Who are Pussy Riot? A guide to the Russian activist group who crashed the World Cup Final

Four members of the group invaded the pitch during the 2018 World Cup Final for their latest high-profile demonstration

Pussy Riot certainly know how to draw the eyes of the world to their cause. The Russian activist group made their latest large-scale protest during the 2018 World Cup Final between France and Croatia, with four of their members running onto the pitch during the second half.

Given the controversial staging of this year’s tournament in Russia, it seemed almost inevitable that a Pussy Riot protest would take place at some point – and it just so happened that the group chose the final game, which was staged at the Luzhniki Stadium in their home city of Moscow, to make their presence felt. After the protest – which was screened to an audience of millions across the world – the group claimed responsibility for the stunt, confirming that it had taken place in protest of human rights abuses in Russia.

As of July 16, all four members have been charged by Russian authorities, with the group claiming that the four defendants have been denied access to a lawyer.

Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot

This latest show of defiance from Pussy Riot follows on from a string of high-profile protests the group have staged, which have seen members jailed for speaking out against the government. Here’s a quick guide to what the group are all about, along with a closer look at some of Pussy Riot’s eminent members.

How did they get famous?

Pussy Riot was founded in August 2011 in the Russian city of Moscow. They began to gain momentum after two members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich – who used to belong to another anarchist art collective called Voina – played a recording of Pussy Riot’s song ‘Ubey seksista” (‘Kill the Sexist’) at a lecture on feminist punk. Over the following months, Pussy Riot staged a series of  public performances. Their first, in November 2011, was called ‘Release the Cobblestones’. Sampling Angelic Upstarts’ 1978 track ‘Police Oppression’, masked members of the group performed on top of scaffolding on the Moscow subway, tearing open feather pillows and hurling the contents onto the track. 

The Russian media paid close attention to the performances that followed. Later in 2011, Pussy Riot performed on top of a garage next door to the Moscow Detention Center No. 1, which was holding activists arrested a week earlier at the mass protests against the results of the recent State Duma elections. At the beginning of 2012, Pussy Riot gained further notoriety after two members were arrested for their ‘Putin Zassa’ performance at Moscow’s Red Square. Translating roughly to ‘Putin Has Pissed Himself’, the group let off a smoke bomb, and Galkina and Schebleva were later found guilty of breaking the rules around conducting rallies and pickets. Both were charged 500 rubles (about £6) each. Their next performance after this, ‘A Punk Prayer’ – attracted widespread international attention.

What is ‘A Punk Prayer’?

After Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2012, accusations of electoral fraud and vote-rigging were widespread, and numerous large demonstrations – some involving thousands of protesters – took place around Russia before and after Putin’s controversial re-election. Pussy Riot’s ‘A Punk Prayer’ quickly become one of the best known political protests at that time.

For the performance, five women disguised in winter clothes entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. Pulling on the group’s trademark coloured balaclavas, they jumped around the church’s altar, punching the air, and lay prostrate on the floor imitating prayer. Borrowing the melody of ‘Ave Maria’ (or ‘Hail Mary’) the song urged the Virgin Mary to help get rid of Putin. The lyrics also highlighted the close relationship between the church and Russian intelligence service the KGB, criticised the anti-feminist traditions of the church, and used the crude slogan “Sran Gospodnya” (translating to “shit of the Lord”).

Three of the group were jailed, charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. One member, Samutsevich, was later freed on probation, but Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s sentences were upheld, and they were sent to prison. Both women asked to be imprisoned near Moscow in order to be closer to their family; instead, they were sent to separate Gulags (labour camps) many hundreds of miles away.

The harsh sentence attracted international criticism, with Amnesty International calling the women “prisoners of conscience”. 

Have they played gigs?

Besides their protest performances, Pussy Riot have played some more conventional gigs; in 2014, after their release from prison, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova both performed with Madonna (who has vocally supported the collective) at an Amnesty International awareness concert in Brooklyn. They have also played a number of music festivals, appearing on Glastonbury’s Park Stage in 2015 atop a military truck.

Pussy Riot played their first official U.S. concert in December 2017, and are currently on tour. They describe the shows as a “subversive mix of activist art and live set.”

Have they put an album out?

Not in a traditional sense. However, most of Pussy Riot’s songs are freely available to download, under the collected nameUbey seksista (“Kill the sexist”)’. The collective also released ‘In Riot We Trust’ ‎- a limited edition cassette tape containing eight songs – in 2017, and recorded the track ‘Straight Outta Vagina’ for Adult Swim the previous year.

Who are the Members of Pussy Riot?

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

“Nadya” Tolokonnikova, 28, was one of the three women to be imprisoned for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer at the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012. Nadya was sentenced to two years in prison but was released early – a move she has called a cynical act on Vladimir Putin’s behalf, as it came as part of a new amnesty bill just months before Russia was due to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Pussy Riot isn’t the first time Nadya has been involved with controversial art performances. She was a part of the Voina group from 2007 and took part in a series of stunts named Operation Kiss Garbage in 2011, which included female members kissing policewomen on the streets of Moscow.

Maria Alyokhina

Maria “Masha” Alyokhina, 30, was also arrested and imprisoned for her part in the Punk Prayer performance and was released at the same time as Nadya. She is a poet and has previously been involved in activism for Greenpeace, and acted as cross-examiner of witnesses in Pussy Riot’s trial. In a speech during the trial, she told the court: “Nobody can take away my inner freedom.”

Masha has also shared her experience of Russian jails in the play Burning Doors. The piece tells the story of three political prisoners’ experiences – her part includes her head being submerged underwater by authorities for increasingly long periods of time.

Yekaterina Samutsevich

Yekaterina “Katya” Samutsevich, 35, was the third Pussy Riot member to be arrested after Punk Prayer but managed to win an appeal against her own two-year sentence. Katya’s lawyer argued that she should be released because the guards at the cathedral had stopped her before she had been able to take her guitar out of its case. The court agreed, freeing her on a suspended sentence. Katya was also a member of Voina, alongside Nadya.

Pussy Riot new video

Pussy Riot

Nika Nikulshina

Nika Nikulshina, 21, was reportedly the first of four Pussy Riot members to be sentenced after invading the pitch during the 2018 World Cup final. She, like her colleagues, was sentenced to 15 days “administrative arrest” for “violation of spectators’ rights” and illegally wearing law enforcement symbols. She was also banned from attending sports events for three years, and was allegedly denied access to a lawyer before the meeting.

An economics student and model, Nika was the protestor who was given a double high-five by French footballer Kylian Mbappe.

Olga Kurachyova

Olga Kurachyova, 31, was also among the World Cup protestors. After the group were detained, she told the press the protest was designed to promote freedom of speech, as well as highlight FIFA “being friends with heads of states who carry out repression [and] violate human rights.” A journalist, she has worked for BBC Russia and is an LGBT activist.

Olga Pakhtusova

Not much is known about 25-year-old Olga Pakhtusova, who was the third women sentenced to 15 days “administrative arrest” and given a ban from sports events. In a video posted to Pussy Riot’s YouTube channel, which also featured Nika and Olga Kurachyova, she appeared in a pastel pink balaclava throughout.

Pyotr Verzilov

Pyotr Verzilov, 30, is a Russian-Canadian artist and the husband of Nadya Tolokonnikova. He was a member of Voina alongside his wife, and acted as spokesperson for Pussy Riot after the Punk Prayer arrests. However, in October 2012 the group disowned him, claiming he had “seized representation and decision-making of Pussy Riot” and had misrepresented their views.

Pyotr was the only man to participate in the World Cup final protest. He received the same punishment as the women involved.