“OUR MESSAGE IS RIOT”: STAYING LOUD WITH PUSSY RIOT’S MARIA ALYOKHINA

In 2012, Russian activist and punk rocker Maria Alyokhina was convicted – along with two other members of anti-Putin collective Pussy Riot  for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after a performance in a Moscow cathedral. She was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in a remote penal colony, and served 21 months.

Now 29, the feminist and mum-of-one continues to defy authorities by speaking out for human rights in Russia and openly espousing anti-Putin views. We caught up with her to discuss her newest venture, Pussy Riot Theatre, ahead of her appearance in Melbourne.

By Grace Jennings-Edquist

When I finally connect with Maria Alyokhina for our Skype interview, it’s later in the evening than we’d originally planned. The 29-year-old Russian activist has a good reason for pushing back our chat: She just returned from Siberia, where she was briefly detained by police after unfurling a road banner in support of imprisoned Ukranian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.

“I’m okay,” she laughs when I ask if she was frightened during the ordeal. Sitting in her back yard in a plain black T-shirt, she’s visibly exhausted; the detention dragged on for several hours, and she had to attend court before finally being released by a judge due to errors in the case files. But Alyokhina’s demeanour is relaxed, and I sense it’s been just another day in the life of the Pussy Riot member, who in 2012 was sentenced to two years in jail for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after a performance in a cathedral.

“Our message is riot. We should say what we want as loud as possible,” she tells me in accented English, when I ask whether the group’s aims have changed since making international headlines over the 2012 sentencing. But “we have continued our activities via other methods” over the last few years, Alyokhina explains.

For example, she co-founded an independent media outlet in 2014 called MediaZona, along wth fellow Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Alyokhina has also written a book called Riot Days, to be published by Penguin Books here in Australia, but self-published and distributed discreetly via underground networks in Russia.

“It’s a huge tradition from Soviet Union where almost all the independent literature, literature from the west, was banned,” she tells me. “People published books by themselves and were giving them to each other in different types of ways.”

I ask whether it would have been possible to distribute the book with a traditional publisher in Russia. “I didn’t receive any requests,” she says with a smile. Later in our chat, she elaborates: “In Russia, if you are going to support us, to the Ministry of Justice, you can be beaten, you can be arrested.”

Alyokhina and the rest of her activist collective have also started dabbling in political theater. While a Pussy Riot Theatre production in March in Moscow saw the venue shut down, Alyokhina is bringing a version of the show to Australia this month as as part ofSuperSense festival at Melbourne’s Arts Centre.

The inaugural production – created in collaboration with music producer Alexander Cheparukhin – is an adaptation of Alyokhina’s book.

“It’s not ‘theater’ theater. It sounds more like a concert, I don’t know, or spoken word,” she explains of the show, and I catch a glimpse of her electric blue fingernails as she takes a drag from her cigarette. “It’s from my first action to the last day in prison. It’s a story of choice, the number of choices which I’ve done.”

Those choices – to speak out for your rights, and to stand up to authorities – are far riskier in Russia than in Australia, as Alyokhina’s own history of detention for her activism shows.

“I think Russian feminism and the discourse of feminism in west two different things,” she agrees. “One of the directors in one of the schools, he wants girls not to wear trousers because he says it can violate your vagina,” she says. Other issues of concern to Russian feminists, she adds, include political pushes to decriminalise domestic violence and to ban all abortions; and the emergence of prisons for LGBT people in Chechnya, where gay men are routinely beaten and tortured.

Intellectuals were killed or driven from the country last century, under Soviet rule, she tells me. “So now we have a situation where in the universities there are no gender studies, or lessons of sexual education. And if you talk about it, you will be called a moral witch.”

In such a hostile political climate, it must been difficult to learn about feminism and engage with other feminists, I suggest.

She disagrees: “They can own all the media, but they cannot cut eyes off people.”

Parenthood – Alyokhina has a 10-year-old son – has also driven her drive to advocate for women’s rights, she says. “I had the experience of having a son at 18 years old and experiencing the whole system that is totally against women,” she says, citing inadequate social welfare for mothers as one example.

“So I felt [the need for feminism] with my own body. And when you see it, when you feel it, you start to feel and hear about it in other countries.”

Pussy Riot Theater is coming to Melbourne as part of Supersense (18-20 August) at The Arts Centre.

Image: Instagram. Digital design tweaks: Grace Jennings-Edquist


More From Issue 12:

“I Have No Powers Legally As a Next of Kin”: Life As a Same-Sex Family in Australia

Illustrator Nancy Liang on Knowing Your Worth

A Two-Minute Explainer on Australia’s *Bullshit* Marriage Equality Postal Plebiscite

Booked Out: What to Buy for Your Funny, Feminist Best Friend

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