Europe

Pussy Riot is not giving up on Russia

Maria Alyokhina from the punk group Pussy Riot was prosecuted, imprisoned and later released thanks to a government amnesty. She talks to DW about her work as an artist in the West and her problems in Russia.

Deutschland Festival Theater der Welt in Hamburg (DW/O.Kapustina)

"I would be happy if we could perform this in Russia," said Maria Alyokhina of "Burning Doors," a dramatization about the oppression of artistic freedom. Alyokhina is touring together with the Belarus Free Theatre ensemble, and they are making an appearance in Hamburg, Germany. The theater company has been banned in Belarus and now works on productions in exile.

"The play is made up of three stories - one is mine, one is by Petr Pavlensky and the other one by Oleg Sentsov," said Alyokhina.

A Russian court sentenced Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov to 20 years in prison for terrorism. He comes from Crimea and was against Russia's annexation of the peninsula. Petr Pavlensky, an anti-Kremlin conceptual artist, was recognized as a political refugee in France. He had set fire to the entrance of the FSB security service headquarters. He is known for nailing his scrotum to Red Square and literally sewing his mouth shut in solidarity with Moscow's feminist and anti-government punk rock band Pussy Riot.

Bilder Nemtsova Interview (DW)

Maria Alyokhina has taken a stand against the oppression of artistic freedom

Protest against the church and Kremlin

Apart from Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina also works as an actress and human rights activist. Yet she only wants to be referred to as "Masha from Pussy Riot," she said in an interview with DW reporter Zhanna Nemtsova, the daughter of the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.

The band was founded in 2011. Dressed in brightly colored dresses, tights and balaclavas, they frequently caused a commotion with their spontaneous performances in public places. The 'punk prayer' at the altar of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2012 got international exposure.

Alyokhina stresses the fact that she was baptized. But she also says that the church in Russia has turned into something that has little to do with Christianity.

"The punk prayer, the whole performance in the Christ the Savior Cathedral was meant to draw attentional to that," she said. "The close ties between the church and the KGB go back to the Stalin era. To this day, this has left its mark."

The criticism of the church's relations with intelligence agencies did not go without consequences for band members Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich. In 2012, the three women were sentenced to two years in a prison colony for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." The verdict sparked international outcry. A few months later, Samutsevich was freed on probation and her sentence suspended. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released two months before the end of their sentence.

Moskau Pussy Riot Protest Erlöserkathedrale in Moskau (picture alliance / dpa)

Pussy Riot staged a 'punk prayer' inside a Moscow church in 2012

New book and stage show

Alyokhina has written about the punk prayer in her new book "Riot Days," in which she describes her arrest and her experiences with Russian authorities. The book will be published in the UK, the US, France and Germany in autumn.

"In Russia it can only be published as samizdat," Alyokhina said. Samizdat refers to the Soviet practice of producing and distributing censored or underground publications.

"We generally do things ourselves in Russia," she added. "When I heard that the book would be published, we turned it into a stage show. I would call it a living book. It is a cross between concert, musically spoken words and a drama. We simply called all of it Pussy Riot Theatre."

"In the West, particularly in the US, the stage show was very well received in today's political situation under Trump," said Alyokhina. Despite the substantial amount of text and the subtitles, the viewers understood everything. "They did not just say thank you; they discussed it with me," she added.

New York USA Pussy Riot Konzert von Amnesty International Maria Alyokhina Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for CBGB)

The members of Pussy Riot have appeared across Europe and the US since their release from prison

'The most interesting country in the world'

When Alyokhina returned to Russia, she tried to find a place to perform her stage show in Moscow.

"The first performance took place in Transformator, in the space used by the alternative theater company Teatr.Doc.," she said.

But afterward, the independent theater company was banned from the premises.

"The second performance took place at Art4.ru, our friend Igor Markin's gallery," said Alyokhina. Markin is a Russian businessman and art collector.

Nonetheless, fewer people came to the show than in the US.

"If you back Pussy Riot in the West, everywhere in Europe, then it's cool," she said. "If you support Pussy Riot in Russia, you get a fist in your face. The people who support us in Russia take different risks. Yes, there are few people, but they are very close to me and they are very important to me."

Nonetheless - or perhaps for this reason - Alyokhina finds it important to be active in Russia.

"Russia is the most interesting country in the world," she said, "because Russia is unpredictable."

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