The two performance artists known as Pussy Riot — who served nearly two years in prison for singing a protest song on the altar of Moscow's main cathedral — made a surprise visit to Sochi on 18 February and soon found themselves in familiar surroundings: the inside of a police station.
The women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, accompanied by three other performers, local activists and a photographer, said they were walking on a downtown Sochi street, nearly 20 miles from the Olympic Park, when police swooped in. All nine were taken in for questioning about a purse stolen at their hotel.
One by one, the detained were released, all without charges. After four hours inside the station, the Pussy Riot women appeared, singing their latest song — "Putin will teach you how to love your Motherland." They were wearing their familiar ski masks — unseen since their imprisonment. A crowd of journalists had dashed over from Olympic Park, waiting in the rain to hear their story.
It was a dramatic one.
The environmentalists and human rights defenders who live here, however, call it a typical tale of the repressive measures imposed since Olympic construction began in Sochi.
"The city is under total police and security control," Tolokonnikova, 25, said after their release. They had arrived Sunday evening, she said, and had been constantly stopped. On Tuesday, she said, they were roughly treated. Although they planned to make a video of their Putin song in support of suppressed protesters, she said, they were doing nothing provocative when they were stopped.
Sochi has been a closed city since early January, an Olympic security measure. President Vladimir Putin has banned all protests, except for a designated spot in a park seven miles from the Olympics, where permits are required. And police have been quick to prevent any sign of demonstrations. An Italian transgender activist, Vladimir Luxuria, was hustled out of the Olympic Park on Monday when she tried to go to a hockey game wearing a bright rainbow headdress.
On 18 February, the Pussy Riot group was near the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, Sochi's oldest Orthodox church, when they were loaded into police vans.
"Maybe that's what made the police nervous," Olga Noskovets, an environmentalist here, said later. "Maybe they thought they would dash into the church and cause a scandal."
Noskovets had taken the group around the city by car Monday. Not far from the Olympic Park, they were stopped by border police, she said, who demanded to know whether they had permission to be in the city.
"We were in a residential neighborhood," she said, "and there were so many police people came out of their houses to watch."
Eventually, the police let them go, except for Noskovets, who got in trouble because she did not have her passport with her and was taken to the police station, fingerprinted, put in a database and fined about $15.
Another environmentalist, David Khakim, was with the Pussy Riot group Tuesday and was also picked up. On Monday, Khakim was sentenced to 30 hours of labor for holding up a sign in support of Evgeny Vitishko, an environmentalist sentenced to three years in a labor colony.
"I think the police were afraid they would perform," Khakim said.
Semyon Simonov, a human rights defender who has been working on behalf of migrant workers employed in Olympic construction, was also detained with the women. He asserted that the stolen purse case had been fabricated.
"Everyone knows how easy it is to bring false charges," he said.
In a statement, police said the investigation was real. "They were interrogated in connection with complaints received from the hotel in which they are staying, concerning an incident of theft," the statement said.
Tolokonnikova, 25, and Alyokhina, 26, were released from prison in December, under an amnesty announced by Putin. Their imprisonment had made them an international cause celebre. Since their release, they have been campaigning for prison reform and considering entering politics.
Their detention raised a torrent of criticism and disbelief on Twitter. "What idiots to detain them in the middle of the Olympics," tweeted 3 Navalny, an opposition leader in Moscow. Referring to the US public relations firm that represents the Kremlin, he wrote: "No Ketchum agency can help them here."
From Novosibirsk in Siberia, a tweeter named Alex Voronkov wrote that the Winter Games underway here could well become known as the Pussy Riot Olympics.
The song they were working on, Tolokonnikova said, was in support of protesters who are now on trial or imprisoned. On Tuesday, a trial began in Moscow against Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev, accused of inciting mass rioting in connection with a protest on the eve of Putin's inauguration as president in May 2012. Udaltsov has been under house arrest for more than a year. Razvozzhayev complained that he was kidnapped in Ukraine by Russian security forces and brought to Moscow for trial. A verdict is expected by the end of the week in the trial of several "Bolotnaya" prisoners, accused of violence in the same protest.
The detentions Tuesday, Noskovets said, only brought more attention to Pussy Riot and their cause.
"No one knew they were here," she said. "Now it's news No. 1.
Kathy Lally – The Washington Post
Image: Andrej Isakovic / AFP / Lehtikuva