Pussy Riot’s lost weekend in Washington

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Pussy Riot members: Putin’s behavior imposing instability, chaos on Russia

Pussy Riot members: Putin’s behavior imposing instability, chaos on Russia

Pussy Riot members: Putin’s behavior imposing instability, chaos on Russia

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Pussy Riot members: Putin’s behavior imposing instability, chaos on Russia

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Before they were a punch line in Joel McHale’s tart monologue ­— "America, where everyone can be a Pussy Riot" — the real Pussy Riot came to Washington for that long weekend when the city’s political class preens for Hollywood, itself, or both. Two members of the Russian feminist punk collective known for hiding individual identities under balaclavas would mingle at fetes where Jessica Simpson could swan alongside Sen. John McCain, where Valerie Jarrett would take photographs with Questlove, and where tittering over drinks with the powerful can lead to policy developments with consequences.

It all started a week in advance, with an email: Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova and Maria "Masha" Alyokhina, the members of Pussy Riot jailed for two years after performing a 40-second anti-Vladimir Putin punk prayer at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, would be arriving in Washington during the weekend of the White House Correspondents' Dinner, in advance of a week of lobbying to raise awareness of ongoing human rights abuses in Russia.

They were hoping, apparently, to come to the Yahoo News-ABC News predinner reception at the Washington Hilton hotel. A warmly welcoming email was sent in reply. Schedules flew back and forth, but little was certain. They would be at Washington hostess Tammy Haddad’s annual Saturday Garden Brunch! (Unless they weren’t.) They would speak at the National Press Club! (Unless they wouldn’t.) They were here to tell their story! (Unless, because of the language barrier, they couldn’t.)

In the end they made the scene, but five days would pass before they made a ripple outside the celebrity selfie-sphere. When they finally took the stage on Tuesday in a hallway outside the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after a 30-minute meeting with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and the members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the tragedy of that missed opportunity was immediately apparent.

The corridor outside Senate Room 116 was a rush-hour subway car of journalists, print and still photographers, and iPhone-wielding passers-by, as Nadya and Masha held up pages listing names they charged were human rights abusers in Russia and issued a call to arms to remember the anti-Putin protests of May 2012, recognize the problems in their home country, and break the silence on the suppression of political activity in Russia.

It was quite a contrast to the weekend that preceded it. Pussy Riot’s presence in Washington had begun with a flurry of miscommunications and misunderstandings. “The girls,” as half their handlers called them (they are, respectively, 24 and 25 years old) were going to go to every party they could go to. No, that wasn’t right: The girls weren’t interested in parties at all. The girls wanted to meet senators, congressmen. But no, maybe they didn’t. Friends of the duo maintained: They had no taste for the hoopla. They were here to speak about prison reform, about Putin’s clamp on Russia, about the unspeakable things that occur in Russia’s penal colonies, the ways in which they — and their fellow prisoners — were treated. They were here to speak about adding names to the 2012 Magnitsky Act, a human rights law that blocks visas and freezes assests of Russians deemed corrupt, passed by Congress after the suspicious death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in detention in Russia in 2009.

But to whom would Pussy Riot be speaking? It was unclear.

So Pussy Riot arrived in Washington, with a whisper. Images appeared on social media. Here were the girls blank-faced at the Friday night Google-Netflix party held in the U.S. Institute of Peace; here were the girls looking dour entering the Garden Brunch at Washington Kastles owner Mark Ein’s Georgetown house. They looked forlorn — legs crossed, lips pursed. Someone snarked on Twitter: “Is it impossible for Pussy Riot to smile?”

By 6 p.m. Saturday they were to be walking the red carpet at the Washington Hilton, but they had not arrived. Finally, reluctantly, they appeared. They balked before standing for photos at a step-and-repeat with media logos in the background. A friend of the women named Jaka Bizilj, a journalist and founder of the Berlin-based Cinema for Peace Foundation, encouraged them to pose, saying it was OK to have their photo taken. So they stood there, faces serious. Someone tweeted the photo, and more snark followed. “Pussy riot at @WhiteHouse's #WHCD last night. Red carpeting their way to Putin’s ouster,” tweeted a Ukraine-based journalist. Another tweet, from the Washington Post’s Helena Andrews: "Apparently Pussy Riot is in the house. The trick to recognizing them? 'Look for the people who don't give a ---,' says our source. #WHCD"

They gaze out from a tweeted Getty Images photo like teenagers dragged along with their parents. Nadya and Masha are very beautiful, but in this image they are almost purposefully disheveled. At the Hilton events, they looked forlorn and tiny amid the crowd of sprayed hair, sprayed tans and enormous gowns. They were not dressed for the occasion. Had they visited the pop-up Google-YouTube beauty lounge in Georgetown that Saturday afternoon, they could have been starlet glamorous. But they deliberately opted against joining in the elaborate game of Washington dress-up, finding the idea ludicrous.

