Photography: Alexander Sofeev / @sofeev

Nobody does contradiction like Russia. A state that venerates its 20th century socialist history despite going gaga for free-market capitalism since 1991. A dangerous place for the LGBTQ community, where there is no distinction between paedophilia and homosexuality in popular opinion, with gay beaches on the Moskva river. You can fly a rainbow flag with pride –provided you know it’s the flag of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (one of Russia’s most distant federal subjects, bordering China’s Heilongjiang province). A place where Eastern Orthodoxy and the state operate in each other’s pockets: see the 2014 film Leviathan, which depicts the struggle of a Murmansk mechanic as the crooked mayor extorts him out of the land under his house, the eventual site of a lavish new church. The film was part-funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture.

Marya (Masha) Alyokhina’s new book Riot Days hasn’t seen any of that money. It tells of her participation in PUSSY RIOT’s performance of their anti-Putin Punk Moleben (Punk Prayer) in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012. She and two other members, Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were tried in 2013 in a case that captured the attention of the democratic free(r) world thanks to the actions of Alexander (Sasha) Cheparukhin (more from him later). The following year they were released under amnesty, but not before Nadya started high-profile correspondence with Slavoj Žižek, and Masha was nominated for the 2014 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought. 2012 was a while ago, so it might be worth revisiting Pussy Riot. They’re a loose collective of Russians musicians, activists and video artists known for guerrilla performances in Day-Glo balaclavas. It’s ironic that their rise to fame outside of Russia was driven by Masha, Nadya and Yekaterina’s court appearances in mufti. Indeed, through punk values-as-PR, they’re now better known outside of Russia, though they have pro-Putin and pro-church media to contend with at home. They staged protests at the Sochi Winter Olympics, although the western media didn’t report their treatment at the hands of Cossack security in anything like as much detail as their arrests in 2012.

Riot Days is a performance piece based on Masha’s memoirs from this period, but is more than just a blow-by-blow account (most prisoners of the Russian state can show you the bruises). Researching this piece, I saw an American review that really tried to appraise Riot Days as a musical performance, commenting on the basslines and exactly when the saxophone was deployed. But that’s putting the cart before the horse. When John Robb of Louder Than War described the Manchester date (“Where the chemistry and heat between the band and audience were hottest,” says Sasha) as “the best punk show ever”, he means the whole thing: the attitude, the form, the content, the atmosphere. Pussy Riot could be just a band writing songs, but Masha et al have transcended that.

“The thing is, I wasn’t even the first person in Pussy Riot,” she says. “I was maybe the 27th. I wasn’t one of the main guys. And I can get kind of crazy with the attention, being the front person of this show. I got the book deal and Sasha – who organised the PR campaign during the trial and got support from musicians like Madonna, Sting, and Peter Gabriel – he spent a year trying to persuade me to make a show out of it, before the book was even published. So the book came first, but we did the first show before anybody read it. This is the best way to do the book on stage.”

PUSSY RIOT – RIOT DAYS Image 2

The conversation, beamed from a dressing room in Slovakia where the collective are currently touring, soon turns to their Liverpool appearance at Arts Club on 22nd August. I mention the reactionary tendency in Liverpool, be it contentious – Militant, rioting in the 1910s, 1980s and 2010s – or fruitful – strong political awareness marked by allegiances which, at times, have rejected or pre-empted the national electorate. There’s also the creative manifestation of that attitude, such as the output (more than mere verse) of Adrian Henri, or the early work of Craig Charles, amongst the first punk poets to bear that title.

“We’re hoping for a good show in Liverpool,” Sasha chimes in –he’s acting as tour manager. “You know when I started writing to celebrities [during the trial], I wanted to get in touch with Paul McCartney, because he’s a god in Russia, bigger than any of those other guys. But, of course, when he visited, it was under the state, Putin was his personal guide around the Kremlin. But when I wrote, he responded in under an hour with an incredibly strong statement. Later, he sent two handwritten letters, addressed to the specific judges of one of the trials and the parole hearing. So they were presented in court as statements. He means much more than all the signatures together.”

