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Maria Alyokhina – Pussy Riot: Riot Days

Maria Alyokhina was detained by Russian police the day she was supposed to talk to the Herald. As one of the three members of Pussy Riot who were imprisoned for hooliganism in 2012 after performing an anti-government action in Moscow’s Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Alyokhina is used to such adverse attention.

Alyokhina was supposed to be talking about Riot Days, the punk theatre performance piece drawn from her book of the same name. Part memoir of A Punk Prayer, the 40-second Moscow performance that resulted in a trial and incarceration, part part call-to-arms, Riot Days is currently touring the world. With Alyokhina at the show’s centre, three other performers, including members of underground Russian band, Asian Women on the Telephone, help thrash out a sense-assaulting mash-up of sound and vision.

Next month, Alyokhina, Pussy Riot and Riot Days arrive in Edinburgh for a ten-night run prior to a short UK tour. This comes following a thrilling show at Glasgow School of Art last November. Performed in furious Russian with a projected barrage of English surtitles, those of us lucky enough to be there witnessed something incendiary.

Last Tuesday, Alyokhina was in Moscow when she was detained for evading 100 hours of court-ordered community service after releasing boxes of paper aeroplanes outside the headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service in April. This followed a separate 40-hour sentence for visiting the FSB’s office on the centennial of the Soviet secret police with a sign that read ‘Happy birthday, executioners.’

When we eventually catch up, it’s Saturday morning, and thousands of people are on the streets in Edinburgh and are about to march in protest against Donald Trump, who two days later would be meeting Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. This would be the day after the World Cup final was held in Moscow. For the moment, however, Alyokhina is crammed into a car, speeding across Germany with the rest of the Pussy Riot collective behind Riot Days. Yesterday it was Poland, tomorrow, somewhere else.

“It’s a collective work,” says Alyokhina of Riot Days. “It’s not only about me. All of us who are on the stage are part of the story It’s also about Russia in all its difficult circumstances. We wanted to do the play for the same reason I wanted to write the book, to tell the story of what happened, and so people can see what is going on in our country.”

In their brightly coloured tights and balaclavas, Pussy Riot became icons of a non-religious kind. Here, at last, was a new set of totems for revolution. Within days of Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich being sentenced in August 2012 to two years’ imprisonment, after images of the trial captured the world, others had been inspired to take action.

In the same room that Riot Days will be seen in Summerhall, a late-night guerrilla performance by Glasgow-based writer and theatre-maker Julia Taudevin and others saw Taudevin and co don their own home-made balaclavas to read out excerpts from Pussy Riot’s speeches at the trial. When I mention this, Alyokhina expresses a desire to meet Taudevin.

In this sense, the long-term effect of Pussy Riot’s actions has been a galvanising one, and the slogan ‘Everyone Can Be Pussy Riot’ has inspired a global community founded on opposition.

“For me it’s interesting,” says Alyokhina, laughing as she says it, ‘because in Russia, since our action, things have become worse in terms of state level political repression. What happened after we were sentenced following A Punk Prayer, people started to support us, and in Russia if anyone supported Pussy Riot they could be beaten and arrested.

“A lot of people have left the country. Either they go to prison or they leave. But for me now, it’s not right to escape. That’s not my choice, and what we are sharing with Pussy Riot and with Riot Days is that our country shouldn’t be occupied only by this group of assholes, but by us also.”

With this attitude, more arrests like the one Alyokhina faced last Tuesday are inevitable.

“If you make the choice we have, arrests happen,” she says. “The solutions to that are unpredictable, but it’s still our country, and we have the right to make that choice.”

As she talks, Alyokhina intermittently breaks off to respond to those around her in Russian. Everything is collective, and everyone wants their say. It must be exhausting, but it’s the only way. Such an ethos also means that that different members of the collective can perform different actions. This was made clear during the UK leg of the Riot Days tour last autumn when, separate to Riot Days, Tolokonnikova took part in another show, Inside Pussy Riot, with British theatre company Les Enfants Terribles at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

The reach of Pussy Riot was made even clearer last Sunday, when the group claimed responsibility for the pitch invasion by four members of Pussy Riot hat briefly held up the World Cup final. The protesters were dressed in the black-and-white of police uniforms, and, in a statement, Pussy Riot called the performance Policeman enters the Game. The piece was inspired by the late Russian poet, Dimitry Prigov, and called for the release of all political prisoners in Russia. The four were held in a police station overnight, and, at time of writing, one of them, Veronica Nikulshina, has been sentenced to fifteen days in a special prison and has been banned from sporting events. Sentences for the other three pitch invaders will follow.

“A lot of people think Pussy Riot is a group like it was in 2012,” says Alyokhina somewhat presciently, “but it’s not. It’s a big collective, and we all meet each other and do things in different circumstances.”

Another of these strands is MediaZona, an independent news website founded by Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova in 2013 following their release from prison. With Tolokonnikova instrumental in the site, Alyokhina calls it “A very important project. I also believe that theatre, books, videos, actions, they can all make a change.”

Hence Free the Pussy!, an exhibition to accompany Riot Days at Summerhall that features work by the likes of Yoko Ono, Jamie Reid and Pussy Riot themselves.

With Pussy Riot at the vanguard of change, what then, does Alyokhina want Riot Days to achieve, and what does she think Pussy Riot has already accomplished?

“For me,” she says, “the best answer is when people come up to me after the performance, saying they want to make their own actions. If we’re talking about the action in Russia, I’m so happy that in the the last six years I’ve met so many smart, brave amazing girls and boys who decided to participate in Pussy Riot when they saw our work. For me, it’s a big honour that, after watching our actions and everything that came out of them, it changed their minds and changed their lives.”

Somewhere in Germany, the car has to stop awhile, and Alyokhina has to go. Soon she’ll be in motion again, speeding onwards towards the next destination, and the possibility of change.

Pussy Riot: Riot Days, Summerhall, Edinburgh, August 10-19, 7-10pm. Free The Pussy!, Summerhall, Edinburgh, August 2-September 23.  Maria Alyokhina appears with Yanis Varoufakis at Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 18, 1.30-2.30pm. Riot Days is published by Penguin Books.

The Herald, July 17th 2018


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