Members of the Russian feminist punk protest group, Pussy Riot, were in downtown Phoenix on February 16 for a conversation on art, sex, and disobedience at Beth Hebrew Synagogue.
Pussy Riot, known for staging provocative guerrilla performances and music videos, became famous in 2012 with the arrest of three of it's founding members after the group performed a song on the altar of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior wearing brightly colored tights and balaclavas and singing an anti-Putin song. Three members — Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria "Masha" Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich — were arrested and charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina spent almost two years in prison.
Striking, as much for their intelligence as for their fearlessness, the members of Pussy Riot have been outspoken critics of the Putin administration, and crusaders for LGBT rights, prison reform, and feminism.
The event, co-sponsored by Stateside Presents and Changing Hands Bookstore, welcomed Alyokhina and Ksenia Zhivago. The formerly imprisoned Alyokhina did most of the talking.
Here are some things we learned from the Pussy Riot conversation:
In Russia if you are an activist you must be prepared for anything.
What kind of reaction were they expecting to get from their performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior? Alyokhina said, "Of course we didn't expect prison. And, we didn't expect that such an enormous amount of people would support us." The fact that they were supported by so many — who saw images of the bare-faced young women sitting in a cage as they awaited trial — was a miracle. "I want to thank everyone for the support so we can still speak about this now."
Would she still go through with the stunt, knowing the outcome would be a prison sentence? She answered in English, "I would," to erupting audience applause.
The election of Vladimir Putin galvanized the creation of the group.
According to Alyokhina, after Putin won a third, non-consecutive term as President, Pussy Riot was formed. Some of the members had been part of the street art-making group, Voina, and they came from different places and universities. But all of a sudden the women gathered together because they felt that they were experiencing this "reality" more or less in the same way. They were tired of fighting the corrupt political powers with classical methods, so decided to use different methods to get their message across. They were drawn to the arts as a tool for social activism.
Pussy Riot was influenced by the Riot Grrrl movement.
"We were quite impressed by the movement called Riot Grrrl," said Alyokhina of when Pussy Riot started. In the 1990s, Riot Grrrls mixed music with political activism and a strong DIY attitude. Pussy Riot members took this impulse and, some might say, gave it new energy arriving at performance sites in a compact show up and shock way — carrying a plastic shopping bag holding a portable amp, or a backpack carrying a folding mic stand.
The stakes, of course, were higher for Pussy Riot. Riot Grrrls didn't, generally speaking, risk jail sentences for performing their music.
"Just a few days ago we met the drummer of Bikini Kill, Tobi Vail," said Alyokhina speaking to the lasting impact of the Riot Grrrl movement. "She was one of the first people in this country who started a campaign to support us just after our arrest. And, she turned out to be an amazing person, and if we think of somebody [who] really inspired us, it was Tobi."
"It's very important to understand that for us punk is not a music direction, it's a style of life," Alyokhina said. "It's important to us that we wanted to do something against the current power. It's interesting to use different genres and musical styles, but it's important for us, also, to keep this riot spirit."
Female sexuality and erotic desire are perceived as a threat to the social order.
In Russia, explained Alyokhina, both the social and sexual are constructed on patriarchal principle. For those in power it was really hard to imagine that a girls' art collective all of a sudden started to protest in this way. "It's not enough that they are brave enough to protest against us, they protest in the church, and they are girls!" Pussy Riot members popped with bright Technicolor intention.
During their trial, victims claimed to be insulted by the naked shoulders and bra-straps of the Pussy Riot members, as well as by the fact that they showed their legs.
"If you feel the desire to shout loudly and protest against whatever you think is worth protesting you should do it," Alyokhina said. Using metaphor and art, anyone can take on this image: masks, dresses, lyrics, protest.
"At least you have elections, guys."
Feeling cynical about the U.S. election season just hitting its stride? "I've heard Donald Trump exchanged a certain amount of compliments with Putin," Alyokhina said. But at least in this country you have the freedom to elect Donald Trump. "We recommend not to do it."
Sometimes, what keeps Pussy Riot going is social media.
When someone from the audience asked: What advice do you have for local activists? Alyokhina responded, "I can only speak about us, but what prevents us from surrendering is social media." Indeed, Pussy Riot seems to make the best possible use of new media, blending real life protest with music videos, and taped musical performances to create a YouTube-ready hybrid to get its free expression, not repression message across.
More recently, the group gained attention via the HBO documentary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer released in 2013, and when the Netflix series House of Cards depicted the arrest of the group's members in an episode on season three. Tolokonnikova, her husband Pytor Verzilov, and Alyokhina make cameo appearances in the episode guest starring as themselves.
The LGBT situation in Russia is scary.
"I don't know what you've heard about the situation in Russia but I can tell you, as the person who is not really scared about many things, that the situation with the LGBT community in Russia is really scary," Alyokhina said. "People are killed just because they are gay." Zhivago added that the media coverage during the Sochi Olympics brought international attention to the problem, but unfortunately that media attention has faded, resulting in less reporting about cases of violence against the LGBT community.
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Alyokhina recommends reading Art Spiegelman's Maus.
A fan of books, she said this one should be read by every person. Then, Zhivago reminded her that it's banned in Russia for extremism. Alyokhina laughed full of amusement and charm.
The night's conversation was the first truly public event to be held at Beth Hebrew Synagogue, which is quickly becoming a much needed community space for downtown Phoenix. Charlie Levy of Stateside Presents who, along with Cindy Dach of Changing Hands Bookstore, helped organize the event, said it was a "no-brainer" for the dialogue to take place at the newly renovated, community-minded synagogue.
Added Alyokhina, "We are quite happy the synagogue was used for the first time for this classy event. I hope next time it will be a concert."