One of the most famous punk groups in the world, Pussy Riot have made global headlines for their political activism in Russia. During their recent stop-off in Dublin, they took time out for an in-depth discussion on Repeal the Eighth, the oppressive aspects of Russian society, and the encouraging words they received from Sinead O’Connor.
It’s freezing in Dublin – and, it’s not just we who think so. When the Hot Press crew arrive at the Button Factory, Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina (Masha) is going for a cigarette, and complaining about the cold. For this to come from a Russian (arguably one of the toughest around, what’s more), is reassuring. We have not been exaggerating all day!
Despite the frosty situation outside, however, we’re given a much warmer welcome from Masha after she’s had her smoke. Earlier in the day, when she received our request to conduct an interview about Repeal the 8th, she had jumped at the chance. Ready and willing to learn everything we can tell her – and fellow Pussy Riot members Olga and Kyrill – about the campaign, she is at once both attentive and shocked. We spend two hours together, shooting the breeze.
The band’s interest in the issue is genuine. One of the most infamous activist groups currently in our stratosphere, they’ve been involved in consciously revolutionary actions, tackling political, feminist and humanitarian issues head-on through their music, since they first banded together in 2011. They’ve faced tremendous repercussions in Russia for their decision to stand up and be counted, being arrested and charged with hooliganism, and consequently sent to two years in prison – five months of which Masha herself spent in solitary confinement (“For her own protection,” the authorities claimed). Her book Riot Days, and the performance art piece they’re performing in the Button Factory, are both based around that experience.
We sat down to ask her about her views on the situation in Ireland, how she keeps her strength, and where she gets inspiration from.
Claire O’Gorman: Were you aware of the situation surrounding the 8th amendment before you came to Ireland?
Masha: Not hugely. That’s why I wanted to meet you. This is my first time in a country where abortions are illegal and it’s very important, firstly, to understand why it’s like this. Every person should have a choice. I don’t know how the majority will vote, but from my understanding, women going to the UK for abortions is very common. This should be openly discussed. It’s how civil society works and moves forward. Traditionalists shouldn’t be afraid to speak to those with another opinion. A woman can be imprisoned for 14 years for providing abortions – even if people haven’t been charged, this law exists. Fourteen years is like the middle ages.
What was your experience in relation to women’s reproductive rights, growing up in Russia?
I was born in the Soviet Union. My parents and grandparents were living in a country where Stalin created the entire abortion law. It was a big so-called moral shame – unmarried women who got pregnant. Or were teenagers, or were raped – or whatever the case may have been. There are several books about women dying from illegal abortions in the Soviet Union; it was like torture. No anaesthesia, nothing. Hands and knives. And even now in the 21st century, we have regions like Chechnya where it’s almost the same.
Why is it different there?
Because, first of all, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kedyrov, is a pure terrorist who created the political situation where women have almost no rights at all. They can be beaten with stones for getting a divorce or leaving their husbands. We as a community, and I as an artist, should know these cases and be open about them. We did a show with Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) called Burning Doors, which was about artistic resistance. I saw Claire from BFT’s Repeal shirt and asked about it. Firstly, I was really surprised. But secondly, I gave myself my word that when I came here, I would know more about it.
We now face either removing the amendment completely, or replacing it. One possibility is legalising abortion in the case of rape. It can be almost scientifically impossible to prove rape. What’s your reaction to that?
It’s totally wrong. Abortion is a woman’s right. How can she prove she was raped? You would need to go immediately to the doctor within 24 hours and have an analysis of the sperm inside you. Not all women will do this, for moral reasons, or the shock. This is so obvious.
Russia has an elective abortion process within 12 weeks. Is this the only thing that makes sense for us, if rape can’t be proven?
For me, it’s very complicated to compare Ireland with Russia. There are a lot of laws in Russia that exist but don’t work. Almost all of them – it’s a mafia state. Totally corrupt. Even talking about democracy, we’ve had President Putin for 17 years. Seventeen. And he used to work in the KGB – the most terrible organisation since the Nazis probably. Officially, yes, we have this. In reality? The majority of women who have an abortion, 90% go to private clinics. Not all women can afford a private clinic.
Olga: I don’t know anybody who had an abortion in a government clinic. Friends, friends of friends. We have such a bad medical system. It’s almost dangerous for your health. In Russia we have a similar situation to Ireland regarding reactions to abortions in society. A doctor might tell you, “It’s a sin – and it’s your sin now!” It’s not about laws, not about government. It’s about people who think it’s a sin. A doctor who every day carries out abortions, they think it’s a sin.
Masha: It’s very common for people to judge and shame women for abortions. There are a lot of stereotypes. Even if a woman is raped, she’s the guilty one.
Olga: It’s her short skirt.
