Pussy Riot: Anarchists in the UK

pussyriot

From NME, 29 November 2014:

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina were mobbed by reporters and fans when they visited the UK last week for the first time since their release from prison at the end of 2013.

The pair spoke to the media outside the Ecuadorian Embassy after meeting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as well as speaking at Parliament. Earlier, the pair exclusively told NME that they’re working on new music and videos in collaboration with former Le Tigre musician JD Samson.

The Russian feminist protest art activists came to international fame in 2012 when they were imprisoned after playing 45 seconds of their “punk prayer”, ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’, at a guerrilla gig in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

While visiting London, Tolokonnikova said their new creative project represented a different sort of challenge for the band. “It’s new for us because we’re artists, we’re not really musicians or from the music world,” she said. “[In 2012] we just decided that we should do a punk band, and we got our friends together and tried to do a song. We did what we were able to. It wasn’t brilliant, but it was enough for a political music video. Now we’re working with some real musicians, including JD Samson, on some creative stuff.”

Asked whether the intention was to produce a Pussy Riot album, she said: “Our goal is not to make an album, but the form of our statements is very important to us and the video clip form is one we like. Maybe at some point in the future we will do an album, but right now we want to make videos.”

After visiting Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he has claimed asylum, the pair told NME that they “had more in common with him than we expected.”

Asked to clarify what those things in common are, Alekhina said: “It’s basically universal things about freedom of expression, if we’re talking about us, and freedom of information, if we’re talking about him.”

Tolokonnikova added: “I believe that everything about a state should be transparent to its citizens, including the issue of surveillance. Its legality and justification should be explained to citizens. We are under constant surveillance by the FSB (the Russian internal security services) in Russia, and we’re trying to protest against this, question its legality and ask why they’re doing it. We naturally would not want Western states to follow the bad example of Russia, where we’re trying to fight exactly the same things that Assange is fighting against here.”

On whether they saw any problem with members of a feminist collective such as Pussy Riot openly supporting Assange, a man who is wanted in Sweden over sexual assault allegations, Tolokonnikova said: “We did not review this charge that has been directed at him. We do not think it is in relation to the things that he is doing right now.”

Alyokhina added: “We also try to see the direction of one’s intentions in the future, what he is trying to do and is doing right now.”

The visit to Assange came just hours before the two women appeared at Parliament to speak at an event organised by Russian opposition politicians to support the introduction of a ‘Magnitsky law’. Such a law, named after Sergey Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower who died in police custody in Moscow, would punish the Russian officials responsible for his murder by freezing their assets in the UK and restricting their visa rights.

That event came at the end of a busy week of public appearances, which had also seen Tolokonnikova and Alekhina speak at an Amnesty International event in London attended by the likes of Django Django, Viv Albertine and Jamie Hince.  Asked by former Slits guitarist Albertine whether they’d inspired a new generation of girls, Tolokonnikova said: At the end of the day, we inspired people to be less afraid. A lot of people started their political activity because of our involvement with the law. There’s different value to someone going to a political rally in England than in Russia, so even if we’ve only inspired a few 100 people that has tremendous value in modern Russia.”

While in the country they also spoke at the Cambridge Union and addressed a sold-out 450-capacity audience at the Greenwood Theatre at King’s College London.

From NME, 20/27 December 2014:

PussyRiot

Knee high boots with six inch heels. A calf-length black sequin dress with the words ‘Free Pussy Riot’ picked out in white. A bejewelled balaclava. “I ran three miles in a charity race dressed like this,” says the bald, rangy man waiting patiently in the bracing south London night for his heroes to appear. “I’m a gay guy from Slovenia and these girls inspired me so much.” When Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova finally emerge for a cigarette from the lecture hall where they’ve been speaking they burst into filthy giggles. “Very nice!” says Nadya, mimicking Borat. “Sexy time!” chimes in Masha before they send him away with the selfie of his dreams. They’ve gotten used to this kind of attention. Pussy Riot are rock stars.

Not bad for a group whose live career lasted all of 45 seconds, but then Pussy Riot were never a band in any real sense. When they were arrested on February 21, 2012 less than a minute into making a video for their punk protest prayer ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’ inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour they weren’t exactly hoping Simon Cowell was going to offer them a record deal off the back of it.

“We’re not really musicians or from the music world,” laughs Nadya, after we head to the pub. “At that moment we just decided that we should do a punk band, and we got our friends together and tried to do a song. We did what we were able to. It wasn’t brilliant, but it was enough for a political music video.”

While they were awaiting trial the music world came to them. Björk and Paul McCartney voiced their support. Madonna wore a balaclava during a concert in Moscow and told the audience she was “praying for their freedom.” This solidarity meant a lot to them. Masha is the sort of music fan who describes David Bowie as a “big inspiration” and says she “bought every issue of NME” when it was published in Russia. “I went to see Muse in Moscow in 2001,” she remembers. “I was 13 and a big fan, so I was very excited. They were giving away the first copies of NME there. That’s really how I started listening to music. It was kind of a guide for me. I didn’t have anything except NME.”

