Wrapped up against Russia’s midwinter in vivid balaclavas, brightly colored mini-dresses and not much else, eight members of an all-girl punk group stood on a platform in Red Square and started an impromptu show.
"Riot in Russia!" they screamed, before taunting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and urging Russians to hit the streets in protest.
The band, Pussy Riot, has been gaining Internet notoriety after their January 20 gig of sorts, the latest in a string of impromptu performances to protest Putin’s candidacy for the presidency.
The radical feminists’ eye-catching show in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral lasted mere minutes, but long enough for them to let off smoke flares, wave a flag and strum an unplugged guitar. Police let the women play a short song lampooning Putin — twice — before detaining them.
Many in Russia are angered by Putin’s bid to return to the Kremlin. President from 2000 to 2008 and now prime minister, he aims to regain the job in the March 4 election.
Though he is wrestling the worst legitimacy crisis since coming to power, Putin’s advisors say he remains Russia’s most popular politician.
The quick Red Square performance under drab snowy skies was captured on numerous mobile phones and quickly disseminated online, where state media and bloggers, including protest leader Alexei Navalny, picked it up.
"We are against Putin, against the regime," one of the band’s vocalists, using the nickname Garadzha, told AFP. "We wanted to show that this can happen in Russia, that there are girls who are active, who can do things like this."
Four were charged with non-criminal public order offences and ordered to attend court, Garadzha said, but none of them went to the hearings.
Watching passers-by smiled and held up mobile phones, even if the political message was perhaps lost among the song’s screamed lyrics.
"You’ll catch cold and get ill. Put your clothes on!" one woman shouted.
The group began playing concerts in public this winter, shortly before mass protests over December parliamentary polls drew thousands of protesters to the streets.
It’s rare for an all-woman group to risk police confrontation and venture into street politics in the former Soviet Union. A notable exception is Ukraine’s Femen group, whose members protest topless against sex tourism and prostitution.
Pussy Riot see themselves as part of a wave of radical activists whose protests combine politics and art. The most famous is street art group Voina — War — who painted a giant phallus on a Saint Petersburg drawbridge opposite the offices of the FSB security force.
Pussy Riot’s performances contrast with seemingly sexist stunts by pro-Kremlin groups, including one with bikini-clad girls washing old Lada cars or another where they posed in lingerie for a Putin birthday calendar.
The group has performed to surprised passengers on the metro, on top of a trolley bus and on a roof opposite a police cell where protest leader and blogger Navalny was being held.
Detained protesters watched as group members yelled, "Occupy the squares, seize power peacefully, take away the machine guns from all the cops."
"When we finished, they started yelling and saying ‘When we’re together, we’re unbeatable!’" said another member, Tyurya.
The group has been detained several times but seems unconcerned, saying the worst that could happen would be spending a night in jail.
No female activist has served a 15-day sentence, as Navalny did, for a non-criminal offence during protests, Tyurya said.
"It is sexism, but of course it does work to our advantage," she said.