Masha: There are examples of Russian Orthodox Church leaders and media personalities saying if a woman was raped, it’s her fault, because she was wearing a short skirt or whatever. This isn’t anonymous people from the internet! It’s proper media personnel with money, reputation. They’re killing our country by providing hatred. Provoking people who don’t have access to information. There’s a huge amount of domestic violence and rape.
You got an insight into this when you were in prison.
I met a lot of women in there for domestic violence crimes. It’s common in Russia where they have one house, he beats her and beats her, and she cannot do anything. By law she can call the police, they’ll take him for a night, and then next morning he comes back and beats her again. There’s no solution. In the end one of them, her say, will just kill him. This makes up maybe one-third of the prison population. There’s a lot of stereotypes being discussed openly on media. All of the media belongs to friends of Putin, and they provide only the information that the administration has told them to.
Olga: Abortion is legal in Russia, but there are so many factors. The opinion of society is, you’re a slut if you have an abortion. It’s shaming.
Masha: In Moscow and St. Petersburg, it’s a bit different. But in the rest of Russia, it’s a totally different situation. And not only media. Institutions! In school! There’s no sex education at all. If somebody tries to introduce it, they say it’s immoral.
Olga: “Why are you talking to our kids about sex?” – that kind of reaction.
Masha: We should have Orthodox lessons from tenth class!
So where do kids learn about sex from? Their parents?
The internet! No, their parents don’t talk, because it’s taboo to talk about sex in the Soviet Union. Sex doesn’t exist in the Soviet Union! As everybody knows! It’s seen as shameful to have sex education books at home, and do you think that everyone has the internet? Not true – totally not true!
Olga: Many young women, have broken lives because they can’t discuss it with their parents. It’s hard. It’s shame, shame, shame. They can’t talk about it. She could go to a private clinic and they’ll say, “It’s your sin now.” We don’t have an institution providing social help.
Do you know women who’ve had abortions?
Masha: I’m not the best example – I was born in Moscow to a family of mathematicians. But I have seen examples of my friend’s lives, and it’s not how it should work. This shaming isn’t just about abortions. Its about so-called ‘morality’, which the government is trying to provide. But it’s not connected with ethics and morality at all. One of the main speakers seeking to ban abortion in Russia – he’s collected thousands of signatures – is Patriarch Kirill, an official who has a villa, several yachts, expensive cars, a tobacco business. Who doesn’t think about money at all. And he’s making statements about morality.
As if he is an expert!
He knows nothing about the situation of 17-year-old girls and students coming to Moscow from different cities. Women who were raped. He’s taking the right to judge people. It’s ethics upside down. Total hypocrisy. This isn’t just one example, this is how they do politics in general. He’s organised it all – made a statement that abortions in Russia should be banned. He organised an initiative that brought maybe 1,000,000 signatures.
In Brazil there’s a movement to ban abortion. Is this a possibility in Russia as well?
In Russia? I don’t believe so. Not possible. It’d be the same situation, but people will die. Women will have abortions anyway. Olga is very against this…
Olga: My cunt is my business. Do not go into my body.
Masha: Simona Weil used to be the health minister in France. She legalised abortion there. She died this year and was buried in The Pantheon. The most religious building! So, I don’t think it’s about religion. It’s much more cynical. It’s just a lobby of pro-life movements from the state who don’t give a fuck about the current situation. They just want a ‘nice’ example of a society where abortions are banned and everybody is happy.
I find personal stories very important – the stories behind the facts, figures and legal terms. Unfortunately, we don’t hear them a lot. Is this because people are afraid?
The majority, yes. We’re doing what we’re doing to show the alternative. I’m an optimist, and I’m really happy when I hear one Yes, even if there are 99 Nos. Self-censorship in any way is the road to nowhere. It doesn’t make any movement or progress – it’s just being stuck in a hole.
You’ve faced a backlash and been to prison too. How did you get through that and remain strong?
You do it step-by-step. It’s a simple choice: you either do it or you stand aside. I prefer to do it, because if you overcome your fear – or overcome yourself – you will grow. It’s the only way to grow.
How has the political pressure in Russia affected you?
I was always kind of a troublemaker. I changed school five times, started hitch-hiking at 17, had a child at 18. So after that, myself and other activists created an ecological movement and started doing actions as Pussy Riot. Then court, prison, and so on. So for me it’s interesting! It’s really hard seeing how afraid people are, and how they censor themselves. What’s the end result in a country where the majority are living like that? We made the first step a long time ago, and the second is to understand what you can do. How can you raise your voice to show that this isn’t the only way? That’s what we’re doing.
Since you announced yourselves as Pussy Riot, what was the reaction like in Russia?
