Jailed punk band Pussy Riot pushes free speech limits in Russia

Three members of the Russian punk protest band Pussy Riot await trial.

Story highlights

  • CNN talks with the husband of a member of Pussy Riot, a Russian punk band
  • Three band members were arrested in early May after a public performance
  • The band criticizes Russia's president and played an unauthorized show in a cathedral
Here's a quick way to get arrested in modern Russia: Walk into a cathedral wearing a neon mask and carrying a guitar, stand on the pulpit and scream punk songs with lyrics like "Virgin Mary drive Putin away!"
Throw in a few more obscenities, and that's how three members of the punk band Pussy Riot ended up in Russian prison in early March, after criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin, who the group says is in bed with the Russian Orthodox Church and is unfairly cracking down on free speech.
Three of its members are still in prison and have been charged with "hooliganism," a crime that carries a maximum sentence of seven years, according to news reports.
Before that, the all-female, anonymous band had performed on top of a prison and on Red Square in Moscow, the capital. Their performances on YouTube attract hundreds of thousands of views. After the arrest, punk rockers in cities as far away as San Francisco put on public performances in solidarity with the group. Pussy Riot, in its own controversial way, has become a symbol of the protest movement in Russia.
"Everyone loves the Sex Pistols, and no one likes punk bands being arrested for singing," said Pyotr Verzilov, a collaborator with the band who talked with CNN at a recent human rights conference in Norway, where he was speaking on Pussy Riot's behalf.
The band has drawn comparisons to other Western punk bands, including the Ramones. "Unlike their British and American forerunners, however," writes Bloomberg Businessweek, "the Russian rockers have something very real to be angry about, starting with their own imprisonment."
Some say Putin is cracking down unfairly on the band at a time when protesters continue to gather in the capital; others that Pussy Riot defiled the church and should be punished. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called their cathedral performance blasphemy, according to RIA Novosti, the state-owned news agency.
A priest, writing in Russia Today, said that "to try to label such a performance in a church as a political protest doesn't make it any more acceptable."
Their detention has been extended by a Moscow court until June 24, according to that government-funded news organization.
For Verzilov, a 26-year-old who also is married to one of the arrested band members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, the ordeal is, of course, both political and personal. He had to figure out a way to tell their 4-year-old daughter why her mom is in prison.
Verzilov spoke with CNN about the personal challenges of being involved in politics in modern Russia, and about how his wife's punk band came into existence.
The following is an edited transcript:
CNN: Tell me about the idea behind the band.
Verzilov: Pussy Riot is this punk feminist band, which was formed by a collective of women who decided the best way to bring (forward) both political and feminist ideas in the context of present-day Putinist Russia was to do these unsanctioned punk performances with their faces covered. And at the same time bring on a very bright image, but avoid objectification of girls who take part in these events.
CNN: Describe what they look like when they perform.
Verzilov: Usually their performance looks like an unsanctioned sudden musical event. In a very strange place (that's) not suited for a musical performance.
They performed on top of a Moscow detention center. This is a prison where people were being arrested after the parliamentary elections were being held ... including myself.
They sometimes do these landmark performances in very heavily guarded spots, like the Red Square. After, they were detained by the federal security service of Russia. They did have time to play the song. The four minutes they needed to play the song.
And, obviously, their last and most famous performance was at the Christ the Savior Cathedral. A week later, three members got a criminal arrest.
CNN: What were they singing exactly that got them in trouble? Or was it where they were singing?
Verzilov: It's a very different thing what they were actually singing inside the cathedral and what got put into the video on the Internet.
What act