And yet their primary press contact, a PR person whose day job is as an indie rock promoter, had given exclusive access to Vogue, eschewing all other requests for interviews over the weekend: “With the private nature of their meetings,” she emailed a few days in advance of Pussy Riot's tour on the party circuit, “It is simply not possible.” The message belied a misreading of the weekend, where the mix of celebrity and journalists, fueled by social media and in-person networking, fundamentally and purposefully upends the idea of any true “private” moments from Thursday to Sunday. At the entrance to the BuzzFeed-Facebook party, held at an Adams Morgan bar on Saturday, a sign warned that attending the event amounted to consent to being filmed. Pussy Riot’s other, more political, interlocutors, knowing how the Washington game worked, had already alerted me to their schedule and where to go to intersect with them in public.

In recent months, the Pussy Riot girls have made appearances on "The Colbert Report" and "Real Time with Bill Maher," at the Women in the World Summit in New York, and on a New York City stage at an Amnesty International concert with Madonna. But in Washington, their handlers were at cross-purposes with each other. The result was no one had prepped Pussy Riot for what they were about to walk into. They had not been informed that this string of high-powered parties was, superficial or not, a kind of stage from which they could broadcast whatever political message they wanted — and at a time when some of the most powerful politicians in America would be both close by and eager, thanks to tensions around the Russian incursion into Ukraine, to hear their views.

So there they were at the Hilton, all but unrecognized. Each door their handlers had knocked on opened with the mention of their group’s name, yet they were largely anonymous in the crowd that swirled around them. Instead of internationally famous activists, they looked like bewildered hotel guests who had somehow stepped through the night’s security cordon into the wrong meeting room. They darted into smaller parties— Associated Press, USA Today—but not to mingle, to eat. They all but avoided talking to other attendees. Instead they sat and drank ginger ale and sampled undercooked samosas and edamame dumplings.

At the Atlantic Media-CBS News predinner reception, there were dozens of celebrities and equal numbers of politicians, but Pussy Riot exchanged words with nearly no one. The few who did recognize them asked for selfies. This made them visibly uncomfortable. “I’m a big fan!” a few people said to them. The girls appeared intensely shy in the face of this praise. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Amy Klobuchar were an arm's length away, but did the girls know how to present their ideas on prison reform in Russia in a 30-second sound bite, in English? They had not been prepped for this.

So Pussy Riot slipped away from the crowd, beyond the tents and the booze, to a few forlorn lawn chairs left behind from the hotel’s normal decor. There they sat, alone, and smoked — 10 feet from the party. A clutch of on-air talent from CBS waiting for drinks at the bar spotted them, and laughed. “Remember smoking,” one man said. “It was, like, a thing! Those girls look like the 1990s.” He did not speak to them; they had no public statement for him. Before the parties there was chatter that promoters were afraid of them – you know, what if they set their panties on fire. But the only thing they lit up on site was silently smoked cigarette after cigarette.

Their small crowd moved in tandem with other party hoppers to the BuzzFeed-Facebook gathering as the dinner commenced and those without tickets to it began to leave the Hilton. I walked with them, having met up with Bill Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management — the investment group for which Magnitsky himself worked — who was accompanying Pussy Riot this evening. Russian thuggery, corruption and Magnitsky’s death made activists of moneymaking men; two Hermitage Fund leaders were part of the Pussy Riot entourage this night, and they included me in the group. Bizilj, the chairman of Cinema for Peace, argued as the group walked the few blocks from the Hilton to the BuzzFeed party that they absolutely must go to the Vanity Fair afterparty. There they would meet every celebrity, and all the politicians! He turned to me for confirmation, or for backup. The Pussy Riot women looked slightly horrified by this conversation. They told him they didn’t want to meet celebrities, that this crowd was apathetic. Bijilz looked bewildered. “These are the people you need to meet,” he insisted. The women of Pussy Riot looked tired at the prospect.

