To get to Moscow’s Documentary theatre – you need to have a pretty good knowledge of the city.
It’s hidden down a back street, there are no signs outside and a set of scruffy stairs take you deep underground. The bright lights usually associated with the theatrical world are nowhere to be seen here.
The tiny theatre only seats around 60 people, but on Wednesday night it was packed to the rafters with standing room only.
This is a venue renowned for controversy. Previous performances have mocked President Putin and documented events surrounding the death of the whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.
Last night we weren’t sure what to expect. Would it be a play charting the rise of Pussy Riot? Not exactly – instead it was a series of accounts and memories from the group’s friends and supporters.
We heard about what sort of people the women are and the conditions they are experiencing inside prison. Much has been written about the balaclava clad band – the speakers seemed to want to dispel some of the images which have demonised Pussy Riot members.
The group first made the international headlines last February. Their uninvited performance inside Christ the Savour Cathedral certainly got people talking. An earlier and equally loud display close to the Kremlin almost went unnoticed.
The Cathedral demonstration lasted less than a minute and the group said it was in response to Vladimir Putin’s close relationship with the church. However, many orthodox Russians were deeply offended by it. It prompted protests against the group and protests in support of the women too.
A court in August found two of the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. Another Pussy Riot member, Yekaterina Samutsevich was given a suspended sentence. When she arrived at the Documentary theatre last night, people immediately started clicking away on their mobile phones and taking photos.
She was most certainly the star of the show, though she makes few public appearances these days. She told us she had no regrets about that controversial performance but wished she’d had chance to finish it.
Nadezha Tolokonnikova’s husband Peter Verzilov told me that while the separation was hard, his wife had the internal strength to cope with the situation One of her prison duties it emerged is helping to make police uniforms. According to one friend, she has been reading a lot of philosophical works but the prison library is poor and even the works of Dostoevsky are not allowed.
When I asked Peter Verzilov whether Pussy Riot was making a difference he said ”It is making a difference because for Putin at least it’s showed that a certain part of the Russian population, young people, are ready to voice a very strong opposition to his politics – even risking a lot”.
There were concerns that Orthodox protesters might try to disrupt the evening, this had happened at a similar event in August. About an hour into Wednesday’s show, a lot of banging coming from outside prompted a few tentative glances around the room. In the end though, it turned out to be latecomers trying to get in.
What was surprising, was that the audience was very varied – something which is apparently unusual for a performance like this.
Vladimir Putin’s run for the presidency last year sparked some of the biggest demonstrations in Moscow for more than two decades. He went onto win with more than 60 percent of the vote with the opposition strongly contesting the validity of the result. Those involved in Wedneday’s show are keen to show that while the big rallies may have stopped, they have not been silenced.