Pussy Riot Showed Why Despair Is Not an Option When Facing Repression

Hosts Ru Johnson and Bree Davies with Pussy Riot members Masha and Sasha | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Hosts Ru Johnson and Bree Davies with Pussy Riot members Masha and Sasha | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Tom Murphy

Maria "Masha" Alyokhina and Alexandra "Sasha" Bogino, members of Pussy Riot, brought great humor, poise and warmth to the conversation and Q&A held at the Oriental Theater last night, Monday, November 14. Hosts Ru Johnson and Bree Davies (former and current Westword contributors) facilitated a lively and engaging presentation.

At this point, the story of Pussy Riot is well known, and the curious can learn more from the 2012 book Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom or by watching the 2013 documentary film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. For the uninitiated, Pussy Riot is a Russian creative collective that performs in public in disguises (much like the EZLN in Mexico) so that the cause rather than the individual is emphasized. It also makes identifying and jailing movement leaders more difficult and neutralizing the movement even more so.

On February 21, 2012, members of Pussy Riot, including Masha, performed “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Subsequently, Alyokhina was arrested, along with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, on March 16, 2012, charged with the crime of “hooliganism.” The three women were convicted that August, and Samutsevich was released on a suspended sentence in October. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, however, remained in prison until December 2013. Great international attention from the West, including support from prominent English-speaking musicians Red Hot Chili Peppers and Paul McCartney, among others, brought real scrutiny to Russian civil society and its political dissidents in a way that hadn't been part of the recent Western consciousness.

Hosts Ru Johnson and Bree Davies with Pussy Riot members Masha and Sasha | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Hosts Ru Johnson and Bree Davies with Pussy Riot members Masha and Sasha | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Tom Murphy

That kind of cultural repression is something largely alien to Western artists, but Alyokhina and Bogino illuminated their experiences for the attendees. Sasha explained that in Russia, there is no such thing as classes on feminism, much less a Women's Studies program. Alyokhina shared memories of having to take “home economics” classes with boys learning to “make furniture” while girls learned to sew and cook, and how she actively resisted those classes. This organic feminism, the kind you find and cultivate yourself knowing that the existing order of things to be out of line with what you know is right, was inspiring on its own, and Masha and Sasha related these stories with wit and humor.

Hosts Ru Johnson and Bree Davies with Pussy Riot members Masha and Sasha | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Hosts Ru Johnson and Bree Davies with Pussy Riot members Masha and Sasha | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Tom Murphy

There is a widespread public perception in the West that Pussy Riot is just a punk-rock band. Certainly, members of the collective Pussy Riot have performed as a punk-rock band, but that is only the action that drew widespread Western attention. When asked about the group's role in fostering art and music connected with politics, Sasha pointed out that to her, it's not about art. Instead, art is part of the bigger-picture effort to critique a corrupt authoritarian government and a deeply sexist society.

Their experiences sound like something you'd hear from second-wave feminists like Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan — except happening in a society where a narcissistic oligarch was elected to his third presidential term, which was what inspired the protest in the church.

For Sasha and Masha, anyone can be part of Pussy Riot, which involves collective action, art and independent journalism. Sasha and other members are active in MediaZona, an independent media organization (not currently available in English) that focuses on issues not covered by the state news apparatus, such as police brutality and prison conditions/activities.

Image of public protest art in St. Petersburg, with a stylized penis on a drawbridge | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Image of public protest art in St. Petersburg, with a stylized penis on a drawbridge | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Tom Murphy

Sasha and Masha also highlighted other Russian creative types who make subversive art, such as Petr Pavlensky, whose various works, including the burning of the door of the main KGB offices in Moscow, are a direct challenge to a government that seems to have no trouble sending more artists to prison. Some of Pavlensky's own work is aimed at highlighting the plight of Ukranian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was sentenced to twenty years in the brutal Russian prison system, accused of plotting terrorist acts in Crimea. You had to be touched by Masha and Sasha talking fondly of their fellow Russian artists who are challenging a seemingly all-powerful authoritarian regime with the humor and grace that has long made so much Russian literature and art so rich and compelling.

Image of Petr Pavlensky's artistic reaction to the imprisonment of Pussy Riot | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Image of Petr Pavlensky's artistic reaction to the imprisonment of Pussy Riot | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Tom Murphy

Many of the questions from the audience centered on the United States' recent election of Donald Trump, and Masha and Sasha shared their perspectives on the new administration. Masha recounted a conversation she had with a woman in Austin, Texas, who said she would leave the country if Trump was elected. Members of Pussy Riot, however, remain active inside Russia precisely because it's their country, too. "If you leave, then it will be their country, their history," Masha said.

Rather than despair, Pussy Riot continues to challenge authority with creativity and intelligence. If they can do that there, certainly American artists and people of conscience can do it here. It was not enough for members of Pussy Riot to throw up their hands and say "Everything is fucked" — and taking cues from the way they carried out their efforts will be fruitful for activists in the U.S.

The event ended with Sasha showing a film about the plight of MediaZona journalist Egor Skovoroda, who experienced violent intimidation while reporting on events in Chechnya, highlighting how art, world events, journalism and the lives of everyday people are not disconnected and can mutually inform and inspire action.

Image of Petr Pavlensky piece | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Image of Petr Pavlensky piece | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Tom Murphy
Image of Petr Pavlensky's "Fixation," for which he nailed his scrotum to Red Square | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Image of Petr Pavlensky's "Fixation," for which he nailed his scrotum to Red Square | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Tom Murphy
Image of Oleg Sentsov | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Image of Oleg Sentsov | Oriental Theater | November 14, 2016
Tom Murphy
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