At the BuzzFeed door all were given orange wristbands to signify they were VIPS. Once again the girls were asked to stand for a photograph. They agreed, out of rote acquiescence. Masha pinned on a yellow button that said "WTF?" The group was led to a room beneath the party. It was small and claustrophobic and behind a sliding door. They were met by a reporter from Vogue in a slim-fitting wrap dress, and they sat for an interview with her and a translator. Every so often they escaped to the rooftop to smoke. As at the Hilton, few people noticed them, other than a handful of journalists alerted to their presence.

Bizilj took Nadya for a walk. She wanted air, he told me later by email: “Nadya preferred to go for a walk around the blocks and we discussed the concept of capitalism and how it only works if there is democracy, rule of law and competition, which they feel there is not in Russia etc. They listen, watch, analyze, and only get engaged in a conversation if it has a meaning.”

Along with an entourage of around eight, Pussy Riot left BuzzFeed for Vanity Fair. At the Italian ambassador’s residence, they sat for the celebrity photographer Mark Seliger, who also did portraits that evening of members of the casts of "Scandal" and "Veep."

The next day Bizilj wrote me to say that it was at Vanity Fair that Pussy Riot miraculously bloomed. “They met de Niro, Spike Jonze, Alfonso Cuaron, Samantha Power and many others and bonded with Graydon Carter,” he typed on his iPhone. “They spoke about prisons in Russia and USA, Ukraine, Magnitzky list and their film ideas. They were the toast of the town, while themselves very unused to social events and small talk as they are only interested in serious conversations which they had last night.

“[E]verybody loved them, and there was no other guest who was asked so many times to have a picture taken with other guests.”

On Tuesday morning, the duo held their only press conference in D.C. A press release sent out on Monday explained: “Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are visiting Washington to highlight the need for prompt, full, and ongoing implementation of the Magnitsky Act; which was authored by Senator Cardin.”

And then, as though to answer the way they were presented on Twitter during the weekend’s events: “Pussy Riot is not a rock band, but rather a feminist punk protest group. They do not give concerts, but stage provocative performances in public locations, one of which led to the arrest of Ms. Tolokonnikova and Ms. Alyokhina on charges of hooliganism for which they served two years in prison. After experiencing firsthand the harsh and political nature of Russia’s judicial system, upon their release they immediately focused their advocacy work on those — like Sergei Magnitsky — who suffer and die all too often in Russia’s vast penal system.”

So it was there, finally, in a Senate corridor, that Pussy Riot took hold of the stage Washington had been eagerly offering them. A packet of photocopied pages with 16 names they would like to see added to the Magnitsky List — including Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Russia’s interior minister and an arresting officer at the May 2012 protests; Yuriy Kupriyanov, deputy head of the IK-14 prison in Mordovia, Russia, where Nadya was imprisoned; and Roman Ignatov, deputy head of the IK-18 prison in Russia's Perm Region, where Masha was imprisoned — was passed out to the crowd.

Said Sen. Cardin: “To hear first hand what was happening in the prisons, which was chilling, to hear first hand what happens to political opposition, how they are beaten — I mean you hear about it, but to hear first hand what they are doing to intimidate — it puts a face on what we’ve heard. And you can see the pain in their faces. It always amazes me the personal courage of young talented people who put their lives at risk to help others.”

Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, a member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, called Pussy Riot “heroes” to people around the globe.

Finally, Nadya and Masha — speaking in Russian, with translation — issued their call for attention to be paid to ongoing human rights abuses in Russia. “We have to talk about these people, we have to talk about our political prisoners because we know that silence is the most dangerous thing for a political prisoner,” Masha said.

Despite the formality of the setting and the stiffness of the occasion, they were in their element. Nadya spoke rapidly, forcefully. “A lot of words have been said about us today but they are not exactly correct. We believe those words should be said about those in real danger right this moment. ... One of the main slogans of Putin is stability. And we can state that Putin leads Russia to complete instability, and chaos.”

When she finished skewering Putin’s Russia, she and Masha added a dig at the country hosting her. “We heard last night,” Masha told the crowd, “about Occupy Wall Street protester” Cecily McMillan, who is facing seven years in prison after being convicted of assaulting a police officer who was arresting her on March 17, 2012. “We were appalled and saddened to hear about that,” Masha said. “We have sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and we honestly believe no country should have political prisoners.”

The crowd began to shout questions, more cameras clicked and journalists surged forward, jockeying for the attention of the two “girls” who suddenly seemed taller than they had all weekend. Nadya finally smiled.

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