Written by Hannah Dunleavy

In The News

Pussy Riot: Life as Enemies of the State

Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of the Moscow-based feminist protest group made a whistlestop tour around the UK. Hannah Dunleavy caught up with them in Cambridge.

Photograph by Igor Mukhin

Photograph by Igor Mukhin

Regardless of what you think of their politics, it’s hard not to have immense respect for someone who’s gone to jail for what they believe in, particularly when that jail is in Russia.

It’s unsurprising then that Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria (Masha) Alyokhina received a rapturous welcome to a Cambridge Union, which was packed to its handsome rafters for a Q&A the pair squeezed into a brief visit to the UK.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, along who with fellow Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevich, were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for their performance at the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012.

The Moscow-based feminist protest group, with a fluid membership of about a dozen women, had been founded the year before and become notorious for guerrilla performances in public locations, including a rooftop next to Moscow Detention Center No 1 and Red Square.

Anyone following their trial – for shortcut watch Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – could not fail to notice that the women who gave closing speeches were not the same women who were arrested. Gone was the idealistic, perhaps naive, belief that their action would be seen as a legitimate protest against Vladimir Putin. Instead, they were composed and dignified, but unbowed; preparing themselves for life as political prisoners.

If a world-famous show trial changed them, it appears two years in prison has not, because it’s these thoughtful but passionate women who took questions on Saturday night. (It’s truly hard to believe that Tolokonnikova is just 25 and Alyokhina 26.)

They’ve come straight from a mass at King’s College Chapel, where the congregation was invited to pray for political prisoners – something Tolokonnikova can’t quite get her head round.

After spending almost two years in custody, prison reform has become their number one priority. They are working to free specific prisoners, including some who are terminally ill and, Alyokhina says, publicising the conditions of the country’s prisons. Conditions that leave prisoners working 16 hours a day, without access to proper medical care or legal help.

A lot of the problem, she continues, is prison guards who “don’t treat prisoners like human beings.” This is a result of entrenched views, handed down through generations of families doing the same job. The answer, they believe, lies in international exchange programmes.

“There’s a disparity between what goes on inside prisons and what goes on outside prisons and not just in Russia.”

In the UK, though, Tolokonnikova points out, penal reform organisations mean people can do something to improve the life of prisoners. Travelling in the West and seeing the success of non-government organisations (NGOs) in other countries, she adds, has given her hope.

The pair have faced extensive difficulties setting up their own NGO, which is still not officially recognised in their country.

“When we request an official visit to a prison,” Tolokonnikova says, “doors that were open quickly become closed.”

Alyokhina adds: “In Russia, human rights workers are portrayed as agents of other countries. As spies.”

There are also threats, something Pussy Riot became accustomed to during their trial and imprisonment. (Alyokhina, for example, was told by the official investigator her child would be taken by social services.) Other prisoners were also enlisted in a bid to make band members recant their opposition to Putin.

“They used the cake and the whip,” says Alyokhina.

The pair are understandably reticent to answer questions on their fellow Pussy Riot members. (“You should ask them questions but you can’t because they are not here. And that is because they don’t want to answer questions.”)

Yet the group remains active. Earlier this year footage emerged of members, including Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich, being beaten with horsewhips by Cossacks at a protest at the Sochi Games. Ominously, but perhaps realistically, at one point in the evening, Tolokonnikova suggests they need to achieve as much as they can “before something happens to us again.”

But, in truth, she states “you get tired of screaming ‘Putin is bad’ and you want to do something more pro-active.”

This includes attempting to change “the old East/West rhetoric which still dominates Russia.” Education, they believe, is the key to this change, including better English lessons in the country’s schools.

“I learned it at school”, says Tolokonnikova (in English). “And that’s why it’s so fucking bad.”

(In fact, the pair speak perfectly serviceable English. Tolokonnikova’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov – who lived in Canada as a teenager – is also on stage, acting as translator. His services aren’t always needed and both women admonish him over the hour for not repeating exactly what they said or leaving stuff out.)

Tolokonnikova adds: “I believe Russia’s future should be with the West. Not Putin, half-naked on a horse leading the charge. I don’t want a king; I want a parliament.”

Part of the problem is the Russian media (“We’re told in the West all you do is have anal sex”), but the Western media has its role to play.

“Often,” she continues “people on the left who want to criticise their own government, praise Putin. That’s dangerous.

“It’s OK to criticise Putin. It doesn’t mean you’re criticising Russia. They are two very different things.”

Almost on cue, a question comes from the audience: “Was Russia better off under communism?” A look of incredulity creeps across their faces.

“In the Soviet Union there was nothing,” says Tolokonnikova. “No washing powder, no tampons, nothing. There is a brand of Western intellectuals who like to idealise the Soviet Union. They are wrong.”

Pussy Riot have faced their own onslaught of bad press within Russia, something they appear resigned to, even amused by.

Tolokonnikova said: “They try to discredit us. Being here now, they have reported that we are on a musical tour.”

“We are traitors to the motherland,” Verzilov says, translating for Alyokhina. “No,” she interjects. “Enemies of the state.”

Recent years have seen many Russian activists, a huge amount of them working for LGBT rights, leave the country. Have the pair ever considered setting up in the West?

“We want it to be possible to stay and work in Russia,” says Alyokhina “and we hope to inspire protest momentum.”

But, they concede, when they emerged from prison, they found the country changed.

“Two years ago,” she continues “100,000 people rallied in Moscow. We live mentally in high hopes it will happen again.”

 

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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.