The Dangers of Indifference
Elizabeth Black caught up with Pussy Riot recently to talk about art and resistance.
Vladimir Putin is the epitome of villainy and corruption. It goes without saying, right? But it is important to recognise the liberties that allow such things to be said – even published – without fear of persecution. After meeting up with Pussy Riot in the aftermath of their earthquake gig at The Cluny, I was reminded that there are few more hostile atmospheres for free speech than Putin's Russia. But before I go into that, it’s probably worth noting that Pussy Riot are not a band, as many presume (perhaps understandably, given their Bikini Kill influences). They are a feminist art collective and protest movement, founded in Russia, with over twenty members in their ranks. And now, thanks to Putin’s war, they’re seeking to promote the ethos of transnational feminism and social justice while remaining geographically anonymous. Each member of Pussy Riot is essentially an independent creator, working singularly or in collaboration, in various iterations that surface as guerrilla art or Riot Grrrl punk music. As a result, you won’t always know what to expect when attending a Pussy Riot gig. But whatever the line-up or creative outlet – be it art, literature, or music – they readily assert that anybody can be Pussy Riot; a slogan that often provides the backdrop for their live performances. It is both a provocation and an invitation: the call to arms we need in an age of diluted newsfeeds and widespread apathy.
The co-founder of their latest tour, entitled: ‘Pussy Riot: Riot Days’ – is Alexander (Sasha) Cheparukhin who took to the stage to give us some background. He noted that Russia was one of several post-Soviet Union states that was once free: “Not in terms of, say, electoral democracy because we never had real electoral democracy, but in terms of artistic freedom… There were no taboos in Russia.” He described performances in Moscow’s Red Square, which artists had tried to repeat elsewhere in the world – including New York, Switzerland and Amsterdam – that had resulted in arrests and sometimes deportation on the grounds of being explicit or indecent. But Putin’s shifts in policing and censorship have proved catastrophic. Anyone who dares criticise or challenge the Catholic Orthodox Church, as Pussy Riot did with their infamous ‘Punk Prayer’, has led to incarceration (including Pussy Riot’s founding members). For context, only a year and a half earlier, Viona – the war protest art group and a Pussy Riot predecessor – had produced ‘Dick Captured by AirForce B’ in St Petersburg. This consisted of a giant penis painted in front of the headquarters of the Russian Secret Police, which was slowly revealed by the opening of a drawbridge. Ferries from nearby Baltic countries saw the phallic image too. As Sasha says: “Thousands of people enjoyed this giant dick. Young couples, old people, kids – they all took photographs with this dick as a backdrop.” There is a roar of laughter from the audience, and, for a moment, a collective enjoyment is shared over this giant dick. Sasha goes on: “And the punishment for this action? Annual State Award Innovation for best artist performance. Because at this time, there was no law qualifying these actions as something criminal, so the maximum they could get would be like community service. But Pussy Riot were strung out to prison by a so-called court, which was definitely just a subsidiary of Putin’s power. It was a real shock because we knew it was dangerous to be an independent politician or investigative journalist, but artists had been untouched.”
Pussy Riot’s punishment and imprisonment signified a new era: one of perpetual threat to art and artist. Exhausting his contacts, Sasha sought to raise awareness of the band with the aid of musicians and actors. Artists such as Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, and Madonna, all spoke out and aired their support via videos and handwritten letters – all of which had to be officially considered in the trials against Pussy Riot. Paul McCartney – the very same Beatle whom Putin had personally guided around the Kremlin – pleaded for Russia to consider parole for the incarcerated Pussy Riot members (Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova), first via Facebook and then on his own website.
