Pussy Riot: politics instead of punk | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 05.12.2014
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Pussy Riot: politics instead of punk

This year's Hannah Arendt Prize for political thinking goes to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. The two Russians are recognized for their political action through performance art.

"We did not give the two women the prize because they belonged to Pussy Riot but because of their activism on behalf of prisoners in Russian prisons," said political scientist and judge of the Hannah Arendt Prize, Antonia Grunenberg, to Deutsche Welle. "Nadezhda and Maria showed vehemently that they are more than merely action artists through their speeches at court, as well as in the letters from their time in prison and especially since being released. They are civil rights campaigners who engage hands on." Maria Alyokhina protested against the abuse and chicanery of Russian forced labor camps through hunger strikes. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova wrote about the inhumane conditions of imprisonment.

Two years in prison for Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina

Flashback: in February 2012 the two front-women of the punk band Pussy Riot screamed their feminist "Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away." After the performance Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were sentenced to two years in a forced labor camp. Just before Christmas 2013 they were released early after an amnesty - and since then, the two front-women of Pussy Riot have remained very much in the public eye.

Pussy Riot have been awarded the Hannah Arendt Prize for political thinking

Nadeschda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina on release from prison

After release, they both declared that they wanted to campaign for the rights of Russian prisoners and to advocate reform within the country. In September 2014 they founded "Zone of Law" in Moscow, an organization that arranges legal help for prisoners. The central ambition of both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina is to make the failure of Russia's court system and penal institutions public. They call for solidarity with the imprisoned, especially those punished for resistance to the Putin regime - including the young men and women arrested after the anti-government protests at Moscow's Bolotnaya Square in May 2012.

a photograph from the Pussy Riot Unmasked photoshoot.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina by Dutch photographer Bert Verwelius

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina had a busy year with numerous public appearances and projects. They recently addressed the European Parliament and lobbied for sanctions against Moscow. In New York they performed together with Madonna and were part of an unusual photo project with Dutch photographer Bert Verwelius.

Otherwise known as a building mogul, Verwelius is one of the richest men in the Netherlands and usually photographs naked women due to his, as he explains, "love for their beauty and strength." Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, however, refused to pose naked, and the Dutch photographer instead pictured them in a prison setting, portraying their the everyday life while imprisoned in the Russian work camp.

Celebrated in the West, spied on in Russia

In the West the two women are celebrated like rock stars. They recently flew from London to New York and while in "London-Grad" - as they proudly reported on their Facebook pages - they not only had numerous interviews with radio, print and TV but also met Julian Assange. The Australian whistleblower has been at the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012 and received the "Russian delegation" there in late November 2014. What binds the Pussy Riot activists and Assange? "Basic and general things such as freedom of opinion for us and freedom of information for Assange," declared Maria Alyokhina to journalists following the meeting.

Pussy Riot meet Wikileak's Julian Assange.

'We have a lot in common.' Pussy Riot meet Wikileak's Julian Assange

Wikileaks founder Assange allegedly suggested Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina should support his international foundation, Courage, which collects funds for the legal assistance of whistleblowers around the world.

Appearance at the Olympic Games in Sochi

In Russia, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are reaching only a continually shrinking audience but still consider "Putin-Land" the center of their activities. February 2014 saw their last performance as Pussy Riot, a loose ensemble of a dozen women. During the Olympics in Sochi the group, including Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, made a video for their new song "Putin will Teach you to Love the Motherland."

Even though their international popularity serves as a kind of security, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova hardly feel safe. They report permanent surveillance - including the constant watch of silent men with mobile phones to their ears. Despite that, the two activists plan to go even further, and are not excluding the possibility of entering politics - perhaps even running as candidates for the Moscow City parliament.

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