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Pussy Riot members say Swedish exile is price of opposing Putin

With Vladimir Putin expected to secure a fourth term next month, Pussy Riot members Alexey Knedlyakovsky and Lusine Djanyan are claiming asylum in Sweden.
Pussy Riot Exile
Pussy Riot activists Alexey Knedlyakovsky and Lusine Djanyan have fled Russia for Sweden.Vladimir Banic / for NBC News

STORÅ, Sweden — The human cost of opposing Vladimir Putin can be found in a squalid, shoebox apartment in Sweden's frigid wilderness.

Once among the Russian president's most prominent antagonists, Alexey Knedlyakovsky and Lusine Djanyan are now scraping out a hand-to-mouth existence while trying to raise their boisterous 2-year-old son, Tigran.

Both are members of Pussy Riot, the Russian artistic collective known for its punk rock protests against the government.

They say they were forced to flee Russia because of threats from Putin's security services as they clamp down on dissent and dissidents.

With Putin expected to win another presidential term — his fourth overall — in a largely uncontested election next month, Djanyan and Knedlyakovsky are claiming asylum in Sweden.

"We were not given the opportunity to live normally," Djanyan says, recalling their treatment in Russia as her husband and son play on the toy-strewn floor behind her. "We were harassed, pressed, threatened using various methods — psychological as well as physical."

The couple say their life as outcasts is the price they pay for joining Pussy Riot. The group made global headlines in 2012 when four members performed a "punk prayer" in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. They criticized Putin, the clergy and Russia's poor record on LGBT rights.

Pussy Riot has had more than a dozen members over the past seven years but only a handful have ever taken off their trademark colorful balaclavas.

Image: Pussy Riot
Members of Pussy Riot chant a "punk prayer" that criticized Vladimir Putin at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, in 2012.Sergey Ponomarev / AP file

Knedlyakovsky and Djanyan are among its activists who have been beaten and detained after criticizing Putin, a man Djanyan calls "a catastrophe" for Russia.

But the pair never wanted to leave their homeland.

"Russia is our country," says Knedlyakovsky, who wryly acknowledges being the only male member of the group. "It's our motherland. We miss Russia."

Everything changed last year when they say undercover authorities approached them when they were with Tigran. That crossed a line.

"If something will happen to us in Russia, the biggest problem would be with our son," Knedlyakovsky said. "We need to care about his future. And now here in Sweden I think he will have a better future than in Russia because now he is in a safe place."

'I had a better life'

Storå, a remote Swedish village that is home to 2,000 people and a solitary grocery store, is hardly the place where two urban artists would choose to live with a toddler. But it's here that Sweden's Migration Agency has placed them while it rules on their claim to stay in the country.

Getting here from the capital, Stockholm, involves a four-hour train ride through snow-dusted Christmas trees and sporadic log houses painted in Sweden's traditional "falu red" color.

From Storå's railway station — in reality just a bench and a ticket machine — reaching their apartment means walking back across the train tracks and trudging through ankle-deep snow for several hundred yards.

Their place is on the top floor of one of three rather dingy housing blocks reserved for asylum-seekers. Their neighbors are Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians and Eritreans, all of whom have fled persecution of one kind or another and are awaiting a decision on whether they can stay.

Pussy Riot Exile
The apartment block where Alexey Knedlyakovsky and Lusine Djanyan live in Sweden.Vladimir Banic / for NBC News

"In Moscow I had a better life," Knedlyakovsky reminisces while looking round at his new sleepy surroundings. "It’s more safe here, but it's a very big change. Here all we can do is go for walks with our son. There's not much else to do.

In Russia, Djanyan earned good money as an art teacher at a local university and as a private tutor. In Sweden, the government covers their rent and bills, but they have struggled to find work and must pay for food, clothes and all other essentials on a handout of around $600 per month.

They left all of their artwork behind, and Djanyan laments that "I cannot do my artwork here because we don't have money for materials."

Their apartment itself is little more than 200-square feet and has two rooms: One somehow fits a double bed, a small table, boxes of toys and a miniature kitchen; the other is the smallest of bathrooms.

Washing lines are strung across the room like telegraph wires — wet clothes would likely freeze in the minus-5 temperatures outside — and the interior is all peeling wallpaper, mildew stains and a rusty mirror in the bathroom.

Image: Pussy Riot Exile
Alexey Knedlyakovsky looks in his bathroom mirror.Vladimir Banic / for NBC News

Despite its rural setting it is not a peaceful space. Old water pipes shake in the building's cavities and neighbors bang the walls when Tigran, clearly frustrated at this claustrophobic environment, decides to scream at the top of his lungs.

"I have big family in Russia — my cousin, my sister, little nephews," Knedlyakovsky says wistfully. "I love them and I want to live in Russia. But it's not possible."

From this vantage point, 860 miles from Moscow, the couple must watch Putin's almost certain return as president in elections on March 18. The only candidate who has provided any real sort of opposition is Alexei Navalny, and he has been banned from the campaign because of what his supporters say are spurious fraud charges.

"Unfortunately the picture is quite dreadful," Djanyan says. "More people are likely to go to prison and we are likely to get a new, old president."

Does Putin remaining in power mean that Pussy Riot has failed?