Sasha, alongside Pyotr Verzilov – a Russian-Canadian artist, activist, and comrade of Pussy Riot – found legal loopholes allowing regular visitation to Masha (Maria) in jail and share news of her international notoriety. Together they devised ideas for a free press and an independent media that could shed light on the inhumane conditions that prisoners had to endure. These meetings saw them discussing ideas that would come to fruition in shows like the one we saw in Newcastle. Later, after initially being released, Masha again faced jail. “Jail, house-arrest, jail, house-arrest. For what?” Sasha laments. “One charge was for an Instagram post supporting the Russian oppositional leader Alexei Navalyn – who you remember was poisoned first before being imprisoned by Putin. So – without a passport, which was confiscated by Russian police, Masha faced the challenge of travelling across borders without papers. But after several attempts to cross Belarus to Lithuania, she finally, in the guise of a courier, managed to succeed.”
Sasha then introduces us to Diana Burkot. This original founding member of Pussy Riot (who had taken part in the Punk Prayer performance) had evaded arrest. She plays drums, keyboards, and does programming. She’s also currently wearing a medical boot after breaking her ankle while jumping off a stage in Germany. “She’s not that jumpable anymore,” Sasha explains, “but she asks you to be as jumpable as possible.” We’re also introduced to Olga Borisova, an ex-police officer of St Petersburg, who has now become an anarchist activist. She’s also the creative editor of Masha’s book ‘Riot Days’, which I wholeheartedly recommend. Our final introduction is to Taso Pletner, a non-binary LGBTQ+ activist who has revived a childhood passion in order to give us some top flute action tonight. They are also a professional actor and theatre director.
When Sasha modestly steps back from the stage, he reminds the audience of the charity Pussy Riot are supporting through their merchandise sales: The Ukrainian Children’s Hospital. This houses 800 beds and helps cure kids with the most complex conditions, including those afflicted by Putin’s recent military attacks.
The Cluny event itself was a powerful happening, featuring disparate music scores and guttural spoken-word punk, with a hint of satire. It all took place against a backdrop of video footage, stills, comic-like panels and slogans. Putin’s mugshot appeared and the crowd jeered. We knew he was a monster, but here he was subsumed into this spectacular piece of theatre. Suffice to say, and in true punk fashion, there was also a little carnage: some climbing, some smoke, some fluids, but nothing The Cluny couldn’t handle. There was an education to be had and a reinforcement of the truism widely attributed to artist Jenny Holzer: “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise”. This interplay of art and resistance, guerrilla action through performance, left a powerful sense of unity in unrest – in your heart and in the pit of your stomach, and through clenched jaws and fists. We all felt it.
Still drenched in sweat from her performance, Olga greets me at the bar and ushers me into the dressing room where we discuss refugees, the crisis in Ukraine, African projects on menstruation, and various ways women’s bodies are stigmatised. I mention that sanitary products are commonly offered for free in places of work, bars, and educational establishments in the UK these days. “I was surprised,” Olga exclaims, “but progress is good.” We briefly celebrate this small victory and recount incidents of being caught out – the classic, panicked bundle of toilet roll in your underwear…
I ask her how Pussy Riot began their own education, given the widely-known censure of Russian media. “I think first of all, you need to be critical and sceptical about anything you hear and read. Always listen – and if we talk about politicians, you should always follow the money. In Russia, it’s much easier to distinguish what’s good and what’s bad.” She then mentions a questionable candidate who once stood in London’s mayoral elections. “I was like, how can you vote for this guy? He’s against abortions. He won’t make that decision, but why should you vote for someone who is definitely against women and women’s rights?” The candidate, in this case, was not elected, but others of similar ilk do reach positions of political power. We touch on the accountability of news media, and again her words resonate: “Follow the money.”
Olga also stresses the importance of being organised: “Activism helps you really to self-organise, to shape your message – that’s the most important thing. Self-organisation is the best tool. In Russia, for example, you don’t have much time to prepare. You might only have twenty seconds, for example, before the police come.” She insists on the necessity of “owning your right to be on the stage,” adding: “It’s important to feel comfortable and confident – not to fake it, but like: why am I here? What am I doing? But besides that, it’s a lot of hours of practice, just shaping it, like a diamond. Just shape it, shape it, shape it, until you feel confident with what you are saying.”
