Miaow

Why Pussy Riot Won’t Stop Fighting

Maria Alyokhina, one of the brave women who stood up to Putin, says their insurrection remains as important as ever.

If Maria Alyokhina was a professional entertainer no casting director, would shortlist her for a role as a firebrand, there being a sweetness about her, a reticence, a lack of heroic self-regard.

But Alyokhina—Masha to most—is one of the public faces of the Russian feminist collective, Pussy Riot, a balaclava-wearing performance group who have been making savage fun of Vladimir Putin since 2011.

And, yes, there are parallels to America’s Culture Wars of the 90s but the differences are clearer.

The NEA Four—Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes—risked no jail time, but in 2012 Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, another riotous Puss, were convicted of hooliganism, sent to separate jails and served 21 months each.

And it’s been the same old, same old since since their release. Pussy Riot were pepper-sprayed and whipped by Cossack vigilantes at the last winter Olympics in Sochi. And much else.

This week Alyokhina came to New York to get an Arts & Humanity Award; the fourth winner, the first having been the equally stubborn, Ai Wei Wei.

She was also here to participate in Recycling Religion, an art show at the Whitebox art center, which, along with the collector, Martin Liu, was a donor of the award. And it was at Whitebox that I caught up with her.

First off, I should get the nomenclature straight. Does Pussy Riot mean the same in Russian?

“Yes. And Mr Putin has told people I cannot say these words, I would be embarrassed.”

Obviously a shy man.

“Yes. Very shy. He can kill people but he cannot say Pussy Riot.”

I asked about the Pussy Riot performances

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“Our so-called music?” she said, wryly.

It was refreshing to find that Alyokhina has much the same nonchalant attitude to their musical oeuvre as the Brit and American Punks—groups like Bikini Kill—that were their stated inspirations.

Does she play an instrument?

“No. I yell! For me it’s very boring to find myself called an artist. Why does everybody want to make art? I believe in change. And possibly I can make changes. Not only with music.”

What actual size is Pussy Riot?

“About ten people. We don’t have an exact number of people.”

How do they come up with their actions?

“If somebody has an idea,” she said. “It’s not a big strategy to make an action.”

How was her jail?

“It was in the Urals.” She showed me a picture of a terrain near to the prison, with a huge hole in it, a giant, geometric oblong.

“Everyone is joking that this place is going to hell,” she said.

Actually it is a former saltmine. And such jokes were few.

“There were a hundred women and two toilets,” she said. “I wrote to a newspaper about this.”

How did she occupy her time?

“I spent twelve to fourteen hours a day sewing uniforms,” she said. “Police uniforms. And army uniforms.”

The irony was too obvious to deserve a comment. “There was one pill. For any illness! And it was very cold. My relatives give me clothes. But a lot of women don’t have this.”

Are you followed when you walk around the city back home? “Yes. But it’s normal life,” she said. Also, in certain ways things are worsening.

As with Putin’s homophobia, state reactions to Pussy Riot are not mellowing.

“We were hooligans,” she said. “Now we are Enemies of the State. They call us the Fifth Column.”

Does she have concerns for her own future?

“You don’t have time to reflect about yourself.,” she said.” Because many other people are in worse trouble.”

She instanced Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian movie director.

“He was sentenced to twenty years two months ago.” She said. “For ‘terrorism’”. She scribbled the word down, adding the quote marks.

“It’s not just twenty years. It’s twenty winters, twenty summers. Seeing this fucking wall. And it’s not only about Russia. We are working in a global world.

“A lot of people think this is very far away from them. But it is a world which will become your world. If you do not fight. When I was in prison, I received lots of letters. From people in Mexico, people in the Czech Republic. People create their own Pussy Riot.”

And they call themselves Pussy Riot?

“Of course!’ Alyokhina said.