UN­DER­COVER WITH PUSSY RIOT

Irina Alek­sander joined masked mem­bers of Rus­sia’s punk col­lec­tive for a covert tour of New York

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

THE young women climb­ing into an SUV near mid­town Man­hat­tan’s Bryant Park in­tro­duce them­selves as Puck and Head­light. ‘‘ It’s not fixed, so you can mix them up or choose your­self,’’ says the one I label Head­light. ‘‘ Yeah, we don’t care,’’ says Puck.

Puck and Head­light are part of Pussy Riot, the Rus­sian fem­i­nist punk-rock col­lec­tive that made in­ter­na­tional head­lines last year af­ter five of its mem­bers de­scended on a Moscow church, wear­ing vi­brant bal­a­clavas and lip­sync­ing ‘‘ Mother of God, get rid of Putin!’’ The act lasted 40 sec­onds, but the more ab­surd spec­ta­cle came in its af­ter­math as three of the per­form­ers were tried and found guilty of ‘‘ hooli­gan­ism’’. Since then, the women have be­come cel­e­brated mar­tyrs, cham­pi­oned by Madonna, Yoko Ono and Bjork; cred­ited by the fash­ion world for the re­turn of riot-grrrl chic; and, now, fea­tured in a new HBO doc­u­men­tary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.

Two of their band­mates, Na­dia and Masha, are still serv­ing out terms in prison, and Puck and Head­light are en route to meet some of Pussy Riot’s sup­port­ers. It is the girls’ first time in New York and, hav­ing left their bal­a­clavas be­hind on this hu­mid Fri­day af­ter­noon, they are feel­ing a bit skit­tish. They won’t re­veal their real names, ages, or whether they are in fact the other per­form­ers of the Punk Prayer, who were never iden­ti­fied.

‘‘ We can­not say if we were there or not,’’ says Head­light. ‘‘ For se­cu­rity rea­sons,’’ says Puck. Though we all speak Rus­sian, an in­ter­preter named Irina is on hand to as­sist with trans­la­tion. Ev­ery time the women speak, Irina talks over them in English.

Do they be­lieve the Rus­sian govern­ment is still pur­su­ing their ar­rest? ‘‘ It’s en­tirely pos­si­ble,’’ says Head­light. ‘‘ They don’t in­form us of their plans.’’

‘‘ It’s sort of a po­lit­i­cal game,’’ says Puck, but some­thing about her an­swer makes Head­light ner­vous. The girls whis­per among them­selves and ask Irina not to trans­late. ‘‘ We can only spec­u­late,’’ Head­light fi­nally says, ‘‘ but it is clear that we need to pro­ceed with cau­tion.’’

Of the two, Head­light is cheer­ful but slightly more for­mal; Puck is co­quet­tish, her move­ments ethe­real and light. They for­bid any men­tion of their phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance, but af­ter some ne­go­ti­a­tion they al­low for de­scrip­tions of their cloth­ing. Puck wears a navy baby-doll dress and black Keds with white socks. Head­light has on cropped army-green pants and a white T-shirt bear­ing the Rus­sian phrase ‘‘ I will not eat buck­wheat por­ridge, you id­iot’’, a ref­er­ence to Vladimir Putin’s al­leged mistress, Alina Kabaeva, who has bragged that she main­tains her fig­ure by ad­her­ing to a strict diet of kasha. I am not al­lowed to de­scribe their back­packs. ‘‘ We’re not plan­ning on chang­ing them,’’ Puck says.

Puck, who has a blue cam­era sus­pended from her wrist, snaps a photo of all of us and then di­rects her lens to the sights out­side the car win­dow. When Puck and Head­light ap­prove of some­thing, they de­scribe it as kruto, the Rus­sian word for cool, or ‘‘ very nice’’. The sub­way, which they took the pre­vi­ous day, is kruto. Their lunch at HBO was ‘‘ very nice’’. The sup­port they’ve re­ceived from the West is not only ‘‘ very nice’’ but also ‘‘ im­por­tant’’.

We ar­rive at a hot-pink record­ing stu­dio in Chelsea, where the girls greet Si­monne Jones, the singer who, along with Peaches, recorded the an­them Free Pussy Riot.

Jones tells them about a protest she staged in their hon­our at the Rus­sian Em­bassy in Ber­lin. ‘‘ Kruto!’’ says Head­light, and both girls nod ap­prov­ingly.

Jones wants to know where they see them­selves in five years. ‘‘ Hope­fully not be­hind bars!’’ says Head­light.

As the girls make their way out of the stu­dio, Jones de­clares them to be ‘‘ awe­some and very brave’’. ‘‘ I want to kid­nap you guys and hang out!’’ Jones says. ‘‘ Come to Ber­lin, OK?’’

A quick cig­a­rette break and we’re back in the car head­ing farther down­town. ‘‘ We like it very much,’’ Puck says of New York as she gazes out her win­dow again. Head­light had hoped to visit the Statue of Lib­erty — ‘‘be­cause it is a woman and she is fight­ing for freedom’’ — but was dis­ap­pointed to learn it’s closed for ren­o­va­tions. Puck, a fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat, just wants to walk around the streets.

‘‘ But the most im­por­tant thing for us is not to see stuff,’’ she adds, her tone grow­ing se­ri­ous, ‘‘ but to meet with peo­ple and es­tab­lish con­tacts.’’ ‘‘ Yes, we’re not tourists,’’ says Head­light.

‘‘ We’re here on a mis­sion,’’ says Puck. The ex­act length of that mis­sion, how­ever, is un­clear. ‘‘ You can’t say when we ar­rived or when we’re leav­ing,’’ Puck warns.

‘‘ We’re just here, you’re meet­ing with us, and that’s it,’’ says Head­light. ‘‘ Who knows what hap­pens to us next.’’

The SUV pulls over on Lafayette Street, and the girls rush off to their next meet­ing.

Top, three Pussy Riot mem­bers in court last year; above, two in Ger­many in De­cem­ber

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