Two members of the Pussy Riot collective.

Pussy Riot’s message for NZ: ‘Freedom exists if you fight for it every day’

Tonight, Pussy Riot perform their show Riot Days as a part of Auckland Fringe. In the lead-up to the performance, Dina Jezdic talked to the collective’s Maria ‘Masha’ Alyokhina.

In 2012 Maria ‘Masha’ Alyokhina, member of the Pussy Riot activist collective, was sentenced to two years in prison and sent to a Russian penal colony. Today, Masha and Pussy Riot are world-famous, best known for their guerrilla performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a political anti-Putin protest.

Alyokhina lives under a travel ban and must be “illegally smuggled” out of Russia. She undertook the fraught border crossing this month to visit Australia and New Zealand, where Pussy Riot is presenting Riot Days – part musical theatre, part political thriller, based on her memoir of the same name.

Despite the challenges Alyokhina faces in travelling outside of Russia, she does not consider her freedom restricted. “I don’t want to call my freedom something that belongs to court or police.”

Instead of defining freedom – down a tinny phone line, in a language not her own – Masha defines not-freedom: “It’s not about Russia” she says, “it’s about everyone! It’s about what happens when people forget they have a choice!”

Extremely relevant to sleepy little, benign little, don’t-rock-the-boat New Zealand, then.

The Pussy Riot collective.

It is at this point in our conversation that I become aware that ‘riot’, as a concept, is the gateway to freedom and that autonomy comes with a price, depending on the context. In this case the context is institutional – where the everyday presence of structural violence leads to mass societal paralysis.

With rightist politics on the rise all over the world, activism is also fiercely dominating the ideological terrain – especially where personhoods, freedoms and sovereignty are being contested. If you’re wondering what it’s like to be a member of the world-famous collective Pussy Riot, the answer is stressful.

Alyokhina sounds tired over the phone; she has hardly slept and has only just received her travel visa to New Zealand. It’s hard not to think about what her journey across the border has been like, just a few hours ago, but I choose not to ask her about it. Listening to her voice I sense her vulnerability. I want her to feel comfortable, so I change the topic to her novel Riot Days.

The Pussy Riot collective in performance.

“It’s about solidarity. Riot Days is an art novel, a fairy tale and truth all at the same time. The book is about sharing a story – not only mine, but ours as Pussy Riot and ours as Russia. This is just one story. It’s not a big thing. Do your own story please. Do not follow their fucking rules.”

She seems to feel very strongly about why she’s visiting and what her message is. Her message to New Zealanders is not to be apathetic, as we often are. Instead of falling into our old laid-back clichés, we need to make it our duty to constantly remind ourselves of the effects of colonialism and the transitional journey of biculturalism we are currently undertaking.

Russia’s transition was a different story. When Pussy Riot staged their most famous political protest attacking Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral, the Russian Orthodox Church was only beginning its political agenda. During the turbulent 1990s, after the fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, unregulated capitalism was spreading along with the Russian identity void.

Democracy never arrived. Today that void is filled with a Russian Orthodox Church that seems unstoppable thanks to its close ties with Putin. Today over 25,000 Orthodox churches have been restored or newly built with the help of the state.

The Pussy Riot Collective in performance.

If Karl Marx is right and “religion is the opium of the people” they most certainly have their dealer on speed-dial in Russia. With the Orthodox Church shifting centre-stage and contributing to greater social and religious conservatism I ask Alyokhina if feminism and religion can coexist in modern-day Russia.

“Of course. Christianity is not about the institution. It’s about your own belief. It’s not about the Russian Orthodox oligarchy and the establishment. It belongs to the people.”

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we often discuss the historical significance of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the implication of this document in our daily lives and how we as a nation can be guided by its three principles: partnership, participation and protection.

I now see the principles through the lens of many different “freedoms”. As George Michael told us in the ‘90s: “Freedom: You’ve got to give for what you take”, but more importantly, as Alyokhina says, “Freedom exists if you fight for it every day.”

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Activism comes from within us and it is up to all of us individually to dismantle and critique that which is institutional and a threat to all our freedoms. It is our responsibility to be vigilant about what requires our attention and action. My chat with Alyokhina brought me a new perspective on what courage is. I sat alone for a long time after our conversation finished, processing what she said, reflecting on the relationships between art and political resistance, understanding performance and activism as an alternative language.

In New Zealand we are free to act, to do and say things in public without the fear of being incarcerated for our beliefs and opinions. We are lucky. Our tyranny of distance might be our best friend in this fast-paced, polarized, globalised world. But if we don’t take those state-given rights and exercise them, are we really free? Pussy Riot and Riot Days has so much to teach us. Go see the show and find out for yourself.

Pussy Riot: Riot Days plays as a part of Auckland Fringe tonight at Auckland Town Hall. You can book tickets here.

Riot Days also plays as part of the New Zealand Fringe on March 12. Book tickets here.


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