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Russia

Women from Pussy Riot use Russian prison experience as inspiration for art warning of political repression

Two members of the feminist punk group have turned their traumatic jail experience into ‘art therapy’ to bring attention to the abuse suffered by prisoners in their homeland

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 October, 2017, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 October, 2017, 1:01pm

One is dunked into a bath on a New York stage as she tries to recite a poem. Another appears in a video bathing in blood while reciting lyrics about prison and repression. Five years after members of the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot were jailed after an anti-Putin protest, the group are using their ordeals in prison as creative inspiration.

Maria Alyokhina, 29, is touring with the play Burning Doors that recreates her traumatic experience behind bars. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 27, is drawing on her prison experience to paint a bleak picture of the repression that she says America could experience soon.

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova hope their art will give voice to the millions of abused prisoners in Russia. Their creations were forged from a challenging past.

Two weeks before Russian President Vladimir Putin was re-elected in 2012, Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich dressed in balaclavas for a “punk prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, where they sang: “Mother of God, drive Putin away”. Their performance lasted only 40 seconds but the backlash was immediate. The trio were quickly tracked down and jailed.

Pussy Riot members Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina reunited after leaving prison

In October 2012, a Moscow court upheld their verdict, finding them guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. Putin insisted he had no part in the court ruling but welcomed it, blaming the Pussy Riot women for “undermining the basics norms of morality”.

When you see a person literally dying in front of you … it’s one of the things that is pushing me to act. It should not be like this.
Maria Alyokhina

Samutsevich, whose prison term was converted into a suspended sentence on appeal, has largely disappeared from public view. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, however, were sent to a remote prison where they made uniforms for up to 16 hours a day. They also began their campaigns from behind bars, writing petitions about the appalling conditions and going on hunger strikes to protest overcrowded cells and lack of basic supplies such as medicine and hot water.

At a theatre in New York’s East Village, Alyokhina bites her black nails and chain smokes as she recalls their ordeal. “I’m not just talking about it. I’m reliving it,” she says. “What we are showing is happening right now.”

The play, which tells the stories of three Russian artists imprisoned on political grounds, is produced by the Belarus Free Theatre, whose own members faced repression at home. It’s playing in New York, following shows in Australia and Europe.

In one of its most excruciating episodes, Alyokhina recounts – and others act out – her visits to a doctor who regularly performed vaginal inspections on prisoners. “A genuine sadist,” she says. Alyokhina has also written an autobiography, Riot Day, which was published last month in Britain in English.

Russian court bans ‘extremist’ Pussy Riot video

After they were jailed, the two Russian women became global celebrities. Their multicoloured balaclavas became an instantly recognisable brand and entertainment icons, including Paul McCartney and Madonna, campaigned for their release. Tolokonnikova, who dressed in a Russian Penitentiary Service uniform during our interview, describes the support they received as “a miracle”. “We saw that our performance, it wasn’t for nothing. We managed to get the message across somehow,” she says.

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were pardoned in December 2013 as the Kremlin tried to improve its image before hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. They performed at Britain’s Glastonbury music festival, shared the stage with Madonna at an Amnesty International concert and appeared in an episode of the Netflix TV series House of Cards.

Their performances in 2014 and 2015 helped raise funds for two projects they have founded – an advocacy group that provides legal help to Russian prisoners and a website that covers Russian courts and prisons.

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Tolokonnikova has shifted away from performing to focus on video art. In one of her recent videos, Organs, she bathes in a bathtub full of blood while reciting lyrics about prison and government oppression.

Another video portrays an American dystopia in which her character is imprisoned, tortured and eventually killed by the state. It features footage from US President’s Donald Trump’s speeches and rallies, along with her dressed as Trump.

In a stark contrast to Pussy Riot’s previous home-made videos, Tolokonnikova received help from top talent on the Trump video including Jonas Akerlund, who has directed videos for Beyoncé and Metallica. She says the Trump video was a form of “art therapy” for everyone involved.

Tolokonnikova has also raised funds for an immersive theatre production in London that recreates life in a brutal Russian prison, hopefully breaking “the wall that separates prison from free society”.

Both women are haunted by their gruelling prison experiences. “When you see a person literally dying in front of you … it’s one of the things that is pushing me to act. It should not be like this,” says Alyokhina, who is still living in Moscow.

They take pride in even incremental victories against the Russian state – when a prisoner with terminal cancer is released from jail or another’s family wins a court case against prison authorities.

“When we walked out of the prison, we thought we were these punks crippled by fate. But it turned out that we had the energy to build two organisations,” Tolokonnikova says. “You take one step, then another. But you cannot transform the entire prison system without profound political changes in society.”