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Notes From Underground: Russia's Deep Society

Members of Pussy Riot appear on stage at a concert by the U.S. band Faith No More in Moscow on July 1, 2012.
Members of Pussy Riot appear on stage at a concert by the U.S. band Faith No More in Moscow on July 1, 2012.
How many divisions does Pussy Riot have?

It was a question that arose last week when five members of the feminist punk group appeared on stage in Moscow during a concert by the U.S. band Faith No More.

Three of their members were languishing in pre-trial detention facing seven years in prison for their infamous Cathedral of Christ the Savior concert. And the rest were in hiding, purportedly living in fear of a similar fate. But yet, there they were, on stage, in public, in the capital, chanting "Putin wet his pants!" and "Riot in Russia!"

And then they disappeared without a trace.

"Membership in Pussy Riot is completely interchangeable," Petr Verzilov, a member of the underground art collective "Voina" and husband of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"This anonymous status is part of the band's ideological core. A few dozen girls have participated in their five performances."

Pussy Riot is everywhere, he seemed to be saying. They could be anybody. The girl next door. Or the one standing beside you on the Metro. Without the masks and the bright pastel dresses, who can tell for sure? And who can tell when they will pop up again with another stunt to embarrass the Kremlin.

A Moscow court on July 9 denied an appeal to release the band's three incarcerated members -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich -- despite reports that they might be freed.

But the Pussy Riot phenomenon appears to have become a semipermanent feature of the political landscape. And Pussy Riot-ism -- outrageous and attention-grabbing public stunts designed to shame and ridicule the authorities -- appears to have become one of the chosen tactics of the growing part of society inclined toward dissent.

The most obvious example is Voina itself, whose antiregime antics predated and foreshadowed those of the rebel punks. The rogue artists also operate in stealth and most members of the collective keep a low profile. That is, of course, until they pull a high-profile stunt like painting a giant 65-meter phallus on a St. Petersburg drawbridge facing the Federal Security Service's local headquarters.

WATCH: Voina' s"phallic" performance-art protest stunt

There was also socialite-turned-social activist Ksenia Sobchak's viral video back in February parodying celebrities being pressured into public displays of fealty to Vladimir Putin.

WATCH: Ksenia's satirical display of "support" for Vladimir Putin

But latent and stealth dissent that suddenly becomes manifest is also becoming more common among ordinary Russians who aren't famous socialites, members of punk bands or in art collectives.

Back in January, for example, a group of paratroopers recorded an anti-Putin anthem that quickly went viral.

WATCH: Paratroopers sing a song critical of Putin

And the most recent case was Rostislav Zhuravlyov's decision to mock the recently passed law imposing stiff fines for unsanctioned demonstrations by complying with it to the point of absurdity.

Zhuravlyov managed to secure official permission , and a police escort, for a solitary stroll through Yekaterinburg -- and then posted a video of the entire episode on LiveJournal and YouTube.

WATCH: Rostislav Zhuravlyov's soiltary protest in Yekaterinberg

The tactic was pioneered, albeit with less success, by a group in Nizhny Novgorod called "Zhizn po zakonu," or "Living by the law."

The list goes on, but you get the picture. Pussy Riot has become a metaphor for all the pent up dissent buried deep in Russian society that is just waiting for the opportune time to surface.

And the thing about this kind of dissent is that it is very difficult for the authorities to contain, let alone suppress. They can lock up three members of Pussy Riot, but who knows when the some of the (at least) dozens of other members will pop up in their bright ski masks singing anti-Kremlin slogans.

And regardless of what restrictive law the State Duma passes, nobody can be sure when or where the next Rostislav Zhuravlyov or group of paratroopers will surface with some clever public stunt to ridicule it. Like the videos that promote these actions, such behavior itself tends to go viral.

This fledgling Deep Society is still no match for the power of Russia's Deep State. But its existence is a sign that no matter how badly Putin wants to, he can't turn the clock back to 2007.

How many divisions does Pussy Riot have? Quite a few, it appears.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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