Pussy Riot speaks: Russian punk protest artists in Seattle for talk, film

Ksenia Zhivago (left) and Maria "Masha" Alyokhina of punk protest group Pussy Riot will be in Seattle to talk and present a documentary on their artistic demonstrations against Putin. (Photo courtesy STG.)
Ksenia Zhivago (left) and Maria “Masha” Alyokhina of punk protest group Pussy Riot will be in Seattle to talk and present a documentary on their artistic demonstrations against Putin. (Photo courtesy STG.)

The camera pans across a darken landscape of what looks like a distant planet. Space gives way to dirt, an empty pack of cigarettes labeled in Russian, then the thick black soles of combat boots. Drums beat like an industrial heart, metallic and brash.

A lone female voice starts to sing: “He’s become his death. The spark of the riots. That’s the way he’s blessed to stay alive.”

Lying in an open grave dressed in gray army fatigues are Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova and Maria “Masha” Alyokhina, activists and members of Pussy Riot, a feminist collective of punk protestors based in Moscow.

Pussy Riot has been staging political interventions in the form of punk music, demonstrations, performance art and more since 2011. Similar to the style of punk performance artists the Guerrilla Girls, Pussy Riot’s activism combines music and mixed media and has covered a broad spectrum of issues including feminism, LGBT rights, prison reform, and opposition to the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Alyokhina and fellow Pussy Riot collaborator Ksenia Zhivago will be in Seattle Feb. 8 to screen the documentary “Pussy vs. Putin” at the Neptune Theater.

In 2012, Pussy Riot came to international prominence when three members of the collective, Alyokhina, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for the crime of hooliganism after performing an anti-Putin song at an Orthodox Church.

The punishment prompted outrage from groups such as Amnesty International. The women were released in 2013 shortly before the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

In Russia now we don’t have protests because the number of political prisoners are growing very fast. And since our political prison term there are twice (as many) more political prisoners,” Alyokhina told me in an interview over Skype.

“Firstly conditions are really terrible,” said Alyokhina when asked about her time in prison which describes as an “anti-utopian village.” The prison is 3,000 km outside of Moscow in Russia’s frozen tundra. “We have the post-Soviet thing where people have to work and they are working for 12 and 14 hours in day without any weekends and administration does not pay these prisoners. And it’s slavery.”

Maria Alyokhina
Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot. (Courtesy photo.)

According to Alyokhina, prisoners spend their time sewing police uniforms while suffering through rotten food, having poor or no medical treatment and living in subzero temperatures without proper clothing.

After their release, they came to New York City during Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of Eric Garner in New York City police custody. The protests of the decision not to indict the officer who had Garner in a chokehold inspired Pussy Riot’s first song in English “I Can’t Breathe,” released last year.

The video is full of contradictions, army boots and camouflage with bubble gum pink nails, rich black earth overlaid with the ethereal breathy voice. It’s creepy, but riveting. The song ends with the pair completely interred, and shovels laid across the earth, the disembodied voice repeating the refrain of Garner’s last words, which he said as he was being put in a chokehold during his arrest. Garner’s words take on new symbolism in the context of Russian oppression and the comparative narratives of what it means to live in a police state.

While public protests have been silenced, Pussy Riot’s activism extends beyond music and music videos. Pussy Riot also created a news platform called Media Zona, which includes the contributions of about 20 journalists.

“Now it’s really big. We have 12th place on the top of all Russian internet media now,” she said. “It’s covering criminal justice topics and Russian economic crisis and … political cases.”

Pussy Riot also launched a human rights organization called Zona Prava (Zone of Rights) for others who have been jailed.

“We’re providing legal help for political prisoners. We have about 40 cases with lawyers and about 10 of them are in European Court now,” Alyokhina said.

The cases include one of a man who nearly died after the prison administration refused to provide him his HIV medication and the case of a 19-year-old sentenced to 2 years and 3 months in prison for standing near a building that had been graffitied with political art. Zona Prava’s advocacy resulted in the release of the 19-year-old.

“We really want to show how many really good and innocent people are in prison now. I hope in our event we will show some of them,” Alyokhina said.

“I think that people start to care when they see that something touch them directly. When we show that this problem is your problem, not only mine.”

Alyokhina and her colleagues are aware of the potential dangers. Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated last yearthere is a sense that no one is safe.

“Two years of prison is really nothing. It’s like candy,” Alyokhina said. “So we are kind of lucky. We’ve seen better times.”

Alyokhina says she’s not afraid.

“I do not have time to be afraid. But he wasn’t only the leader of Russian opposition, he was also our friend.” Nemtsov, a vocal critic of Putin’s, visited Pussy Riot in prison and actively supported the campaign to release them. Two Chechens were arrested in Nemstov’s shooting, but investigators have not released a motive. Many of Nemtsov’s friends blame the Kremlin.

“I’m proud that I knew him and this is really terrible sign that they show to everyone. Not only for us who are living in Russia, but they are showing to the whole world that they can do anything and nobody will punish them for this,” Alyokhina said.

Despite the difficulties and dangers, Alyokhina is not thinking of seeking asylum from Russia.

I don’t want to go. They should go. They do real crimes. They should leave Russia,” she said.

If you go

Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Ksenia Zhivago will be screening the documentary “Pussy vs. Putin,” at the Neptune Theater on Feb. 8. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Afterwards there will be a moderated discussion with local Russian scholar Mariana Markova.

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