The book had to be self-published in Russia, with positive reviews in the underground press and a very rare accolade from dramatist Vladimir Sorokin, who described it as “honest, bitter, and brilliant”. That’s the equivalent to a soundbite from Ian McEwan. She’s published by Penguin in the UK, but this isn’t a typical book tour. What will people see when they come to Riot Days?

“It’s a personal story,” Masha replies, “telling of the escape from the police, from trial to prison to prison colony. It’s not a tale, though, it’s a punk manifesto, with a lot of poetry and literature. On the tour, people will see/hear readings from the book, in a combination of music, like the most important early songs by Pussy Riot, theatre and visual elements.”

“It’s not a tale, it’s a punk manifesto” Marya (Masha) Alyokhina

Who else is on this tour with you?

There is Nadya, who has been my friend since we were nine and introduced me to Pussy Riot. She wrote some of the songs, and plays the saxophone while her boyfriend Max plays bass: together they’re known as AWOT – Absent Women On the Telephone. And there’s Kiril, a Belarusian actor who toured the UK with me for a theatrical project called Burning Doors. So, four people on stage, and Vasily, who is the Pussy Riot VJ, he does live stuff from inside the group, and there are [sub]titles too because the readings are in Russian.

Where have you taken the show so far?

Everywhere, probably 60-70 shows so far. Both coasts of the USA– Olympia, WA was probably the most rock ’n’ roll – Australia. In the UK we played Glasgow, Manchester, Brighton, two shows in London, Falmouth. Then Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland and Slovenia. We only played two shows in Russia, an alternative theatre and an art gallery, both in Moscow. We couldn’t get booked anywhere else. People didn’t want to take that risk, in case of a possible backlash.

Did you notice different reactions depending on where you played?

Yes and no. The show is, in a way, universal. It’s not just Putin’s Russia. It’s about people’s will wherever you are. There is no country around the world where people have no fear, no place where you can’t risk personal and psychological comfort to say something against injustice.

Is there a need to protest wherever you might be, irrespective of time and place?

Anywhere there is a reason, an agenda, yes. Maybe not continually, but freedom only exists when you work at it every day.

Is this show a kind of protest?

Yes. A protest against fear, against cynical conformism and passiveness. It says you can do anything, but you have to do it. My spell in prison wasn’t hopeless. I won three of four cases! But what Pussy Riot did was still, in the eyes of the law, illegal. And after it, propaganda did a lot too.

You’ve campaigned for prisoners’ rights in Russia. Have you noticed an improvement or at least some effect since 2012?

So… legislatively, things are worse in prison. That whole wave of 2011-12 protest caused a reaction. But though laws are harsher, prisoners’ rights are much more in the public interest. It’s very difficult in this repressive system, but it can be very effective too. The behaviour of the state became worse, but we created Zona Prava (justice zone), the only topical media outlet to focus on [government malpractice], monitor that behaviour, and we got some of the best lawyers too. It’s now between 7th and 8th place in media ratings – that is, rate of quotation – so we’re rivalling some of the big channels and being read by those who buy newspapers and keep abreast of the mass media.

I notice you played Falmouth… that’s a different locale to your other shows.

Sasha: That wasn’t through a booking agent, a personal invite. It was where Masha rehearsed the Riot Days show. It was tiny but completely full, and everybody was really into it.

 

This is key to punk – a grain of attitude which became a cultural pearl, but whose greatest legacy is too often a cheap necklace, costume jewellery a million miles from the oyster. Recently Tor Ekeland, the son of a World War Two Norwegian resistance fighter, tweeted about his dad’s recollection of the war. He mentioned that acts of resistance don’t all need to be on a large scale, or conclusively yield results, but can be small and personal, provided they disrupt the status quo. Likewise, a small venue at capacity may not contain multitudes on a national scale, but in that room, you can have everybody onside, 100 per cent of their attention, and then they take that small act of protest with them when they leave and go their separate ways.

Pussy Riot aren’t a GOAT-discography-hit-single band. They’re the musical, vocal, and visual expression of an ideology. As Masha says, “Everyone can be [in] Pussy Riot”.

 

Pussy Riot: Riot Days takes place on 22nd August at Arts Club – buy your tickets here.

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