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A CONVERSATION WITH PUSSY RIOT AND STORM LARGE

By Shaley Howard, PQ Monthly

Russian punk band Pussy Riot is known for their outspoken resistance to President Vladimir Putin’s regime and infamous arrest for ‘hooliganism’ when they performed “Punk Prayer!” inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012, made a stop in Portland recently. But instead of playing their signature provocative rock music Pussy Riot members sat down with an audience of 300 people for a Q&A conversation about human rights violations.

The evening began with a short trailer for a documentary called Act and Punishment, about feminists in Russia. Pussy Riot members Maria Alekhina and Ksenia Zhivago then took the stage along with musician/author Storm Large and OPB’s John Sepulvado as the moderator.

Much of the evening focused the human rights violations of prisoners and performance artist Petr Pavlensky, who is currently imprisoned for his “Living Pain” art. Much of Pavlensky’s art is depicted through bodily harm he inflicts on himself as a political statement, which Russian authorities call “vandalism.” An example of his art was displayed on the screen of him with his mouth literally sewn shut in protest of Pussy Riot’s imprisonment in 2012. Both Zhivago and Alekhina spoke about the injustice of his incarceration and were selling t-shirts to help raise money for his legal fees.

There were awkward gaps in the conversation throughout the evening due to a few confusing questions and their translation from English to Russian. The audience was also borderline rude at times with people randomly yelling out and interrupting the speakers. One person actually yelled ‘blah, blah, blah’ when Storm Large was in the middle of asking a question. But despite these disruptions, the majority of the crowd was respectful and seemed excited to participate in an engaging and intriguing dialogue with the members of Pussy Riot.

When asked about her experience in the penal colony Alekhina said that most prisoners are forced to rise at 5:20 AM to sew police and army uniforms for 12-14 hours with no breaks, earning only $3.00 per month. Alekhina herself did not sew because she said that she “caused too many problems.” She was only allowed to see her child every three months, with the guards leveraging these visits against “misbehavior.”  Misbehavior was also punished by solitary confinement in a stone cold cell. Alekhina said she spent half a year in isolation though she added that being alone in a cell was a little better than trying to coexist with 100 other prisoners with no privacy and constant fighting. “They call this penal colony ‘corrections’ but the system is corrupt and is making a profit off of imprisoned people,” declared Alekhina adding, “You are constantly surrounded and have to fight 24 hours a day for human dignity. We did not hope for amnesty.”

When asked about the atmosphere of being an activist in Russia, Alekhina shared a story about the band’s release from prison. The band members had started a human rights project and needed space to work. They found an appropriate space near the National Center for Contemporary Arts in Moscow with a café close where they would often eat. One day the owner of the café was approached by officers of the FSB, the Russian federal security services, and successors of the KGB. The FSB officers wanted to place bugs in the café to spy on Pussy Riot, but the owner refused to allow it, and they left.

“This is typical of the inability to have a choice. If you decide to not accept their orders, it can end your freedom. It can end your life. Being a hero or activist is not dedicating your life to a cause but in your daily choices. These daily choices represent the whole society in Russian life.”

Pussy Riot’s new release, “I Can’t Breath” is dedicated to Eric Garner, an African-American man who died after being put into a chokehold by an NYPD officer. Alekhina said, “It’s a song for all who suffer at the hands of the state. But it’s also about us not taking action. There’s no universal way to solve things. But every action is a checkpoint. It won’t necessarily change the world but every action does count. The most important thing is to continue to remember those still behind bars.  It’s imperative for you to know the names of those imprisoned and who parishes because of violence of the government.”

A question was asked about feminism in Russia. Alekhina explained, “Feminism in Russia is same as in the Middle East. We don’t have stonings but we have serious issues with the patriarch. In Russia, you can be killed for saying you are gay. The lack of LGBT rights follow the same line as feminism and come from patriarchal society. The very principle of non-tolerance towards the hatred of the different one is a sign of a diseased society.”

And the evening wouldn’t have been complete without a question of Alekhina’s opinion of Donald Trump to which she simply replied, “Trump and Putin don’t believe in anything they say. You should do your best to not allow this guy to be your president.”

Left to right, Shaley Howard, Maria Alekhina, Storm Large
Left to right, Shaley Howard, Maria Alekhina, Storm Large

After the show had ended, I had a chance to sit down with both Storm Large and Maria Alekhina to talk about the current state of being LGBT in Russia.

PQ: As you know currently social acceptance and Russian law towards LGBT is extremely intolerant. Since Pussy Riot began protesting Russia’s anti-gay legislation has there been much push back towards LGBT?

Alekhina: It’s much worse. It’s become this very aggressive propaganda where they actually call on people to kill other people. Not only is it the propaganda of ‘do not accept’ LGBT but beat them, kill them and so on. We have an economic crisis happening in Russia. The government is afraid that people will unite. They use all their methods to separate people by nationality, by different ways of living, by everything. They are trying to show, especially in the LGBT community, when you start speaking out, they will shut you off forever. This propaganda is promoted by media, by TV, etc. and it’s working. But the thing is this propaganda is totally fake.

These government groups that are formed are particular quasi-movements, in different cities. For example, if you are organizing gay pride in a city, they send these groups there comprised of mostly guys who have questionable backgrounds that are hired by political police to be protestors. They send them there to beat people. This is possible because they know no one will open a criminal case out of fear. They even continue after gay pride harassing and beating people.

PQ: What suggestions would you have for people outside Russia who want to help stop Putin and human rights violations?

Alekhina: The main thing you can do is to put pressure on your politicians who engage with Putin and his administration. To question his human rights policies and keep pressing the topic. It’s hard to explain but it is working. It’s better to ask and speak about particular cases such as people who were beaten or people who suddenly immigrate because they are afraid. Speak out about gay activists in Russia.

PQ: Have you found other politicians working from within the Russian government speaking out and working with you?

Alekhina: I know a lot of politicians. But in the whole of Russia, I know only two politicians who actually talk with everyday people and are trying to do what they can to change this offensive system. It’s very rare in Russia right now to find those politicians. I understand this. If you see this totally corrupt system every day, it’s very human to want to just run away. I think these men I know are heroes.

Storm Large: Are most of the people working for LGBT, women, and human rights – are they all mainly targets? I mean, is anything against human rights against Putin? Who else do you see in Russia working for human rights that aren’t necessarily going to go to jail?

Alekhina: Yes. If you are doing human rights work in Russia, it is political work. Generally, the most productive work comes from outside of Russia, United Nations, Amnesty International and people outside.  Outside human rights organizations and artists are doing the most important things. If someone is going to Russia and they’re going to give a statement or concert all of us, (Russians) see it. For example, if you have a human rights issue that is discussed with the United Nations it’s done behind closed doors and nobody else sees it live. So we hear and see the statements through the media controlled by Putin. But at a concert people see life, they see each other as they are. It is the strongest way to send a message. If you are an artist and you’re going to Russia, say something for political prisoners and those who are discriminated against.

Storm Large: People want to discount artists – you’re not politicians, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re absolutely right. I think that’s such an incredibly powerful message to get out to other artists and to get to the public and fans.

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