When the pair were released, just before Christmas last year, they were international icons. In February they travelled to New York for an Amnesty International Concert and Madonna was there to welcome them. Away from the bright lights, Nadya and Masha say they were much more interested in meeting their riot grrrl hero Kathleen Hanna and her former Le Tigre bandmate JD Samson. “We met JD just after we arrived in New York,” says Nadya. “She was very interesting and we had a really fruitful discussion. Now we’re working together on some creative stuff, music stuff.”

Nadya and Masha have spent the year since their release engaged in a host of political activism: they were horsewhipped by Cossack police while protesting at the Sochi Winter Olympics, brought their case to the European Court of Human Rights and founded both an organisation, Zona Prava, and an independent news service, MediaZona, which campaign for the reform of Russian prisons. They haven’t previously shown interest in making music again, but Nadya clarifies that their first thought is always their political message. “Our goal is not to make an album,” she says, “but the form of our statements is very important to us and the video clip form is one we like. Maybe at some point in the future we will do an album, but right now we want to make videos.”

They want to make something else go viral?

“Yes,” she smiles, “Something like a virus.”

The day after my interview I’m invited to meet Pussy Riot again at the Ecuadorian Embassy, where Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up since June 2012. A man hiding from sexual assault charges in Sweden may seem like a strange bedfellow for avowedly feminist activists, but outside the embassy Nadya tells reporters simply that they didn’t discuss the charges because they don’t think “it is in relation to the things that he is doing right now.”

Instead, Masha says they found common ground in their work to support prisoners and whistleblowers, particularly Wikileaks source Chelsea Manning, whose case they describe as “one of the most important in today’s world.”

Masha tells me that while their own time in prison was “difficult”, she saw reasons to be optimistic: “I had conversations with guards and other prisoners which really influenced me. When a normal, common Russian girl who is completely outside of politics and civil society life tells you that she understands what you’re doing, she appreciates it and wants to fight for her rights now – that’s a real shock and that’s what I’m focusing on now because it’s inspiring for me.”

That evening we head to Parliament where Nadya and Masha are speaking in support of a proposed ‘Magnitsky law’. Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian accountant and whistleblower who was beaten to death in Moscow prison. The proposed law, which has already been introduced in America, would prevent those responsible for his death from spending their ill-begotten wealth in Britain. Despite the gravity of the situation, Nadya can’t help cracking jokes. “We think it’s a brilliant idea to invite punks to Parliament,” she says by way of introduction. “It’s the nicest idea since you invited Ali G here.”

Despite everything that Vladimir Putin has thrown at them, Nadya and Masha have kept laughing in his face. That’s seen them venerated in the West, yet when I visited Russia last summer to cover Subbotnik Festival I met Moscow hipsters who dismissed Pussy Riot as troublemakers who don’t represent young Russians. I ask Nadya whether there’s any way of getting though to them. “What you’re talking about is a question of courage,” she says. “The reaction to us was really polarised between the West and Russia because in the West we were treated like heroes but in Russia we were witches who were against religion. The Russian media just wanted to paint us black and not provide realistic information.”

The way that Putin controls and manipulates Russian media leads to an uninformed populace – especially, Nadya argues, when it comes to feminist art movements. “I bet only a very small number of those Russian hipsters know what the riot grrrl movement is, or who the Guerrilla Girls were,” she says. “There’s a huge tradition of those sorts of groups here, but for some reason it seems that Putin doesn’t want people to be really well educated. Educated people tend to ask questions.”

She suggests that Putin’s eventual undoing will likely be as a result of his own hubris, and doesn’t entirely rule out the idea of running for office herself one day. “Actually in the next 10 years I’m not allowed to do it, because under Russian law convicted criminals can’t run for office for a decade. After 10 years? I have no idea. Maybe! I wish I had more education to run the country. I have some suggestions, of course, but in a few years my picture of reality will be more clear. I couldn’t continue my education in jail because I had to work so I lost two years. I’m a 25-year-old with the education of a 23 year old… but with the experiences of a 40 year old.”

Away from the maelstrom that’s accompanied their trip to London, taking in sold-out public lectures, meeting celebrity dissidents and speaking at Parliament, I ask Nadya to reflect on the past year. This time 12 months ago she was still in prison. Now she and Masha travel the world as celebrities and everybody they meet seems to expect them to have the solutions to oust Putin, bring peace to the Ukraine and end international totalitarianism while they’re at it.

“That’s the strangest thing,” she agrees. “We’re not gods. We don’t have answers to everyone’s questions. But, you know, it’s a miracle of solidarity that so many people want to support us. Immanuel Kant wrote about something that happens sometimes when political changes take place. It’s something like a miracle. When we have the power and the ability of all the people working together, we can get what we want.”

She thinks for a moment, then says: “When I was 16 I said to my schoolmates that I wanted to lead the craziest life that I can, and that if I can’t do that I may as well just live in garbage.” She nods towards a pile on bin bags on the side of the road and laughs.

Putin himself would have to agree she’s succeeded. Nadya and Masha have two of the craziest lives on the planet. They’re the prisoners who became punk icons. The rock stars of dissidence. Does that burden weigh heavy?

“The only pressure I’ve felt in the last year was when I came out of prison and realised that so many eyes were looking towards me,” says Nadya. “I realised that I have a really big responsibility. I used to talk a lot of bullshit, but now I don’t have that option anymore. So many people don’t have a voice, like those in prison in Russia and around the world. We have to speak for them.”

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