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Interview: Pussy Riot discusses human rights, protest art ahead of Witching Hour


Pussy Riot: In conversation with Jessica Hopper

The Englert Theatre — Friday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m.

Photo via Pussy Riot
Photo via Pussy Riot

In February 2012, Russian political performance group Pussy Riot staged a show at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior as a protest against church officials’ support of the policies of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Three of the five group members present that day were arrested for “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years in medium-security prison (the other two fled Russia). Ekaterina Samutsevich was freed on appeal, but Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina each served 21 months of their sentences, only released in December 2013 after being given amnesty by the Russian Duma — due in part to efforts by groups such as Amnesty International, which officially designated them “prisoners of conscience.”

Three years after their release, the members of Pussy Riot are still fighting with all the tools at their disposal to raise awareness, especially in the West, of the hurdles placed by the Russian government to free expression and critical commentary. Alyokhina, in particular, has been touring a new stage play that highlights the struggles of Russian artists. She also co-founded Zona Prava, dedicated to working on behalf of prisoners, and MediaZona, which spearheads efforts to get independent news out of Russia to the rest of the world.

Alyokhina will be in Iowa City Nov. 4, as part of the Witching Hour festival (tickets available here), in conversation with Alexandra Lukyanova, a collaborator with MediaZona, and rock critic Jessica Hopper. Stand-alone tickets are $20; festival passes range from $30-50. She spoke to Little Village from Moscow.

I read that your play, Burning Doors, was your stage debut. What brought you to the theatre? What made you believe that it was the best venue for your story?

Yes, yes — it was my work for the last few months. First, I should say that it’s my project in cooperation with Belarus Free Theatre. It’s an underground theatre, so not so like classical theatre which we probably can imagine when we’re talking about theatre. It’s a small underground group based in Minsk, in the capital of Belarus. From the time when I met them, I realized they are doing, for my opinion, the same work that we are doing in Russia, and that’s how our cooperation started.

Together with directors, we came in January to refugee camp … and I felt that we are very similar in our way of expressing things. And Burning Doors is a project about the victims of the struggle between the authorities and the artists, and it’s not only my story there. It’s my story in the context of Pussy Riot, it’s the story of Petr Pavlensky, about whom you’ve probably heard — he’s the main, for my opinion, contemporary artist in Russia now — and third story is the story of Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian filmmaker who got 20 years of prison because of, actually, nothing.

This show is part of their campaign, which we are doing with the theatre for free, for Oleg, and this is the one of the most important things for me now, because I been in prison just for two years, and Oleg got 20 years. And 20 years in Russian prison is, it is — like death. It’s impossible. My goal now is to bring attention to this case, and to free Oleg.

This is toured all over the world, correct?

We played six cities of Great Britain, we played in Italy and we will come to Australia in December. Now, we are trying to bring the show to Ukraine. Because of many political reasons, it’s complicated. But for me it’s important to Russian people see the show.

Also, you asked me why I believe that theatre can make change? Actually, I think every art can make change, because through art, people can feel … Theatre, it’s just one step in my life, and a very interesting step, because I never tried this form of art before. So for me personally, this was interesting.

How does it differ, as a performer, for you to be on stage as part of a theatre production, as opposed to performing music?

I actually avoided “performing music” — we were making political actions: illegal performance in different parts of city; it’s not like classical music. I don’t know how to play guitar or piano, or something like that. I know how to say a political message. And for the political message, you can choose any form which you like — you can choose music, you can choose theatre, and it’s the same. The main difference I think between actions and the theatre is live contact with the audience. Because after every show, I see people just crying, and saying to me words, like, “What should we do?” And this is a live reaction, which is impossible to see and to hear when you’re doing actions. It’s not like better or worse, it’s just different thing.

Can you tell me a bit about the human rights institution that you co-founded, Zona Prava?

Zona Prava and MediaZona, yes, it’s a project which we started when we had been released … We thought that work on human rights which we started when we’d been inside prison, we should not stop it. We should continue it, and we should give forward all this support which we received from the whole world further to other prisoners. That’s how it started. So, how it works is, we provide regular legal help — so, lawyers — to political prisoners, and also for prisoners who have serious medical issues. Because we have no medicine in Russian prisons at all, and people are dying every day. We’re changing the situation. We’re getting lawyers to people who are asking us about it.

And also, MediaZona is independent media, which covering all the topics connections with freedom in Russia. It’s police violence, it’s prison violence, it’s political courts — it’s all the topics about violence, freedom — because nobody did it before. So we decided to start it. Now it’s two years for we’re doing this project, and now it’s much bigger than it was before. Now we have cooperations with some western media, for example with Vice, with Guardian … It’s how English-speaking people can explore what’s going on in Russia.

Is there still a lot of pushback, then, from that kind of media, from within Russia? Is it still quite a challenge to get it out there and get those words heard?

I think every action is a challenge. Yes, for the whole system, it’s a small step, but for those people to whom we’re providing this help, this is the whole world, and this is a question of their life. So for me, my opinion, yes. It’s a challenge.

Editor’s Note: In the print edition, the time of this event was incorrectly listed as 10:30 p.m. The event is at 7 p.m.

Genevieve Trainor believes in the power of art to change the world. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 209.


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