Photographers' Blog

Pussy Riot’s activist beginnings

By Tom Peter

When the Khamovnichesky court announces on Friday the verdict in the case against the punk band Pussy Riot that is accused of hooliganism in Moscow’s main church, the world will witness how the Russian authorities respond to an artist’s smack in the face.

Many admire the braveness of Yekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Maria Alyokhina, others object to the form and the choice of location for their shock performance. But make no mistake; the impact of the “Punk Prayer” on public opinion was not the chance result of a post-adolescent prank. At least two of the three defendants have emerged from a scene of young conceptual artists that have been engaged in political activism for years. They knew exactly where to hit so that it hurt most.

SLIDESHOW: THE EARLY YEARS OF PUSSY RIOT

I met Nadezhda and her husband Pyotr Verzilov in 2007 after they co-founded the art group Voina that gained international fame with a number of spectacular stunts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Yekaterina joined the group a little later. I never met Maria Alyokhina during my time in Russia.

Voina emerged from a loose collective of young artists at a time when pre-financial crisis Russia was preoccupied with the little prosperity that the country’s booming natural resources sector bestowed on its growing middle class. Born into more or less privileged families, these young people shunned the career opportunities their university education could have afforded them in order to devote themselves to the artistic exposure of issues that their fellow countrymen preferred to leave hidden in plain sight.

In Russia’s predominantly conservative society homophobia is a common form of defending all things “natural”, corruption accepted as a given of daily life and feminism has to many, men and women alike, the appeal of bad breath.

Femen gets naked for Putin

By Denis Sinyakov

“Young silly girls” that’s how Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov referred to Ukrainian Femen movement activists Oxana Shachko, Anna Deda and Irina Fomina. The three were sentenced to 5-12 days jail for appearing topless at an election site during the presidential vote in Russia on Sunday and imitating an attempt to steal the ballot box, which Putin had used to vote earlier in the day.

It was the first time Deda and Fomina had been in jail.

One wouldn’t be able to tell it was Fomina’s first ever protest the night before, when the women gathered to practice in a hostel room overlooking the Moscow river. I had never covered this intimate process of preparation for an act of protest before. Moreover, it was the first time I met the activists, and I barely knew their leader Anna Hutsol. That left me slightly confused.

The day before the elections, Hutsol replied to my request to come and photograph them, saying she would most likely agree. All day long, in my head I was going through pictures of Femen shot by Alessandro Bianchi in Italy, Gleb Garanich in Ukraine, photos that had won at the World Press Photo and POYi, trying to make mine different. My fears about repeating what had been shot already proved groundless, thanks to the interior of the Soviet-style apartment made into a hostel.

Portraits of Russian voters

By Will Webster

Russia goes to the polls on March 4, in a presidential election that present Prime Minister and former two term President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win. Russian politics is a strange beast, opaque is the most constructive word to describe the process of moving and shaking that goes on in the corridors of power. A whole class of analytical Kremlinologists aim to shed light on the minutiae of the process, although opinions widely differ, and the outcome appears to be the same – 6 more years of Putin in top spot. In this atmosphere behind closed doors, with one outcome highly probable, it’s difficult to illustrate the campaign trail, if such a thing exists. However in this story of same old, same old, there is a group of individuals that stand out, that no one seems to ask about: the Russian people – they are the ones that cast the votes. People like Anatoly, an artist from Moscow.

Following a parliamentary election in December, one of the typical plays of allegiance shifting and maneuvering in the top levels of the power vertical something changed. Widespread claims of vote falsification brought out around 5,000 people onto the street in Moscow, a show of opposition to the authorities that hasn’t been seen for years. The movement grew, organized and strenghtened in the fertile fields of social networks. It provided leaders that in principal have no political leverage apart from a following online. People like Alexey Navalny, anti corruption blogger, and Yevgrnia Chirikova, an environmental activist battling the destruction of her local forest to make way for a new highway. Would they be able to maintain their voice of protest and public displays of opposition throughout the winter (a bigger problem for those not aware of it – ask the Grande Armee of 1812) in order to make a difference in the presidential vote? The protests did grow, a couple more followed, the numbers swelled – up to 100,000 came out to call for fair elections in January. The authorities seemed to be at a loss on how to snuff out this unplanned voice of opposition. Official plans were immediately drawn up to make the voting process more transparent, webcams in polling stations, symbolically see-through ballot boxes. Still, the unrest persisted. Another strategy was started – organized supporter events for United Russia, let the people know (on state run television networks) that actually most people are with Putin. By necessity these shows of support must be more impressive than that of these Muscovites wearing white condoms (Putin’s initial response when the white ribbons appeared on the street).

Aha – we have an angle, the people are moving, thousands and thousands of them, showing their support with their feet. But rather than faceless pawns, they are real people. People who want their vote to count.

Amid fires the air is thick with prayers

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, wearing headphones, sits in the cockpit of a firefighting plane in Ryazan region August 10, 2010.   REUTERS/Ria Novosti/Pool/Alexei Nikolsky

The Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin occupied the nation’s TV screens while reports of his bravado in fighting forest wildfires littered the media. The rest of the country were dead on their feet, choking with smoke as they fought the disaster.

Residents attempt to extinguish a fire near the village of Polyaki-Maydan in Ryazan region, some 380 km (236 miles) southeast of Moscow, August 9, 2010.  REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

Unable to depend upon Putin, government authority or new luxury equipment for assistance, locals grew weary as they defended their houses using an arsenal of tractors, farm equipment and shovels.

A man drinks water as he tries to extinguish a forest fire near the village of Polyaki-Maydan in Ryazan region, some 380 km (236 miles) southeast of Moscow, August 9, 2010.   REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

Some relied on their prayers.

A priest blessed firefighters in the village of Berestyanka before they continued on. Local residents conducted religious services asking God for rain to prevent new wildfires like the one that partially destroyed the village of Kriusha on August 5.

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