We discuss the notion of silence as compliance and I recall reading that Masha had been urged to speak out on behalf of her fellow inmates during her imprisonment, having protested against the prison’s inhumane conditions through a hunger strike. I ask Olga if there is any advice she can offer when it comes to speaking out. “The main thing is not to be indifferent, to fight for what you’re really passionate about. Also – have joy. For me, it was always about joy and adventure and having fun.” We chat about the potential for joy to be an act of resistance in itself, and I’m struck by the sense of excitement that Olga feels. It's not just fear. I thank her and she reciprocates: “I hope that’s something", she says.
Before I leave, I ask Olga and the others to sign a book for me and one for my friend, Maria Kulikovska, who is currently in exile. Kulikovska is a queer, non-binary multidisciplinary artist who makes poignant work about the atrocities of war. I urge readers to seek out their work.
TasoOn leaving the dressing room I meet Taso Pletner, who had held me mesmerised throughout their performance. While on stage they had this deadpan glare and wore a bulletproof vest. We agree to converse at a later date and what follows is a flavour of what we chatted about.
Overcoming poor internet connections and language barriers, I want to know more about the bulletproof vest, but Taso quickly corrects me. It’s actually a stab-proof vest – a bespoke garment designed for their prom that was also a graduation piece. It’s adorned in pins and embroidered patches along with “a rainbow, Casper, number 23 – random symbols that are important to me like snowmen. This is a very trans style; something about me; being queer in Russia. Russian LGBTQ+ culture is very ironic, I think. It’s against very serious white cis-gendered men with these very serious faces.”
I ask about a chant I heard: Pissy Pants Putin… “I think it was a few years ago,” they say. “I am a younger generation of Pussy Riot. But it was the name of an action. I sometimes show this during the show.” Taso shows me an image of themselves crouched over Putin as if pissing on him. I say I love it, but I’m also floored by the bravery; knowing that much less has cost people their lives.
Taso tells me they studied in Moscow but were born in St Petersburg. I ask about the time they also spent teaching, which Taso confirms but asks that the name of the institute is not published – fearful for the students who remain there. They say it’s a very famous institute, with unorthodox teaching methods akin to slavery, working and studying 16-hour days, seven days a week. It sounds unbelievable to me, but the conviction on Taso’s face says otherwise. Taso was swiftly removed from their position after screening an LGBTQ+ film; not a film that had explicit content, just one that featured non-heterosexual relationships. After they were removed from their position, Taso began to visit the institution in secret. This brought to mind Tory governments of the 1980s, who tried to prohibit the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality in Britain. Section 28. Though later repealed by a Labour government, Section 28’s effect on LGBTQ+ communities was one of devastation. It remains a stain on the UK’s political history and is a painful memory for those who had to endure it.
We discuss the importance of challenging the next generation of artists. I, like Taso, work within arts and education, and I tell them of Pussy Riot's impact on my own students (some of whom I even spotted at the gig). “That’s cool. I think a lot of people in England think we are just a band, but it’s very different. It’s not only four people. There’s like 24 of us now.” I then ask about Taso’s general well-being. “I can’t rest now because after this tour I must think about how I can live, where I can live, what I can do with my new visa because it ends in April. And then we have this criminal case in Switzerland…” I admit I am lost for words at this point, but express my adoration before the conversation draws to a close.
I can’t explain how it felt to end a call like that. Taso thanks me for not asking the usual questions and I hope I have enough material to give an accurate feel for the collective, beyond the obvious. They’re exhausted but they are relentless, and frankly I'm in awe. The absolute passion, drive, and purpose. Despite broken bones, mental and physical exhaustion, despite exile, Pussy Riot power forward. They continue to create methods of protest that hang on anonymity, yet feel branded even if not for profit. This enduring pursuit is one of sheer passion for humanity: a do-or-die mentality with an undeniable global reach. Putin can condemn individuals, but he cannot squash this legacy. Long may they prevail.
If you’d like to donate to children’s hospitals in Ukraine visit:ukrainehospitalsappeal.org
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