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Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina on Making Art That Matters, No Matter the Cost

By Vanessa Cate

 

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Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina (photo by Jordan Donor)

 

The din echoing through UCLA’s venerable Royce Hall last week wouldn’t have been out of place at the Coachella music festival. Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA’s Meryl Friedman took the stage, inviting everyone to join a “wild discourse. … Let us all have at it! Let us all have at it with wild abandon!”

To which the (lamentably under-attended) hall erupted with the chant, “PUSSY RIOT, PUSSY RIOT, PUSSY RIOT!”

Instead of discordant guitars, stacked amplifiers and screaming women rockers, however, the featured act was KCRW art critic Edward Goldman (a voice recognizable as the host of the station’s Art Talk), leading a discussion with political activist Maria Alyokhina of the now internationally renowned feminist punk-rock protest collective, Pussy Riot.

Also seated at the tasteful, TV talk show-looking set were Ksenia Zhivago, a student of activism and a newer member of Pussy Riot (whose numbers fluctuate) and producer/supporter Alexander Cheparukhin, the translator for Alyokhina, who felt more comfortable responding to Goldman in her native Russian.

Nevertheless, the evening proved appropriately electric, yet surreal. After having spent nearly two years in prison in Russia for an anti-Putin guerilla performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012, it was strange to see Alyokhina sitting so calm and diminutive on stage in a dress with moons and stars, sipping bottled water. “Life, it’s a rather unpredictable thing. One day you are in prison and another day you are here,” she mused.

As a warm-up, Goldman asked why the group chose the name “Pussy Riot.” Alyokhina responded, “We just liked the fact that people would repeat ‘pussy’ many times.” The audience laughed, but Goldman praised the name, saying that the women couldn’t have paid someone any amount of money to create a better one.

Pussy Riot came into existence the same day Vladimir Putin’s return to power was announced in 2011. The women quickly made a name for themselves as champions for feminism, LGBT rights, and as outspoken opponents of Putin and the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. Their staging of their “Punk Prayer” at Christ the Savior is now the stuff of legends.

Much of the retaliation against the performance was due to the location. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the government had implemented anti-religious policies, culminating in the Cathedral being demolished in 1931. The site became a public swimming pool (which Goldman fondly remembered swimming in in his youth). However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cathedral was rebuilt, and many viewed it as a religious victory, reclaiming once again a truly sacred place. 

But to Pussy Riot, it was the perfect symbol for the union of Church and State, as well as the altar itself being reserved for the Patriarch — the women of Pussy Riot being absolutely forbidden.

“Do you believe in God?” asked Goldman. Alyokhina paused, carefully forming the perfect response. “I think that Church in Russia already has nothing in common with Christianity,” she reflected.

 

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KCRW’s Edward Goldman, left, onstage with Maria Alyokhina, Alexander Cheparukhin and Ksenia Zhivago (photo by Vanessa Cate)

 

The unrelenting confidence of Pussy Riot is one of the ingredients of its magnetism, along with how unapologetic its message has been — and remains. From their explosive performance at the Cathedral, the band has adopted a sort of mythical quality. Goldman referred to their mission as a “spiritual confrontation… woman versus power.” And for a time during their imprisonment, the chant “Free Pussy Riot” became the familiar and almost mantra-like refrain of international feminist struggle.

“When we entered the Cathedral, we did not think we would end behind the bars and that any criminal case would be formed against us,” Alyokhina said.

Yet, she and two other members of the band — Nadezhada “Nadia” Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina “Katia” Samutsevich — were ultimately detained by the police and charged with “hooliganism.” The trial and imprisonment garnered massive attention, as well as global support, including from celebrities ranging from Madonna to Paul McCartney and more.

Alyokhina described being arrested as something you would see in a Hollywood movie: men wearing all-black surrounding her and bandmate Samutsevich in an instant as they were headed towards the subway one morning after the demonstration. They were taken away and questioned until five a.m., though, she said, they answered none of the investigator’s questions.

Before they were detained, the band members were offered shelter and the means to leave the country illegally. “It was a very important moment for us,” Alyokhina said. “In a certain moment you understand there’s no way back. … Sooner or later they will get you.”

She was sentenced in a penal colony in Berezniki, 2000 miles from her home. “Literally the city goes, as they say, to hell”, she said, referring in part to the large ominous holes in the ground from salt and mineral mining. The people at the penal colony were instructed to be quite strict with her; “I felt the pressure.”

She and Tolokonnikova were sentenced to two years in prison.Samutsevich served some time, but was let go after an appeal. Alyokhina was eventually released two months early after serving 22 months of her two years sentence after Amnesty International named her a prisoner of conscience due to “the severity of the response of the Russian authorities.”

Since their release, Pussy Riot has remained politically active. “If you live in modern Russia today, every action you do is political, even silence.” However, Alyokhina said, anyone who is politically active might end up in prison. “[There is a] very high probability,” she warned.

Goldman, who emigrated from Russia himself many years ago, suggested conditions in have improved over the years, or that it is “not as Draconian as it used to be.” Alyokhina kept composure as she very pointedly responded, “I really don’t think so.”

Fellow dissident Pyotr Pavlensky shares Alyokhina’s pessimism. Using his own body to create visible protest, the St. Petersburg-based performance artist has in the past nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square to symbolize apathy in the face of horrific brutality. He has wrapped his naked body in barbed wire at the St. Petersburg legislative assembly. And, most on the nose yet undeniably horrific, even sewn his lips shut in solidarity with Pussy Riot during their trial.

In November, Pavlensky doused the wooden doors of the Federal Security Service (FSB — and former KGB — headquarters) with gasoline and lit them on fire. The doors burned for 30 seconds, giving him enough time to take a picture before being promptly arrested. According to Alyokhina, his arrest was no surprise — Pavlensky was certain he would end up behind bars.

His crime was classified as vandalism, but Alyokhina said he is trying to get it re-classified as terrorism — the same charge Ukranian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov received after a similar protest in Crimea. Pavlensky has characterized the performance as representing the resurgence of Communist-era “Red Terror” under Putin’s regime. Meanwhile, his attorney, Svetlana Ratnikova, argues he has committed no crime, calling it a “creative performance.” 

(This week, Pavlensky was ordered to undergo continuing psychiatric evaluation, making him the first Russian artist forcibly sent to a psychiatric clinic since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.) 

Art and protest are not always mutually inclusive, but do often overlap. However, the cost of either can be profound. In the case of Pussy Riot, their potency exists largely due to the massive and unjust reaction from those in power — something the band has harnessed since the women’s release in Zona Prava: a website fighting for change in Russia’s prison system.

Commenting about Russia’s political future, Alyokhina said that action or inaction will decide. “There are no angels or saviors who will all of a sudden come from the sky and make our country free,” she declared. “The most important thing is to not forget and not abandon those principles that allow me and people like me to do whatever they do.”

Concluding, Goldman praised the women for being artists with courage, muscle, and intention, adding that Pussy Riot inspired him to be more brave. “I still don’t understand, ladies,” he marveled, “where your courage comes from.”

 

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