"I think [the group] wanted to change public opinion, they wanted to change Russian society, they wanted to change people's view for the problem inside this country," Knedlyakovsky replies. In terms of raising awareness he believes that "Pussy Riot won, in a way."

Mystery member

Djanyan will not say whether she is one of the four Pussy Riot members who protested at Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2012.

Two of them, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina, who would become the group's poster girls, were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" and served almost two years in prison.

Image: Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
Pussy Riot members Yekaterina Samutsevich (left), Maria Alyokhina (center) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (right) during a court hearing in Moscow on Aug. 17, 2012.ANDREY SMIRNOV / AFP - Getty Images, file

A third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released early on appeal, and the fourth was never identified.

"I can't tell you who it was — who sung, who was filming," Djanyan says. "Of course I know who it was but we won’t talk. [In Russia], if you talk too much, you fail."

The couple now living in Sweden were certainly involved two years later in what has become Pussy Riot's defining performance: a stunt at the Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi.

Putin spent an estimated $51 billion on the 2014 games, with detractors deriding it as nothing more than a lavish vanity project aimed at boosting Russia's standing abroad and the president's domestic popularity.

Pussy Riot marred the parade, however, when their unannounced performance of a song called "Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland" drew a violent reaction from members of an ultranationalist Russian militia known as the Cossacks.

Knedlyakovsky was left with blood streaming down his face after he says he was hit over the head with his own guitar. Djanyan and other members were beaten and pepper sprayed. None of the Cossacks faced legal action.

"First, one of the Cossacks sprayed tear gas that mostly hit Nadya and myself, and then they started to beat up everyone," Djanyan says.

If 2012's "punk prayer" announced Pussy Riot to the world, the Sochi protest propelled them to global stardom. Or at least it did for Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, the group's de facto frontwomen.

While Djanyan and Knedlyakovsky await their asylum decision in Swedish limbo, their more prominent co-conspirators have been touring the world promoting various artistic ventures under the name of Pussy Riot.

They have released half a dozen pop-music videos, one of which stars the Oscar-nominated actor Chloë Sevigny, as well as an "immersive theater experience" at London's Saatchi Gallery and a U.S. tour slated to run this spring.

Knedlyakovsky and Djanyan's artwork was displayed at London's Saatchi Gallery but they were not able to attend. Given their current predicament, have they ever thought of asking their globe-trotting bandmates for help?

"We don't want to ask someone to help us. In some way it's our choice [to stay in Sweden] … so now we don't need some special help," Knedlyakovsky says proudly.

'You just need to be a little brave'

The couple say threats from Russia's security services were nothing new, but the trigger that caused them to abandon their lives came last March.

They were pushing Tigran in his stroller near their home in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar when they were approached by two people in civilian clothes who they believe were officers with the FSB — a successor agency to the KGB.

"It was very scary and it was the last drop for our decision to move to Sweden," Knedlyakovsky says. "In a very aggressive manner, they told us, 'You need to stop your activism. What are you doing? You need to care about your son.'"

Djanyan adds: "Life became merely impossible. When you have a small child you have to think not only about yourself."

After a brief discussion, Knedlyakovsky and Djanyan say they made the decision to flee.

Image: Pussy Riot Exile
Alexey Knedlyakovsky and Lusine Djanyan with their son, Tigran.Vladimir Banic / for NBC News

Independent human rights watchdogs agree Russia has been increasingly guilty of silencing its opponents under Putin. The Economist Intelligence Unit, a London-based consultancy, says during the course of his administration the country has become a fully-fledged authoritarian regime.

Some Putin critics have also died under mysterious circumstances, most notably ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, whose death was "probably" sanctioned by the Russian president himself, a British judge ruled last year.

The couple contacted the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, which they say provided them with money for plane tickets and a letter of recommendation to the Swedish government. The Germany-based rights group was founded by the daughter of Boris Nemtsov, a Putin critic and lawmaker who was slain near the Kremlin walls in February 2015.

Their departure was surprisingly easy. According to them, one car followed them to the airport but that was it. Knedlyakovsky believes the authorities were just happy to see them gone.

"When you live in Russia and you are even a little bit politically active, you need to be ready to run away every day," he says.

Now they wait to see if Sweden grants them asylum.

"If they don't, we'll have to go back to a country where we are threatened," Djanyan says. "That would be terrible."

Image: Pussy Riot Exile
Alexey Knedlyakovsky and Lusine Djanyan have been in Sweden for almost a year.Vladimir Banic / for NBC News

Their lives now couldn’t be more different than those of their more famous Pussy Riot colleagues. But Knedlyakovsky defends the group from criticism by some reviewers who say its glossy new material goes against the gritty punk roots that once defined it

"You know, Nadya, she was and she is like the spirit of Pussy Riot," Knedlyakovsky says. "Nadya now tried to move this image, for my opinion, a bit toward popular culture, maybe sometimes not so aggressive. And it's normal because [as an artist] it's impossible to stay all the time in one place. You need to move, you need to grow. So it is authentic."

In any case, according to Knedlyakovsky, "anyone can be in Pussy Riot." He doesn't rule out someone protesting in the group's name at soccer's World Cup this summer in his native land.

"Maybe someone in Russia will do something against it," he says of the tournament that starts in mid-June. "You just need to be a little bit brave."

Alan Kaytukov contributed reporting from Moscow.