Punk Band Pussy Riot Takes On Big Oil

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Marco Werman: The dissident punk band Pussy Riot issued a protest video against Putin and big oil. The release comes almost a year since three members of the band were sentenced to prison for an earlier protest. Masha Gessen is a journalist in Moscow. So we've just been hearing about the latest turns in the debate stirred up by Edward Snowden, and as his saga goes on we have this latest blast from Pussy Riot. So tell us. Who's getting more attention today in Russia: Snowden or this dissident band?

Masha Gessen: The state television is all about Snowden. They keep showing his handwritten request for asylum, somehow written in perfect Russian. Pussy Riot is what you get on the web and on independent web-based publications.

Werman: Let's just hear a bit of that new video right now. Now the song is called 'Like a Red Prison.'  Listeners have got to see it at our website, theworld.org. Band members are scaling tanks at an oil pipeline. They're wearing their balaclavas, these bizarre masks. They splash oil on a portrait of the head of the state oil firm. They scream that Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin, is an ayatollah. Masha Gessen, let me ask you. I know this has only been out since yesterday, but generally what kind of event is it when a new Pussy Riot video comes out in Russia? What kind of reaction do they get?

Gessen: It has predictably gone viral on the social networks. They are, I think, possibly the most incisive political commentators in Russia today, and I say this in all seriousness. I think they focus on things that are really at the heart of Russian confluence and at the heart of the regime, which is why they have focused on oil in this video and why the portraits in this video. It's not just the head of the state oil company, but it's also the head of the state investigative committee, which is the prosecutorial body that's behind all the high-profile prosecutions of the last year and a half. They did scale a number of oil rigs in order to film this clip. If you look at it closely, it is shot in a mindboggling number of locations.

Werman: It's really impressive. The production values are really high compared to their old videos. Oil is huge in Russia, and just practically, how do you think they managed to get away with this at several different venues?

Gessen: I'm not at liberty to talk about that, but they did a great job.

Werman: When you say you're not at liberty, I presume that you may know because you spoke recently with imprisoned band member Nadya Tolokonnikova, who wrote many of the lyrics for this new video. You spent four hours with her in Mordovia in a prison. What was that like being there, sitting there, talking with her?

Gessen: First of all, it's extremely uncomfortable. She gets one four hour visit every two months and then one conjugal visit every three months. So they put us in a tiny room. There was an inspector present at all times, and she was actually physically sitting between us. So Nadya's husband and I were at a school-type desk at one end of a long, narrow room, and Nadya was at the opposite end. Fortunately, Nadya's five year old daughter was allowed to sit with Nadya but only after we asked. And Nadya is depressed. She feels very much in crisis. She feels like when she did her Pussy Riot work, she was addressing a very, very small audience that is probably limited to the capitol and that none of the people with whom she's in contact now are the kind of people that she's ever really seen before. None of them even have the tools to understand what she was talking about, and I think that that's kind of making her reexamine the kind of work she does.

Werman: In the 'Red Prison'  video, there's this one shot where there's a cutaway to an oil worker at one of these plants who gives what appears to give a coy, possibly supportive smile. What do you think that suggests?

Gessen: What group members are saying is they actually got a lot of support from workers at these oil rigs, and especially at the gas stations while they were filming. They are saying that they're addressing the working class that serves the oil oligarchy and that the working class is responding.

Werman: In the meantime, Vladimir Putin had been photographed in recent days diving to the bottom of the Baltic Sea in a submersible to explore a shipwreck. Is this video messing with his image?

Gessen: I don't think anybody could mess with Putin's image at this point better than he himself. Every summer he performs some feat of heroism. He either dives to the bottom of the sea or flies in the sky with the Siberian cranes, which is what he did last year. He just looks ridiculous, and I think that is clear to a lot of Russians.

Werman: Masha, Pussy Riot's always been billed as a collective. And as this video shows, you can imprison Pussy Riot, but more members somehow materialize. What does that say about their support?

Gessen: I think Pussy Riot has only grown since some of its members were imprisoned, and there are certainly more women who identify with Pussy Riot. And Pussy Riot has always declared itself to be not just a collective, but to be an open collective, so what Pussy Riot members say is that when they put on a balaclava they become Pussy Riot, and anyone can do that.