Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

“Riot Days” brings back Pussy Riot songs

Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina on theatre, prison and the power of examples.

Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot during a performance of their new music theatre show "Riot Days" in Los Angeles. (c) Ronen Tivony/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.“Freedom doesn’t exist if you don't fight for it every day and I'm riding in a car that's speeding up,” Maria Alyokhina, of Pussy Riot fame, read her last lines. She then paused and added: “Guys, our concert wasn't sabotaged, this is really awesome!”

In March 2017, Pussy Riot Theater’s performance “Riot Days” premiered at Moscow's largest art squat. Produced by Teatr.doc, Moscow's documentary and often politically themed theatre, “Riot Days” was shown just once, on an invite-only basis, to avoid the attention of the authorities. The production is based on Maria Alyokhina’s upcoming book “Riot Days” and describes her involvement in Pussy Riot, arrest and jail time. “Riot Days” isn’t a traditional theatre production, it incorporates a lot of video footage and live music performances, including several Pussy Riot songs.

Together with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samutsevich, fellow Pussy Riot band members, Alyokhina was sentenced to two years in jail in 2012 for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after performing inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. She spent 21 months in jail, and was released in December 2013.

I talked to Alyokhina about “Riot Days”, her book and life after prison.

What is Pussy Riot today?

Pussy Riot is a rather large punk collective that does all kinds of different things, I think MediaZona is definitely a Pussy Riot project.

MediaZona (MediaZone), a reporting platform dedicated to the Russian justice system, was one of the first projects you got involved in after being released. How did that come about?

While serving my sentence at Berezniki colony in Perm Region, I sued the colony's management for various infractions and won. When you win a fight against those who wear epaulets and wield power, it's an indescribable feeling. I wanted to use this experience to help other inmates.

Prison is a mirror of the government itself, an institution that truly reflects what's going on in the country. So when we got out, we decided that what started behind bars should be continued on the outside.

Nadya [Nadezhda Tolokonnikova] and I started thinking about new ways of expression. Together with Pyotr Verzilov [Tolokonnikova’s husband and Pussy Riot's unofficial spokesperson during their time in jail] we established MediaZona.

MediaZona regularly publishes evidence of unscrupulous and brutal methods inside Russian law enforcement. (c) Sergei Smirnov / MediaZona. All rights reserved.The new “patriotic boom” in the wake of East Ukraine and Crimea conflicts of 2014 dramatically changed the situation in the country, both in terms of political and social context. Many mass media were closed down or their editors-in-chief and journalists were fired due to the fact that censorship got stronger in a way I haven't seen before. We decided to launch a media project that would cover all topics related to freedom: violence at the police stations, violence in prison, political trials, etc.

In just two years MediaZona became one of the key media in the country, because we have a great team of journalists and the political agenda in the country became focused on political trials. There's practically no opposition activist who doesn't have a criminal case against him.

Both your book and theatre performance start with you wanting to do a film about revolution. What does revolution mean to you?

We talk a lot about revolution in Russia and I just wanted to specify what I mean by that. The world “revolution” was originally used in astronomy, it means “a turning.” Revolution can be internal and it is the basis for a political or cultural revolution.

“Riot Days” was not your first experience with theatre, right?

In 2015 I took part in a performance by the Belarus Free Theatre. They've been around for about 12 years, it's an underground theatre in Minsk that performs mostly outside of its home country. Belarus Free Theatre are the only people doing political art in Belarus. It was my first experience working with political theater or theater in general. I like to explore new forms of expression.

The production is called “Burning Doors” and it's based on three personal stories, my own and those of Petr Pavlensky [Russian performance artist famous for setting FSB headquarters doors on fire] and Oleg Sentsov [Ukrainian film director who was convicted of terrorism acts against Russian presence in Crimea]. It’s not a documentary production, it’s more of a physical theater, similar to Theater of Cruelty by Antonin Artaud. We have toured extensively abroad with this performance, just last month we were in Hamburg.

A shot from "Revolution".

“Burning Doors” is part of the campaign to free Oleg Sentsov, which in my opinion is one of the key criminal cases in today's Russia and one of those cases where geopolitical situation ruined a man's life.

Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in the coldest region of Russia, where temperature reaches -52 C in the winter.

That pretty much equals to a death sentence and if we don't succeed in getting him out, it's not clear whether he'll be able to make it to the end of his sentence.

Did experience with “Burning Doors” prompt you to conceive of “Riot Days”?

Yes. “Riot Days” is also not quite a regular theatre performance. It’s somewhere between theatre and a concert. I wanted to bring back Pussy Riot songs, to sing them again, along with the audience. That's why “Riot Days” has elements of a concert. We use three Pussy Riot songs in our performance. I want them to be played everywhere again and the words of the “Punk Prayer” to come true.

Who are the other participants of “Riot Days”?

There's Nastya and Maksim from the band AWOTT, which stands for “Asian Women on the Telephone.” Nastya and I have been friends since elementary school and she was the one to introduce me to Pussy Riot. Nastya is the one singing on the famous “Punk Prayer” song, but she decided not to take part in the actual performance at the Church of Christ the Saviour. There’s Kiryl Masheka from Belarus Free Theatre and Vasily Bogatov who filmed Pussy Riot performances on Red Square and the Church of Christ the Savior. And Olga Borisova, editor of the book, which became the basis for the show.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sing "I can't breathe". Source: wearepussyriot / Youtube.

