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Putin Clamps Down: A Chilling Report From Moscow

Pussy Riot was just the start. How Russia is turning into a dark nation of fear, paranoia and repression

Russian police officers detain members of the Pussy Riot punk group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, center right, and Maria Alekhina, center left, outside a court room in Moscow, Russi
Denis Tyrin/AP Photo
April 30, 2014 10:00 AM ET

"Nadya, pay the bill," Masha Alyokhina says impatiently, taking a drag of her cigarette.

"OK, OK," says Nadya Tolokonnikova. She stubs out her own cigarette, reaches into her bag and languidly hands the waitress her Visa card. The woman looks at the two a little tensely. Does she recognize them? Maybe.

Photos: Inside the Pussy Riot Trial

Nadya and Masha, the women generally referred to as Pussy Riot, have been eating lunch at Il Patio, a casual Italian chain restaurant in a shopping mall near the Tulskaya Metro station in southern Moscow. It's an early-spring afternoon, and Russia's most famous dissidents, members of the riot-grrrl-inspired, anti-Putin "punk collective," are free of their neon balaclavas and trying to keep a low profile, which is tough enough without reporters tagging along. "We're going to München," says Masha, a chirpy, black-clad 25-year-old with a cascade of frizzy blond hair, held back by a sparkly green headband.

"Munich," says Nadya, a quieter, almost ethereal, pouty-lipped 24-year-old brunette in a black-and-white polka-dot miniskirt. She runs her elegant dark-blue lacquered nails through her hair and adjusts her white chiffon T-shirt with some annoyance. "We're going to Munich."

The women plan to attend a screening of a documentary: Pussy vs. Putin. After that comes music week in Estonia. Then Brussels and New York. Ever since their release from prison in December, having been convicted in August 2012 of "hooliganism," the duo have been on a human rights tour through Western capitals, meeting with activists in Paris, attending a film festival in Berlin, dining with Madonna, chatting with Stephen Colbert, having their photo taken with Hillary Clinton.

Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina: 'I Was Always Free Because I Felt Free'

In Russia, where state television screams of Western aggression and "fascist" plots in eastern Ukraine, things are far less glamorous. Here, if Pussy Riot are mentioned at all in the media, it's as "traitors," "demons" or "agents of Western influence." Their arrest in March 2012 for performing what they called a punk prayer at Moscow's central cathedral – an act of guerrilla theater that was immediately denounced as "blasphemy" by the Russian Orthodox Church – led to one of the most Kafkesque show trials in recent Russian history, after which the women were sentenced to two years in prison. Sixteen months and several frigid penal colonies later, they emerged defiant – Nadya walked out of her Siberian prison camp, flashing a victory sign and shouting, "Russia without Putin!" – to continue the struggle.

Since then, they've been detained, interrogated, even horsewhipped by Cossacks guarding the Sochi Olympics (an event Pussy Riot exploited in full, making the horsewhipping a feature of their YouTube video, "Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland"). A few weeks before I met them, the women were eating breakfast at a McDonald's in the provincial city of Nizhny Novgorod when they were attacked by a group of men who doused them in wallpaper glue, dumped garbage on their heads and sprayed them with a noxious green antiseptic called zelyonka, which has recently become popular in attacks on Ukrainian opposition.

"And not only that," says Nadya. "Masha was also beaten." Masha turns around to show me the scar near her hairline – she'd been hit with a flying metal bucket.

Their attackers, they later learned, were on the payroll of a local police official. "That's not unusual," says Nadya.

"This official even wrote about it on Twitter," says Masha. "He got a promotion."

To most western audiences, Pussy Riot, notably Masha and Nadya, are the face of Russian activism and opposition to President Vladimir Putin. But while they are easily the most famous Russian protesters in the world, they are a radical sliver of a much larger and more fractious "protest culture," in the words of writer Masha Gessen, whose members haven't been horsewhipped, but have in some ways suffered a far worse and much less celebrated fate: collapse. "Pussy Riot are the first real dissidents of the Putin era, but like all dissidents they're individual actors, perpetually out on a limb," says Gessen, author of Words Will Break Cement, a chronicle of the group's rise. "Their actions have had dire but clear consequences, and in return for the hardships they've faced, they have received a voice and a mission. The larger protest culture, on the other hand, is at this point either totally disintegrated or, in the case of a few dissidents, trying to keep protest alive in the face of greater and greater risk. There's really no hope for change. Russia has become a dark and dangerous place."

I've come to Moscow to find out just how bad things have gotten for those who oppose Putin's regime. It seems like the right time: The Sochi Olympics are long over, the annexation of Crimea is well under way, and Russian forces have moved into Eastern Ukraine, where they are operating with impunity. The country is, at least according to reports, awash with patriotism. This is not readily apparent. As many as 50,000 people turned out for an anti-war rally in Moscow a few days before I arrive, dwarfing a government-sponsored pro-war rally down the street. Though the Kremlin has requested that those who support the actions in Ukraine hang a Russian flag from their window, I see only a handful. On the other hand, polls show that Russians overwhelmingly support the actions in Crimea, something almost every Muscovite I meet swears is true, and Putin's approval ratings are at a three-year high.

Two and a half years ago, things were vastly different. A spirit of defiance spread through Russia, after Putin, who'd stepped aside in 2008 to become Russia's prime minister, announced he'd be returning to the presidency. More than 100,000 people streamed into the streets of Moscow in December 2011, and over the coming months, a heady idealism infected not just the tiny left but also large swaths of the educated urban middle and upper classes, who "felt like their human dignity had been affronted," in the words of Artemy Troitsky, a professor at Moscow State University and one of the country's leading cultural critics. "This was an insult to millions of people in Russia. They hadn't been asked – they'd just been told that Putin would again be the president, and there was nothing they could do about it."

But the opposition was disorganized – the most unified statement anyone could actually come up with was "No more Putin!" – and the revolutionary spirit that briefly seized the nation soon faded. Now Russia has entered a new phase, something Troitsky recently dubbed "Staliban": a meld of Soviet-style totalitarianism and ultraconservative orthodoxy, highlighted by vast distrust and moral superiority toward the "decadent" West. It's an appeal that plays well with many Russians, who lost much of their identity with the collapse of the Soviet Union; it has also worked undeniably well for Putin, who until 2012 seemed to lack a cohesive ideology. "For a Russian leader, that was quite unheard of," says writer Anna Arutunyan, whose recent book, The Putin Mystique, offers a piercing analysis of Russia's power structure. "The tsars adhered to a messianic idea of Russia as the chosen people, and in many ways communism was a continuation of that idea. When Putin came back for his third term, he realized he had to find something unifying. He couldn't tap into communism, but he tapped into that pre-revolutionary idea of orthodoxy and autocracy." As a result, the Russia we see today – call it Sovietism with a tsarist face – is not based on the political reality but, as Russian political analyst Aleksandr Morozov noted, "a political myth."

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