> Interview: Pussy Riot – Riot Days Live – Ukraine, Russian Propaganda, and Being Useful - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Interview: Pussy Riot – Riot Days Live – Ukraine, Russian Propaganda, and Being Useful

The Russian feminist art collective Pussy Riot came to prominence in 2011 when their Guerrila performances and outspoken criticism of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church led to three of their members being arrested and imprisoned.

Now exiled from Russia, they are performing Riot Days Live, a multi-media show based on the book by founder Maria ‘Masha’ Alyokhina as part of The Great Western Festival. Founders Diana Burkot, Olga Borisova and new member, flautist Taso Pletner spoke to me along with producer Alexander Cheparukhin from their studio in Austria.


It’s almost ten years since ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’. Do you think people are starting to take your message on board?

Alexander Cheparukhin: Yeah, I think more people understand that Pussy Riot were right. Some people thought that they were too extreme, but now they understand. Especially when now this alliance of the Russian Orthodox Church as an institution and Putin’s Kremlin, is strengthening and so the church becomes this kind of ideological thing.

So now people are shocked at how orthodox priests; they’re blessing tanks, they’re blessing soldiers and officers. They’re blessing any kind of weapon. But also there are some wild things that I’ve seen; some videos of orthodox priests who say that if we have to use nuclear weapons this is our fate. Nuclear weapons. You should be closer to the epicentre because if we die we will be saved. We will die as sainted people because we are fighting for truth, we’re fighting for God.

Nobody could imagine that the alliance of the Kremlin and Orthodox Church would go so far. But now it’s a really scary alliance when orthodox church of Russia has become absolutely quasi-, even anti-Christian organisation which has to legitimise dictatorship, legitimise aggression. 

Olga Borisova: Back then, before Masha (Alyokhina) and Nadya (Tolokonnikova) and Katya (Samutsevich), became known in the news it was a lot of different girls, so people didn’t know who they are. So, since the beginning, Pussy Riot was many different participants. And because of this criminal case, Masha, Nadya and Katya became known only because of the fact that people had seen their faces for the first time.

But in the beginning, there were a lot of participants and they were always performing in balaclavas. So people didn’t know these people, obviously. Pussy Riot is a political art collective and we have many participants. If you’re talking about Riot Days in particular it’s: Masha, Me, Diana Burkott, and Taso Pletner. Basically, Riot Days is a combination between documentary theatre, concert and visuals. 

Taso Pletner: I had seen Pussy Riot as the only loud and impressive voice of feminism. And, that’s why I admired it. I had these girls as the only true, strong feminist voice, and they were like icons for me. When I got an opportunity to join Pussy Riot, of course I had to use this opportunity.

“I had seen Pussy Riot as the only loud and impressive voice of feminism.“

You’re coming to Glasgow to perform Riot Days Live, which I believe is an update of the show you brought to Summerhall in 2019?

Alexander: Yeah, the girls wrote the song about Ukraine, after the start of Putin’s actions. And I finished the show with this song. Masha, she spent almost one and a half years in different kinds of arrests, like jail, house arrest, jail, house arrest, yeah. So she then broke through the borders. She tried three times since the beginning of May. We started tours all the time since the beginning of May, and it’s a tricky situation because she didn’t even have the proper passport. So it was a really kind of adventurous breakthrough. We’ve been almost all over Europe and now, it’s our second leg of the tour.

THROUGH CULTURE IT’S POSSIBLE TO TALK TO PEOPLE AND TO CHANGE THEIR VISION OF THE WORLD AND THEIR ATTITUDE.”

When Ukraine was invaded, a lot of people in the west started to boycott Russian art. 

Diana: It’s very strange to blame culture in whatever happens, just the opposite. Through culture it’s possible to talk to people and to change their vision of the world and their attitude. Art might be a very powerful tool in creating peace and changing people’s minds. But now this kind of art in Russia is almost not possible because, for the last several years, censorship has become incredible. People who do something independently, they face severe punishments. And, that’s why the opportunities for artists in Russia are very small and narrow right now.

