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Congress

Pussy Riot Goes to Washington

Members of the Russian punk group came to Congress with a list of Russian officials they want sanctioned.

Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, members of Pussy Riot, answer questions after meeting with senators at the Capitol on Tuesday.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

photo of Elahe Izadi
May 6, 2014

Congress went punk for a day, in the name of human rights.

Members of Pussy Riot met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, in an effort to highlight human-rights abuses in Russia. They also came armed with a list of 16 Russian authorities they want sanctioned by the United States for human-rights abuses.

"We have to talk about these people. We have to talk about political prisoners," Maria Alyokhina said through a translator. "Silence is the most dangerous thing for political prisoners, and if we allow these people to be forgotten, they might be killed."

 

Their list includes Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev and five judges, one of whom was involved in the Pussy Riot case. Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova spent nearly two years in a Russian penal colony after performing an anti-Putin song in a Russian church in 2012.

"One of the main slogans of President Putin is stability, whereas today we can state that Putin is leading Russia not to stability but to instability and chaos," Tolokonnikova said through a translator.

The members of the Russian punk-rock group were invited to the Hill by two Helsinki Commission members, Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee. "These women are heroes to people around the globe," Cohen said. 

The names the women brought will be used, as lawmakers consider whether more individuals should be added to the list of those sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act, Cardin said. Passed in 2012, the law bans U.S. travel by certain Russian human-rights violators and freezes their American bank accounts.

The band members met privately with lawmakers and spoke about what they endured in Russia; they also discussed crackdowns on the LGBT community, NGOs, bloggers, and others.

"It puts a face on what we've heard, and you can see the pain in their faces as to what they went through," Cardin said. "It always amazes me, the personal courage and determination of young, talented people who put their lives at risk in order to help others, and that's clearly what they're doing."

The band is actually a performance-art collective of many individuals, but the two imprisoned members became internationally known after their conviction on charges of "hooliganism" and inciting religious hatred. Their songs are posted on the Internet for free, and they stage guerrilla-style performances.

On Monday, Putin signed into law a ban on obscenities in the arts.

"My wish is someone could make a Pussy Riot song with a lot of obscenities, post it to the Internet, and see what happens," Tolokonnikova said.

The women were also in the U.S. to attend the PEN Literary Gala in New York on Monday.

Russian authorities' treatment of Pussy Riot has sparked bipartisan congressional outrage before—although many members have refrained from saying the band's actual name. (For what it's worth, Cardin did refer to the band by name numerous times Tuesday).

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley if Iowa has tweeted about the "ridiculous sentence given punk band members." And in a January floor speech, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said, "I'm going to declaim from articulating their name and leave it to other sources. But it says something that the government of Russia views the persecution of punk-rock bands as within its purview and perfectly appropriate." 

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