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and other Pussy Riot members wearing balaclavas held a press conference Feb. 20 to release the video.
“The Olympics has created an environment of sweeping violations of human rights in Russia,” Tolokonnikova told the press. “We are banned from speaking out here.”
Their song points to the over $50 billion spent on the Olympics. “Sochi is blocked. Olympus is under surveillance. Special forces, weapons, crowds of cops,” they sing.
The song chronicles government frame-ups, including dozens imprisoned for participating in an anti-Putin rally in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2012; environmental activist Yevgeny Vitishko, jailed for opposing damage to forestland around Sochi in preparations for the games; defenders of gay rights; and others.
“The verdict for Russia is jail for six years,” they sing, referring to Putin’s presidential term. “They’ll teach you to submit and cry in the camps. Fireworks for the bosses.”
“The most honest people in our country are currently in jail as defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case,” Alyokhina wrote in an op-ed in the Feb. 21 New York Times. “They came to the Moscow Square on May 6, 2012, to join a protest against fraud in the presidential elections, and they chanted, ‘Putin, get out!’ They were beaten with truncheons by riot police officers, arrested, jailed and put on trial.”
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova flew from Sochi to Moscow to join hundreds in a protest outside the Feb. 21 court hearing where eight of the Bolotnaya Square demonstrators were convicted on a range of trumped-up charges. On Feb. 25 the court meted out sentences ranging from two and a half to four years in prison to seven of the accused.
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