Riot Gaze: Pussy Riot on Patriotism and Propaganda

What does it take to prepare to protest? Pussy Riot brief The Skinny on their punk spectacle Riot Days and *that* World Cup final performance

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 06 Aug 2018
  • Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot are in a van in Normandy, heading east. As we speak on a patchy, unreliable phone line, they stop at a service station and receive news from Moscow: all four of their friends – Pyotr Verzilov, Veronika Nikulshina, Olga Kuracheva and Olga Pakhtusova – who dressed as cops and stormed the pitch at the FIFA World Cup final in front of Vladimir Putin are sentenced to fifteen days of administrative arrest (and a three-year ban on attending sporting events). It’s hard to know how to respond. Alexander ‘Sasha’ Cheparukhin – producer of Riot Days, the show based on Maria ‘Masha’ Alyokhina’s autobiography of the same name – assures us that it’s actually quite a light sentence. “This is a real achievement. At least it’s not criminal punishment,” he says. It could have been far worse.

Gifs have been made from the video of Nikulshina high-fiving France’s star player Kylian Mbappé. Photos of the pitch invasion were published underneath newspaper headlines across the world. Pussy Riot, Russia’s most famous activist collective, specialise in theatrical political protest that is digitally savvy. They are a punk band, authors, a touring theatre troupe, a human rights media organisation, but most of all they are tireless, strategic protestors. Pussy Riot’s sharp, concise demands and iconic neon balaclavas appeal to the greedy consumption of online news outlets, which is to say that they can capture the world’s attention whenever they choose.

They became infamous in 2012, after a performance titled Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour culminated in a criminal sentence for three of their activists. The unconventional prayer demanded a separation of church and state – the chorus repeats, 'Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin' – but they were falsely charged on grounds of religious hatred. Masha, along with other co-founders Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, evaded the police for some time before they were caught, relying on anonymity (which, today, is no longer possible) to give statements to the press. As Masha writes in Riot Days, “Giving an interview over Skype while wearing a balaclava and sitting in a café without ordering anything is weirder than ordinarily sitting in a café without ordering anything. So we hid in the toilets. […] Once, one of us left a balaclava in the stall. The waitress brought it back to us.”

The show replicates the book’s timeline, starting with Pussy Riot’s early protests and following Masha as she is arrested, sentenced to two years in prison and transferred to a penal colony in the Ural Mountains. There, she campaigned from her cell for improved working conditions, fairer wages for prisoners and the right to visit a lawyer without intrusive strip searches. It’s a remarkable story, told in surreal vignettes that are testimony to unimaginable bravery, and evidence of a piercing sense of humour.

“I should tell you a story of my involvement with Pussy Riot,” Sasha starts; a prominent figure in Russia’s music scene, he’s been integral to the creation of the Riot Days show, as well as the book’s publication. Once the producer of Russia’s largest arts festivals, including the Russian branch of WOMAD, his career took a strange turn after he became publically associated with the collective, which started when Verzilov – Tolokonnikova’s husband, and one of the World Cup performers – asked him to help bring global attention to Pussy Riot’s 2012 court case.

“For several days I had some doubts,” he admits, “I was not sure I completely agreed with their action in the church. But then I realised that the court wasn’t fair, so I decided to help and I wrote to big stars.” He collected handwritten letters and videos of support from celebrities like Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith and Madonna, but the biggest coup was in reaching Sir Paul McCartney. “People said, don’t even try. He’s a friend of Putin. Well, not a friend, but he visited on a personal invite to the Kremlin. I don’t think you realise that Paul McCartney is the biggest authority for many generations of Russians.” McCartney responded within the hour and published a passionate letter of support online.

After this, Sasha noticed a change. “Step by step, because it was a different time,” – he pauses to explain that Russian law was softer six years ago – “I started to lose my festivals. Even the press secretary of Putin called local authorities to tell them that they are stupid to cooperate with people like me.”

The touring Riot Days show that visits Edinburgh's Summerhall this August was his idea, but it was only after Masha wrote the book that she gave him the go-ahead: “She told me – let’s do it.” So they pulled together a seasoned team of performers. Musicians Nastia (the anonymous ‘bass player’ in Masha’s book) and Maxim – who perform under the name AWOTT (Asian Women on the Telephone) – bring chaotic electro-punk soundscapes, and Masha is joined on stage by her colleague from the Belarus Free Theatre, actor Kyril Kanstansinau. The show is “made theatrical” by director Yury Muravitsky, a recipient of prestigious Russian theatre award the Golden Mask. Sasha lists the countries they’ve toured – the US, Australia, the UK, “all of Europe” – and proudly details rapturous responses: “It would not be honest to say that I didn’t expect it! It’s a marvellous text and a very unique performance.

“The goal of the show is not only to show how bad it is in Russia." He continues: "The goal is to show people that they can act if they want to act, and even in oppressive, difficult circumstances, they can win. Masha won three cases out of four against her prison administration. You can win. The goal is to share the Russian feeling of action and justice and will.”

He passes the phone to another, newer musician in the collective, Aleksandra ‘Sasha’ Klokova. We ask what kind of preparation is involved in joining a group like Pussy Riot and she sounds amused: “No, I didn’t prepare at all! In Russia everybody is really afraid. You feel it every day on the streets, everywhere. So I’m happy to be an example that it’s true – everybody can be Pussy Riot. I never prepared for this, but with Pussy Riot you must be ready for anything.”

The West has long been fascinated by this collective and it’s easy to see why. Protest in the UK rarely comes in a form stronger than an organised march. Feminist slogans feature within corporate branding strategies and are splashed across dangerously cheap T-shirts. Sometimes it seems that Western media coverage of the violent treatment endured by Pussy Riot activists at the hands of Russian law enforcement is more voyeuristic than it is supportive.

For Masha, who’s taken the phone from Klokova, all this is irrelevant. “All that is written is true. I can say that the attention from the West, about Pussy Riot, about any activists in Russia, it’s protection. We all know that it can be worse. A lot of people disappear, or have been tortured and killed. This protection is really, really helpful for all of us.”

She abruptly passes the phone back to Sasha. “She’s finished,” he says. We worry that we’ve caused offence. There’s a quick, hushed conversation and suddenly she’s back. “I had an emergency,” she laughs, without explanation.

In Russia, and increasingly in the UK and the US, it’s common for the state to denounce activists as “traitors” who hate their country. Masha vehemently disagrees. “All of us who are making protest actions, rallies, demonstrations – this is how patriotism should look.

“If you look to the history of any country, especially [the] countries that used to be USSR, all the people who fought for change, after ten or twenty years they became politicians, national heroes, members of European Parliament. People who protest and demonstrate, who’ve been beaten, who’ve been in prison, after some time [the public] understand why they tried. For current power, it’s very easy [for them] to say that we want something bad for our country. This has been used in our country for 100 years, there’s a big tradition of this shit. If Great Britain has the same, if your media or your politicians do this, it’s a very bad sign. It’s pure totalitarian propaganda.”

Pussy Riot’s long-term objectives are these: political freedom and competition, no more political prisoners, no fabricated criminal punishments, no illegal arrests at rallies. What does small-scale success feel like? Masha laughs: “I don’t believe in success.” Then she concedes: “At least we have a sense of humour, especially about ourselves. This is what I hope we will not lose.”


Riot Days, Summerhall, 10-19 Aug, 7pm, £17.50; tickets available via Synergy Concerts

https://www.facebook.com/wearepussyriot/