On Flickr by Thierry Ehrmann Flickr

Seven years ago, Pussy Riot’s church protest, arrest and trial gripped the world. Now, their tour, Straight Outta Vagina, is heading around Europe, spreading their message of defiance, freedom and hope. 

The Perspective spoke to band member Mariya Alyokhina about Russia, Vladimir Putin, democracy and her hopes for the future.

Arriving at Mejeriet, an independent cultural venue in Lund, Sweden, on a damp, misty evening. The Perspective there to meet and interview Pussy Riot, a name which has become synonymous with protest and Russia’s human rights record. A poster for their concert Straight Outta Vagina is the greeting, an imposing neon pink and yellow affair with a sketch of a woman wearing the band’s signature balaclava, also a striking neon pink. Then, in the venue’s performance area, where, straight after the band’s soundcheck, The Perspective meets Mariya Alyokhina. 

Gone were the balaclava and leggings, instead, Alyokhina is wearing casual black clothing – a far cry from the images of Pussy Riot’s protest performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that were broadcast the world over. As is customary for any UPF guest or interviewee, she is presented with past editions of The Perspective. “I want to keep these magazines’’, she says, her eye drawn to the Women issue. She makes herself comfortable as the interview begins. The first question to her is one in which she is probably well-versed: “Why is the right to protest so important in Russia?” She looks sagely at the cover of the Women issue, a sad smile on her face, as she answers with, “we don’t have democracy in Russia”. 

She goes back to looking at the Women issue as she continues, “Putin has been the so-called president for almost twenty years – so serving for longer than him are maybe Lukasheno [the President of Belarus] and Kim Jong-Il [the second leader of North Korea]. A country is not right when the people cannot choose the power. It doesn’t matter if leaders are good or bad people; if they are in power forever, they will become corrupt.” 

Mariya looks into the distance, her trademark defance once again expressed on her face an begins to explain what the summer 2019 democracy protests in Moscow meant to her. The protests began after all independent candidates were rejected from ballot papers for Moscow State Council. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of the Russian capital before the police undertook a violent crackdown against them.  “I think there were around 20,000 people protesting, of these, more than 3000…were arrested.” Perhaps, in Mariya’s mind, the actions of the protesters were akin to her own that day in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. 

Either way, it had the same outcome. “More than twenty people ended up in jail, receiving sentences of four or five years, just because they went to the centre of Moscow in want of free elections. There wasn’t any dancing in churches…It was totally peaceful, but the police were brutal.”

But Mariya has her own view on why Russians seem to tacitly accept Putin’s government. “In the 1990’s, Russia experienced the total collapse of democracy…but it is almost banned to reflect upon.” She is looking at her hands now. She speaks using her hands, her gestures becoming more animated, more strident as she continues. “After the Second World War, Germany had a time of reflection and identification about the horrors of Nazi Germany. We…did not.” She becomes more impassioned, almost imploring us to understand what she perceives to be the full gravity of the situation in Russia. “Two years ago, 38% of people thought Stalin was the greatest leader in Russian history. Now, it is more than 60%.”

A pang of sadness mixes with her defiant expression as she explains exactly why, to her, this is bad. “More than half of Russians think that Stalin, the man who killed millions of people, who crushed my culture, who shot all of my favorite poets, who signed the death penalties of film makers, theatre directors…and millions of ordinary people, was ‘the greatest leader’.” She sounds like what she is, a woman defiant in the face of the Russian government, but she also seems to be a woman who knows that she probably will not win in her fight. Aside from a concise overview of why, to Mariya, Russia is as it is, Mariya also goes on to explain why protesting, not only in Russia, but the world over, is so vital. 

Photo by Fredrik Fahlman 

The russian feminist punk group are known for their bold protests. Their global prominence and presence peaked when they had an unauthorised public performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012. Pussy Riot performed a punk prayer, expressing their disliking towards President Vladmir Putin while advocating for feminism and LGBT rights, screaming on the top of their lungs, “Mother Marry, please be a feminist”. The sound of the electric guitar amplifies the echo of song which blasts in the great cathedral, “the guitar is a non-orthodox instrument, but we symbolize the gateway to heaven”. Mariya describes the thrill and adrenaline of walking into the church, knowing their futures were at stake for the actions they were about to commit. She conveys, 

The perspective continues by asking if she thinks that protests for democracy have to be bold, like her own have been. “No, I do not think so. A protest can be any honest gesture which comes from your heart and soul. Whether you are writing an article, taking physical action or simply having a truthful discussion with someone you do not agree with, it is a form of intervention or protest. All of these small steps are vital as they lead to something larger. A revolution is a change within each single person. People take millions of small steps everyday in order to make a change. In contemporary Russia, we are having a iscussion on the lack of human rights and safety for individuals which may be subject to domestic violence. Russia is the only country in Europe which does not have a law against domestic violence.”