Our producer is Alexander Cheparukhin [famous for organising tours of major western artists in Russia, as well as some music festivals]. We met during my hunger strike in Berezniki. Alexander came along with Petya [Petr Verzilov] to cheer me up. We talked about different bands Cheparukhin can bring to Berezniki and decided that Swans would be a perfect fit.

Cheparukhin found the director for the play, Yury Muravitsky [known for some outstanding work at Teatr.doc]. Marat Guelman [a famous Moscow gallerist and a former Director of PERMM contemporary art museum in Perm], invited the crew to his studio in Montenegro for rehearsals.

How was “Riot Days” received in the US?

We performed at very different venues, from a historic pub in Seattle where Nirvana played to proper theaters in Los Angeles and Brooklyn. We asked the audience to stand up to make it feel more like a concert, some people were dancing next to the stage. There appeared to be no language or national barrier. Tobi Vail [drummer from one of the most important feminist bands Bikini Kill] said the performance has a “cerebral effect” and explained that it had “both emotional and intellectual impact.”

Are you planning on showing it elsewhere?

We've had one more invite-only performance in Moscow, we might be able to arrange performances in other Russian cities, but I won't talk about the dates or venues, because it might put these performances at risk. We will have a tour in Australia in August, Germany in September and the UK in November.

"Riot Days" is based on your upcoming book of the same name. From the bits we saw at the play this looks like a diary or a memoir?

In 2014 Nadya and I toured around the world, presenting and fundraising for MediaZona, from universities to various conventions in the US and Europe. We also studied penitentiary systems in the countries we visited. An extension of this work was an idea of a book that we decided to write together.

We ended up writing two books of our own. My book is not a memoir, I am too young for that. It's more of a manifesto that should be comprehensible to a 12-year old girl in Argentina, who knows nothing about Russia, Putin or Pussy Riot or protest. Since I've always liked fairytales I wanted to make this book interesting and fun.

There's no fate, you can actually change things. People often only believe in the power of example, you can show them what they can do

I wrote this book so that its readers will remember that they have an option to choose. There's no fate, you can actually change things. People often only believe in the power of example, you can show them what they can do. The story in my book is one such example.

It's not just my story, it's also a story of Pussy Riot and in certain sense, Russia. There's a whole bunch of characters: police investigators, prison guards, my fellow prisoners. These are all people who made their own choices.

This book is not about me, it's about the choices I've made that anyone can make. My story is not unique, it's just a chain of events that made it known around the world. Every person makes choices every day and his story is built depending on those choices. From each individual story, a story of our country and the world is built.

When will it published?

“Riot Days” is coming out in English in the UK in September and in the US a bit later. It's also been translated into French. There's an anonymous printing house in St Petersburg that's not afraid to publish books by Pyotr Pavlensky and the like. I've ordered a certain number of Russian copies of the book there. It's true “samizdat”, I published it with my own money and will distribute it myself.

What's the role of gender/feminism in your work?

Feminism is a term that appears only where there's inequality. In a situation of perfect equality, feminism simply won't be needed. Talking about my work, about 2/3 of my book takes place at female correctional facilities. It was at the first colony that I initially thought that there's almost a total absence of protest or riots at female colonies compared to the male ones. At the latter, there's a system of criminal protest, which is based on a rigid hierarchy [among the inmates]. At female colonies, on the other hand, the system is much more horizontal and the hierarchy of power is non-existent.

A woman who ends up at a correctional institution, in a female community, doesn't see the need to fight for herself and tries to find a shoulder to lean on at the facility's administration. The absence of a culture of protest is not defined by gender, but by cultural context. We don't have much in terms of role models when it comes to politically active women. We have Stalin to thank for this. Right after the revolution women played a huge role, take Nadezhda Krupskaya or Alexandra Kollontai for example. Women were active in politics back then.

The absence of a culture of protest is not defined by gender, but by cultural context. We don't have much in terms of role models when it comes to politically active women

When I moved to my second colony, we got together a group of girls who didn't just want to talk about how much work we did or who was dating whom. I was receiving the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and New Times magazine and I shared that with the girls, plus the books I got sent. In two months I noticed a real interest from the people who never cared about politics before.

At the same time, these girls started talking to the human rights officials about the things they were unhappy with. These words come with a big price tag, you lose the chance getting out on parole, which means two, three, four extra years at the colony. You can also end up in isolation or lose your visiting and phone call rights, and so on.

But people start realising that telling the truth is awesome and not keeping silent is awesome and that's exactly the kind of freedom they are trying to deny you.

Theatre is one of the few open spaces in Russia. What do you make of recent crackdown on Moscow’s Gogol Center?

I came to the Gogol Center to protest [the criminal case against it]. I think that this case should be viewed within the context of everything that's been happening in Russia. I mean this gradual silencing and pushing out of the country of everyone whose activities demonstrated their disagreement with the authorities. I'm not familiar with the details of the case but I believe he [Kirill Serebrennikov] didn't steal anything.

Serebrennikov’s award winning production of Shakespeare's “Midsummer Night's Dream” is mentioned in the case as something that was never staged in reality. In my opinion this is just a new level of absurdity. And if cases like this are pursued in Moscow it's a signal for the regions. Regional authorities are trying to curry favour from Moscow by building similar cases in their jurisdictions. This is why there’s pressure on the last few remaining independent platforms [for expression].  

 


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.