By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
MOSCOW — One of the key ideas behind the Russian punk provocateur band P—-y Riot was the supremacy of an idea over personality — thus the balaclavas that made the members both unrecognizable and fearsome.
But the three members who were jailed in March following a guerrilla performance denouncing President Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral have unwillingly emerged as vivid — and very different — characters. They await a verdict Friday on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.
One is a daring performance artist with Angelina Jolie lips and a notorious part in a filmed orgy just days before she gave birth. Another is a poet and environmentalist whose pre-Raphaelite looks project sweetness and sensitivity. Rounding out the trio is a quietly cerebral computer expert, who has applied her skills both to nuclear submarines and experimental art.
If convicted they could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison. The trial has attracted worldwide attention as an emblem of Russia’s intolerance of dissent.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich came together several years ago in a confrontational art group called Voina (War), which attracted notice with risque stunts. The group painted a 65-meter (200-foot) penis on a St. Petersburg drawbridge — visible in much of the city when the bridge rose — and in 2008 staged an orgy in a Moscow museum as a mocking commentary on Dmitry Medvedev’s imminent election as Russian president.
Tolokonnikova, 23, who was heavily pregnant when she appeared in the museum orgy, has become the main face of P—-y Riot.
“Since childhood I’ve loved finding myself in extreme situations. I’ve always lacked unusual things in my life,” she said in an interview with Plutser-Sarno published in his blog.
In her final statement at the trial last week she said that P—-y Riot provided her a long-sought creative outlet.
“We were looking for genuine sincerity and beauty and found it in our punk performances,” she said.
Tolokonnikova left her home in the frigid oil town of Norilsk at 17 to enroll in Moscow State University’s philosophy department. There she met and married Pyotr Verzilov, who became a Voina member but was thrown out in 2009 on accusations of betraying another member to the police.
Alekhina, an accomplished poet with long curly blonde hair, is quite a different face of P—-y Riot. Alekhina, mother of a five-year-old boy, has a long background in charity work and environmental activism.
She organized protest pickets to defend Utrish, a natural reserve in Russia’s south, from developers and worked with Danilovtsy, a Russian Orthodox charity.
Her friend and fellow charity worker Olga Vinogradova describes her as “a born activist.” They both frequented a Moscow psychiatric hospital for teenagers, giving classes and helping the patients to socialize, Vinogradova said.
Samutsevich, 30, studied computers at Moscow Energy University and soon got a good job at a top research center. She was promptly hired to a job in a top secret department where she was designing software programs for Russia’s top nuclear submarine Nerpa, her father Stanislav said.
Samutsevich later quit and enrolled at the renowned Rodchenko Photography and Multimedia School to study media art. Her final project at the school was designing a web-browser which intentionally distorted and manipulated search results — an invention that was supposed to highlight society’s dependence on media and helplessness in the uncharted waters of web media.
Alexei Shulgin, a professor at the Rodchenko school, said Samutsevich was “a very private person” — “shy” and not “always forthcoming about her thoughts.”
Shulgin praised her as a talented artist and said that like many young people in Russia she “turned to art for answers about modern times.”
“The P—-y Riot project is a landmark one,” Shulgin said. “It pointed out problem areas in our society and highlighted a growing split inside the nation.”
Samutsevich’s father said in an interview in the New Times weekly last month that he does not share some of his daughter’s views on art and politics but “feels proud about how firm and prepared she is to face the punishment rather than betray her beliefs.”
“I have mixed feelings about this trial,” Samutsevich herself told the court in her final argument. “On the one hand, we’re expecting a guilty verdict. But on the other, we have won because the criminal case against us has been rigged, and the government machine cannot hide the fact that this trial is repressive.”