There were a lot of jokes, but we’re about jokes. We’re not serious politicians in suits! There was a lot of surprise, even amongst people with opposing political views, that something like this was happening. But since then, we made a lot of progress. When I was sent to the penal colony, I started a case against the guards, and especially when we won, that was a real surprise. Not only for the prison administration, but for everyone. There were some thoughts… Well, not thoughts, but propaganda presenting us as a band of stupid girls. Hooligans who don’t know what they’re doing.
What was your response?
When you see situations like that, you really see how important it is for us to stand up for ourselves, for issues we believe in. Then situations start to change. I’ve seen several examples, even inside penal colonies, when girls who were there for crimes totally unconnected with politics – drug crimes, say – started supporting me after talking to me for a month or two. They started going to the human rights commissions, and started to speak about their rights. And about their friends’ situations and the system. That’s not easy. If you decide to speak, you’ll serve your term to the end. They’ll put you in solitary confinement, and refuse all telephone calls with your children and relatives. But I’ve heard from the girls that it’s really important to them to say true. We’re still friends with some of them. Several of them became my really, really close friends.
Were you surprised that Pussy Riot became a global phenomenon?
I don’t know. I’m just doing what I can in each moment I can. I don’t reflect on the difference it can make globally – I don’t think it’s possible to count. It’s not right to count. It’s not about how big the movement is, how many people are involved. It’s about the change you can make in each moment.
The band name could be seen as controversial. Have any feminists taken issue with it?
Oh yeah, there were a lot of them – well not a lot, but there were some critics from serious feminist movements…
You just don’t listen to them?
I think it’s funny actually!
As feminists, who are your inspirations?
Books changed my life a lot. Cinema too. And a lot of people I’ve met. Art had a big impact on me when I visited an exhibition of Marina Abramovi. She’s an Eastern European artist who reflected on the war and the situation there. Borat from the cinema! Musically? I like Jesus Christ Superstar! I love classical music! Rachmaninoff’s second concert is a good example. I decided to write a book because when I had difficult situations, books were my really big supports and inspirations. Not only dissident literature or memoirs of activists… I loved Fight Club as a teenager!
Anyone else among activists?
I should name Tobi Vail – she was the drummer of Bikini Kill. She’s amazing, as an activist and a person. She’s from Olympia, Washington. She should write a book about their anti-war activism in the US. Bikini Kill was an inspiration for Pussy Riot in 2012. Then there’s a Czech activist group, Ztohoven. They did a lot of things. Changed television programmes, for example, and in 2015 went to the top of the castle, the highly secured main parliament building in the Czech Republic, and changed the flag to red underwear! The president of the Czech Republic is a total asshole – Milo Zeman. One of Putin’s closest friends. That was nice work. These examples are everywhere. You just have to keep your eyes open.
Will Pussy Riot ever release anything less political?
Well, Pussy Riot isn’t a musical band, it’s a political arts collective. We’re doing different things. Actions. Music. Political theatre, like we’re touring at the minute. Prison reform and human rights defence, which I really focused on. The last action we made (was) for Ukranian filmmaker, Oleg Sentsov, who got 20 years in prison, and is now in east Siberia. We shut down Trump Tower for half-an-hour. There are a lot of forms of political art that we haven’t checked yet, but we will in the future.
Tell us about your book and your performance piece around it.
Riot Days is my book and we made it on stage as a manifesto for our team. It’s not ‘theatre’ theatre, it’s like a Brecht theatre. It’s a manifesto. But maybe it’s better to talk about it after you’ve seen it.
You’ve had a lot of support here from U2 and Sinéad O’Connor, who you’ve met. Were you aware of Sinead beforehand?
Sinead’s great, we met her in 2014, she’s really cool. I knew her name but hadn’t listened to her a lot. But she’s really great.
What was meeting her like?
She said very warm, important words. That we should continue what we’re doing. It’s really important to hear words like that just after prison. When we started MediaZona, an independent media outlet covering violation, freedom and human rights in Russia, almost nobody believed that we would receive any result. But in three years it’s become one of the most popular media sites on the Russian internet. Our journalist won journalist of the year. So, I think it’s a very good example of solidarity.
Abortion isn’t the only issue in Russia – what’s it like for the LGBT community?
It’s terrible. You can be killed if you’re gay. The media provide hatred. Separating people to ‘ours’ and ‘aliens’. One of the latest examples is gay prisons in Chechnya. They existed for a long time. They imprisoned gays and tortured people. There was a big campaign to export gay people to save their lives. There was just one organisation in Russia, called Children-404, which provided social and psychological help for LGBT teenagers. They almost opened a criminal case against them. They were just stopping suicides, the number of which is incredibly high.
Have you any hopes for the future?
Even in the situations where there was no chance of hope, I somehow found it. It will be like this in the future as well. If you speak truth and believe in what you’re doing, they can’t stop you. We should support each other. Do everything we can. Speak out.
What do you have to say to the people of Ireland for the referendum next year?
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