Pussy Riot founding member Maria Alyokhina's urgent message to New Zealand

Pussy Riot is nominally a punk band, but founding member Maria 'Masha' Alyokhina is the first to admit their music has always been a means to an end.

"I'm not a musician," she told Newshub. "I don't know how to play any instruments, really. Everybody I sing to says an elephant is standing on my ears. So really it's just one way to do things."

By "things", she means the activism that saw the Russian group become the internationally-recognised symbol of female defiance under Vladimir Putin's macho-totalitarianism.

Although the group is impressed by the "harmony" in New Zealand, they warn that what's happened in their country could happen anywhere.

RIOTOUS BEGINNINGS

 

Pussy Riot was born out of activist collective Voina, best known for spray-painting an enormous penis onto a St Petersburg drawbridge outside the headquarters of the FSB, formally the KGB.

A dispute with Voina's leader ("Much a terrible person," according to Alyokhina) saw several members split and form their own female-fronted band of misfits.

"From the very beginning it was a community of different people - activists, artists, musicians, filmmakers - who came together because Putin announced he would be president, again," Alyokhina says.

"Anyone can be Pussy Riot, anyone can wear a balaclava in any country."

The masked protesters have stormed the Olympics and the Football World Cup, performed two-minute concerts on trolley cars and in shop windows.

"It's not only about music, it's about art itself," says Alyokhina.

"Art can really change the world. That's why in countries like ours, it's so censored and it's so repressed. Art can provide a different image of how things should be.

"Dictators and people who are in power are afraid to lose this power, so they start to repress artists when they start to speak against them."

It's that fear of criticism that saw Alyokhina imprisoned for 18 months after she and two other Pussy Riot members performed an anti-Putin protest song in Moscow's holiest of cathedrals.

Now, they're in New Zealand for the very first time to tour what could loosely be called a concert, based on Alyokhina's book Riot Days - which, she's quick to correct, is not a memoir, but a manifesto.

PUSSY RIOT DOWNUNDER

 

Producer Sacha Cheparukhin says the show, part of the Auckland Fringe Festival, will be like nothing a New Zealand audience has seen before.

"We put together all our creative forces, whether it's in music or in writing or video, and made a really multi-genre, multimedia show, which I think is really irresistible and universal. It applies to every person, regardless of whether they are interested in Russia or not interested in Russia."

You might think after years of guerilla performances, it would be difficult to maintain the same chaotic energy in a sedate conventional setting like Auckland's Town Hall.

But for Alyokhina, just being here is an act of rebellion.

"This tour is an action in itself. I have an official ban from the court police, I'm not allowed to leave the country after my two last actions in front of the FSB, which is the KGB. I have 140 hours of community service work.

"I believe that there is no difference between street action and stage action. I believe we should use the stage as a political platform."

Pussy Riot
Pussy Riot will perform the New Zealand premiere of 'Riot Days' on Friday. Photo credit: Auckland Fringe Festival

Pussy Riot is staying in Bethells Beach, hosted by a local art collective, and Cheparukhin says they've found unexpected inspiration in this corner of the world.

"We met some Māori activists, not only Māori but also Irish, English, Serbians who support the Māori fight and preserving their land from development and contamination. We were inspired by how harmonious this union is for different people from different ethnic groups, different racial groups. How they're ready to stand for their environment, for their culture, for their unique peaceful balance, which doesn't exist in Russia or in Australia," he says.

"For me, [Aotearoa] is a country of harmony - or at least, it's a country that's closer to harmony than many other countries in the world. We are impressed."

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

 

In the eight years since Pussy Riot rose to global prominence, Russia has changed a lot - and not, Alyokhina believes, for the better.

"Criminal cases like ours appear almost every month. It's not a surprise or a scandal anymore, it's just a regular repressing practice," she says.

She says she was "lucky" not to be tortured during her incarceration, but many other activists haven't been so fortunate. Their stories feature prominently in Riot Days, and Pussy Riot also gives money to their families for legal help.

"We still have regions like Chechnya, where women cannot wear the clothes they want to wear, where they cannot even have a divorce or talk about abortions," Akyokhina says of her motherland.

"It's quite strange that we've been the country that made a statement about women's rights, one of the first, and now we're nowhere. In 2017 they decriminalised domestic violence."

It's not just Russia that seems to be heading down a dangerous path - Alyokhina believes the entire world is facing a choice.

"All these topics about nationalism and separatism and the immigration crisis, Trump and so on. There is another world, the world of art, which doesn't have any borders. If we're standing for the same issues, government and borders is not important."

A month before the 2016 election, Pussy Riot released provocative music video 'Make America Great Again', which predicted Donald Trump would win the US Presidency. Alyokhina blames his victory on the growing divide between liberal city-dwellers and conservative rural folk.

"It's not a conflict, but a disconnection. The cities sometimes do not understand what is happening and how many people just do not connect with all the issues which are discussed in the city. That's why I think it happened."

She's also troubled by political apathy among the world's youth - a frustrating phenomenon for a persecuted activist to witness.

"It's a lack of responsibility with a lot of young people, not only in the United States, Brexit happened like this as well. They just do not go to vote because they think that it's politics, it's not fashionable, they have their own life. It does not work.

"If you will not vote, if you will not decide who will be your president, who will be in your Parliament, your opponents will decide."

She hopes Pussy Riot will inspire people to stage their own protests against injustices in their own communities. 

"Listen to what happened in Russia and understand, do you want this here or not? That's it. We're sharing our story but this story can happen anywhere. Russia is not another planet, it's not Mars. It's not so far as you think."

Pussy Riot performs at the Auckland Town Hall on Friday.

Newshub.

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