Then she is asked if she can elaborate on the subject of human rights and domestic violence in Russia. Mariya nervously chuckles, she sounds uncomfortable as she begins to describe,  “In February 2017, a group of activists forced the Russian state to discuss the law on domestic violence. A longstanding domestic violence crisis unleashed when the law downgraded domestic violence from a criminal offence to a misdemeanour for first time offenders. The law has excluded domestic violence from the criminal code so that it was not punishable anymore. For example, if I were on the street and I were to beat you, I would go to prison for between one or two years. If you were my wife, then I would only be given a fine of 70 euros. Now all these brave and outstanding individuals are pushing the state to discuss the law. What we are seeing is a massive attack of the traditionalists, some still believing in norms enforced from the 13th century. We have a frightening number of people who think believe that beating women and children is a part of Russian tradition or heritage. I think that is is vital for individuals to communicate with each other so we can come to a conclusion that the lack of a domestic violence legislation is, in itself, a breach of human rights. Law is not enough if we cannot fight for it and have a culture of dialogue between people who do not know each other.”

She describes the lack of dialogue between individuals and we continue by asking her if she sees a lack of communication outside of the Russian context.

“I think there exists a lack of dialogue in Sweden as well as many other countries in Europe. This was accentuated during the migration crisis and I do not understand why so many European politicians kept silent about this issue, as if they were afraid to talk about ongoing events. I am assuming silence stems from their egoism or fear, because emplacing quotas is not enough. For example, here in Sweden, migrants are living in ghettos while being completely left out of assimilation. This is not right. How an individual integrate if they cannot have a dialogue with neighbors who live in the same city? Then right wing extremists will come and say, “Look at them! They are taking your jobs and raping your women”, along with all the other populist shit, which if you look at statistics, is clearly wrong. So if we ask, why do we have a rise of populism and extremism? Well, because the current politicians do not put enough energy or time into creating a dialogue between people. Humanity is the most important thing we have, so how can we, in the right mind, expect people to stand on the same ground and have the same values if they don’t even know each other?.”

For years, as global politics – most notably in Europe and America – has become increasingly divided and bitter, Mariya has given the same pearl of wisdom again and again. “If Europe will not be united, if it will be seperated, it will be very good for people like Vladimir Putin.” Time and political events appear to have given some credence to her words. She gives us a strong example in the form of the Catalan independence referendum. 

Spain’s highest court recently sentenced several high-profile Catalan politicians to many years in prison for organising the region’s independence referendum against the wishes of the central government in Madrid. These sentences, combined with the images of the violent crackdown in Catalonia during the referendum, have surprised the world – and tainted Spain’s international image. 

Mariya comments on the matter: “I do not think it is fair to put people like these Spanish guys in prison because they organised a referendum. It is horrible.” She takes a sip of her coffee and thinks for a moment. Perhaps this brings memories of her own imprisonment to Mariya, as her face hardens, her tone becomes more ardent as she speaks about the Catalan prisoners.  

But Mariya is adamant that there are lessons to be learned for non-Russians from the events in Catalonia. 

She speaks again and her hands talk with her. “The jailing of those Catalan politicians is not about free speech at all. The world is changing and we should understand that even those things we have now, it’s a result of the fight that the generations before us had… People died so that these issues were resolved. It is important to understand that all these freedoms, our human rights, they’re a result of the past.”

Photo by Fredrik Fahlman 

As soon as she finishes, Mariya’s face and her body language return to normal. An impassioned defence, a strong rallying cry, delivered time and again – it has become almost habitual to her. 

Then, in light of attacks on Russian dissidents abroad,  Mariya is asked if she fears for her, or the group’s, safety – both abroad and in Russia.

“One of our members, Pyotr Verzilov, was poisoned last year and almost died from this horrific incident. He had lost his sight and ability to speak – there is no doubt the poisoning was carried out on purpose. It was done so professionally that no other conclusion is possible.We were in complete shock. Luckily he survived after being flown to Berlin for emergency medical treatment. If we were afraid of our own safety, that would mean that the big guys have won. I do not think we should follow fear – don’t give them what they want. 

As the interview continues, it is asked if she is comfortable talking about her imprisonment. “Sorry, but I have to go get ready now. Stay for the concert because my experience in prison is expressed through the music.” As she is about to rush backstage, she is asked if she would like to have one last cigarette before the show. She heads behind Mejeriet as some photos of her are snapped whilst she smokes, “I’m sorry, I have to go now,’’ she says as she twists her cigarette butt under her heel, and then dashes back inside. The face behind the name is getting ready to perform to another crowd.

The spokesperson for Vladimir Putin and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were contacted in order to give a response to Mariya Alyokhina’s statements made in this article, but there was no response. 

Nicole Skoglund & Luke Sandford