But at the same time, I’m proud of whatever I am doing as a Pussy Riot member, as our team’s musical leader; that we deliver our message and through this, we not only influence Western people but we influenced a lot of Russian people who, unfortunately, had to leave our country. Of course, we wanted to do this in Russia as well, but we succeeded only twice and only in Moscow.

Alexander: Now the focus of internal Russian propaganda is not about bad Ukraine, it’s 100% about the bad west, which always wanted to annihilate Russia. So Ukraine is portrayed by Putin and his propaganda as poor naive Russian people who were brainwashed by the west. They show it as a kind of sacred  war against the Satanist civilization of the west. And it’s the first time ever in my life they really kind of exploited this image and this propaganda that this is like the sacred power of God.

Russia is fighting against the Satanist power of the west. Liberating part of Russian people who are Ukrainians from this Satanist invasion. If you ask Russian people who are for war, you hardly can find somebody who would say something bad about Ukrainians. They would tell you that they are Russians who are kind of occupied by the west, and that’s why we have to establish proper order and to strengthen our country and to fight for survival of our country. People really believe that Russia is under threat of western occupation and western influence.

What keeps you going when it is so hard and the punishments you’ve already faced are so severe? 

Alexander: First of all, we worked on this project for a very long time. I was an artistic director of Russian festivals, including some festivals that I founded myself and I was the director of WOMAD Russia. So I lost a lot of opportunities in Russia. But I had decided at this time that I was the one who could organise such an active campaign of support. So my personal contribution was that I kind of co-created all this wave of support.

So then we’ve done this project together with Marsha, our joint creative project –  she wrote a text and she’s one of the most recognizable faces of Pussy Riot. So we cannot surrender, because this is our life. I was a producer of very big events, but now I only do this project, and it’s much harder than doing ten festivals a year.

“ So we cannot surrender, because this is our life.”

I’ve done 10-15 festivals a year as an artistic director but it was much easier because we had budgets; we had organisations, institutions, whatever. Now we are just like a collective of people spread all over; not only Europe, some people live in Georgia, some in Iceland, some in ex-Yugoslavia, some in Germany.

And also, the message is very important. To free Russia, to get rid of the criminal and dictatorship Putin regime. Now it’s added by a very strong, passionate message of stopping this criminal war and supporting Ukraine.

We are supporting a Ukrainian hospital in Kiev. It’s the best medical institution. It’s a children’s hospital. So we send them a very big amount, a very big part of, income. Actually, half of our merchandise income we send to this hospital.

Diana: I feel responsibility for whatever Russia is doing. I don’t feel, like, guilt because I’ve  done everything I could, but responsibility. Even from a personal psychological point of view, it’s much easier to do whatever I do now because instead of passively absorbing all this terrible news we’re trying to do something to influence people around us.

And actually we influence thousands of people who are visiting our shows and get our messages. And it’s much easier to live like this because I feel like I’m doing something proper and something useful. And the fear, it’s in the background, it’s not the main feeling. The main feeling is understanding that I am doing something which I have to do.

“the fear, it’s in the background, it’s not the main feeling. The main feeling is understanding that I am doing something which I have to do.”

Taso: I feel that we are doing some really important work, and I feel not very comfortable, but confident. Artists cannot, be indifferent, cannot, avoid reaction to whatever happens. And, the artist should be in the context with the current moment. I feel that I am in the context now.

Olga Borisova: I think the main point here is that we got to the point that we no longer believe that fear should drive us. And, we just need to just continue to do what we can, and to help Ukraine is the least we can do. We do what we can. We have been touring for about eight months. It’s been eight months already.

So for now, this is our plan. Just continue to do what we do and talk about this war, to remind people around the world that the war is still going on. And, it’s not that far culturally. Not that far. Certainly not that far.

Pussy Riot will perform Riot Days Live as part of The Great Western Festival on 12th November

tgwfest.com

During this tour Pussy Riot are raising money for the children’s hospital, Ohmatdyt, Kyiv.

You can donate at: riotdays.com/#ukraine

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