Arts

Pussy Rioting against indifference

They’re the most famous contemporary activist group in the world. So why, then, would Pussy Riot come all the way to little ol’ New Zealand? Sasha Borissenko spoke to one of their founding members, Maria Vladimirovna "Masha" Alyokhina, to find out.

Maria Alyokhina was perplexed when trying to get her head around the concept of tall poppies syndrome. She was equally baffled trying to understand New Zealand’s ‘she’ll be right’ attitude, in a cultural sense.

“But why wouldn’t you speak up if there’s something you don’t agree with? I don’t understand.”

With more than 150 protest performances globally and two years in a Russian labour camp under her belt, Alyokhina’s greatest bid now is to fight indifference.

“I think it’s a big problem. Not many people understand they can change something. I believe that each of us can make a change."

“It’s important to remind people to remember each of us has choice and to remind people that freedom is something constant, it’s something for which we should fight, otherwise it can be taken away.”

 

People outside of Russia have so many more resources and freedoms, so why not use them? she asks.

“[New Zealand] has so many things you forget you have. You have free press. You have the right to do demonstrations and not be tortured for that, or go to prison for a number of years, for example.”

The group happened to be touring Australia during this time when they received an invite to perform at Auckland’s Fringe Festival. Coincidence or not, they jumped at the chance to bring the Pussy Riot mantra to New Zealand.

Pussy Riot: Riot Days is based on Alyokhina’s time in the activist group until she was released from prison.

It’s a story of choice, which is a universal thing, she says.

“It’s important to remind people to remember each of us has choice and to remind people that freedom is [not fixed], it’s something for which we should fight, otherwise it can be taken away.”

Maria Alyokhina pictured (centre) during a performance of Pussy Riot: Riot Days. Photo: Supplied

For those who have not read Solzhenitsyn’s A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich or at least googled its synopsis, Russian prisons are different insofar as they’re more like labour camps.

Together with 100 women in 2012, Alyokhina was expected to sleep in one room with two toilets, and work 14-hour days, six days a week for two years.

“All of this was almost without a salary. There was no medicine or normal food. Few human rights were observed. When I saw it for the first time I was surprised, so I decided to pursue activism while inside, and after some time I’ve seen some changes.”

“We are all politically active whether we want to be or not, because not doing anything is an action in and of itself.”

After some successful court actions against some prison guards, Alyokhina was transported to another penal colony, “because the administration was tired of me. But having some success meant that I knew what was possible. And when you realise something is possible you want to continue of course”.

It seems Alyokhina’s passion for justice has always been there. Sure, she fell into the activist group as a student while flatting with other founding members - a far cry from what could be expected of Scarfies living in Dunedin.

But because of the political climate in Russia, activism is a part of life. “We are all politically active whether we want to be or not, because not doing anything is an action in and of itself.”

A case of ‘evil prospers if good men do nothing’, if you will.

A picture taken during a performance of 'Pussy Riot: Riot Days'. Photo: Supplied

This isn’t the first time Pussy Riot: Riot Days will be showcased. Its debut, performed in Moscow, was well received, but the venue was shut down two weeks later by authorities.  

When Pussy Riot returned from touring the USA it felt right to perform it again, she says. Although promoters and venue staff were excited, fear of being kicked out of buildings meant housing the controversial group would be career and social suicide, she says.

This happened for months in different cities around Russia until she found a gallery owner who “didn’t give a f***k” about repercussions.  

Alyokhina has, and will, never be scared of consequences.

“Fear paralyses people. Fear is useless. Of course like any human I’ve had moments where I’ve been frightened but I believe if you’re afraid of something and go for it, you’ll grow.

“If you sit in a corner and do nothing, or if you sit in a soft room you’ll never experience those possibilities.”

“Fear paralyses people. Fear is useless ... If you sit in a corner and do nothing, or if you sit in a soft room you’ll never experience those possibilities.”

Her 12-year-old son and parents worry of course, but they're supportive. Sure, there’s pressure from police who occasionally knock on her parents’ door, but it’s manageable, she says.

For Alyokhina, this is her life. “It’s fun to incorporate fun into protest. It’s unusual. I don’t know, I’ve been living through this for almost seven years and I’ve never really reflected on the good or bad sides. It’s just life.”

And she’ll keep fighting until her country is free.

Maria Alyokhina pictured (centre) during a performance of Pussy Riot: Riot Days. Photo: Supplied

“It’s very simple, really. I want democracy - the right for people to choose who they want to lead. I don’t want people to go to jail because of their words.

“I don’t want people to go to jail because of peaceful protests or artworks I want all the political prisoners to be free. I don’t want people to be afraid to be themselves.

“They’re very simple things but we don’t have them.”  

Would she ever leave the motherland? “Of course not. Russia is my country, it’s my home.”

And once she finishes the tour Alyokhina plans to go back to Moscow to clean the floors.

“I have 70 more hours of community service after the last protests. So I’m a cleaner now.”

Pussy Riot: Riot Days will be showcased on Friday 21 February, as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival
 

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