TIME

Pussy Riot’s New Video Targets Corruption in Putin’s Russia

But they don't expect to get thrown in jail for it this time

Elaborate set designs and choreography are not a hallmark of Pussy Riot’s music videos, at least not the ones that turned them into Russia’s most famous protest collective. More typically, the band has had no more than a few minutes to dance around on camera before Russian police, security guards or, in one case, a group of whip-wielding Cossack militiamen, shows up to break up their performances. Not so with the punks’ first foray into hip-hop.

Released on Wednesday, their latest clip offers a cutting takedown of corruption in President Vladimir Putin’s government, all filmed with relatively high production values in well-groomed sets around Moscow.

This required quite a bit of guile. In order to film in a Soviet-era banquet hall, the group’s co-founder, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and her crew of back-up dancers, dressed up in the blue uniforms of Russian prosecutors, leading the owners of the venue to believe that a law enforcement convention was in progress. The torture scenes were somewhat easier to justify, as these were filmed in a former jail often used as a set for TV dramas.

But one of the props did raised some suspicion among the landlords who unwittingly let Pussy Riot use the former jail. “When they saw the golden loaf of bread,” a symbol of corruption in the former Soviet Union, “they sort of understood that something wasn’t right,” says Tolokonnikova’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov.

Still, the filming was allowed to go on, and the end result (a collaboration with David Sitek of the American band TV on the Radio) affirmed the group’s knack for jabbing the Kremlin where it hurts. In this case, the primary target was Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, who has lately become the weakest link in Putin’s chain of command.

In December, Russia’s leading anti-corruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny, published an investigation that accused Chaika and his two sons of enriching themselves through ties with one of Russia’s most notorious criminal gangs. Chaika’s florid denial of these accusations, in which he hints at a CIA plot to discredit him, has since made him the laughingstock of Russia’s blogosphere. And now Pussy Riot’s leading lady has twisted the knife by lampooning Chaika in her lyrics.

“Be humble, learn to obey,” Tolokonnikova raps in the clip, with a massive portrait of Putin behind her and the golden loaf on the desk in front. “You wanna get away with murder? Be loyal to your boss.”

The official reaction to this video, says Verzilov, who handles much of the group’s publicity, isn’t likely to be as intense as the backlash to their break-out hit, “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away,” in which Pussy Riot barged into Moscow’s main cathedral and danced around in front of the altar in February 2012.

That stunt got two of group’s members, including Tolokonnikova, sent to prison for nearly two years for the crime of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility.”

“But Putin never harbored the illusion that he could just let his opponents rot away in prison,” says Verzilov. “He operates according to the demands of the moment.” That seemed to be the case in December 2013, when Putin granted an amnesty to the jailed Pussy Riot members, apparently seeking to burnish his record on human rights ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

More recently, as charges of corruption have piled up against members of his entourage, Putin’s tactic has been to brush the accusations aside. Asked during a press conference in December whether the Prosecutor General should at least be suspended pending investigation, the President said: “It’s unnecessary. I’m very careful with these individuals.” Then, in another typical diversion, he tried to turn the table on the accusers: “Generally speaking,” Putin said, “we also need to be checking where this information about officials and their children originates on the Internet.”

But that doesn’t mean the Kremlin will see the new music video as a harmless joke. Throughout much of his tenure, Putin has tried his best to appeal to the same fan base as Pussy Riot – Russia’s YouTube generation – using a variety of stunts. In 2009, he even appeared at a televised hip-hop concert called “The Battle For Respect” and praised its performers for their “unique” artistic talents. “Street rap may be a little bit rough, but it contains social meaning,” he told the audience of teenagers. “Graffiti is becoming a real art form,” he added, “nuanced and elegant.”

In the past year or so, the President’s political movement, known as the All-Russian People’s Front, has moved ahead with this outreach strategy using a series of cartoons that seem to borrow from the gory traditions of South Park and Family Guy. Released on the movement’s social networking pages, the clips show an animated Putin wordlessly murdering a variety of disobedient officials, usually by pressing a button on his wristwatch that causes some grisly death to befall them.

No doubt the effort has been enough to win some clicks, shares and chuckles on Russia’s version of Facebook. But it’s hardly the kind of aesthetic that will captivate a generation. With its mix of subversion and sex appeal, Pussy Riot would seem to have the better chance of going viral and staying relevant, thereby causing the Kremlin’s cartoonists, if not also its corruptioneers, to lose a bit of sleep.

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