Rise of the Riot: Pussy Riot’s Australian revolution

Russian punk phenomenon Pussy Riot has come to Adelaide. Having endured prison for the group’s protests back home, author and activist Maria ‘Masha’ Alyokhina tells The Adelaide Review that Australia is not immune from the issues facing Russia.

In their Fringe show Riot Days, Alyokhina and her comrades retell the story of their 2012 protests and aftermath in Russian, a personal and political polemic that is spoken, shouted and sung to an audience that can barely look away. Subtitles are projected on the wall behind them, but there’s little chance of their message being lost in translation.

“We were worried at first that we were doing it in Russian, that people probably won’t get it,” Alyokhina tells The Adelaide Review in a former student cafeteria turned makeshift media call. “But each concert we were so surprised that people receive our story, not as some story of faraway Russian repression or dissidence. They receive the message, which has been the message from the beginning: of riot, a wakeup call.”

For an Adelaide audience Riot Days is particularly arresting in the knowledge that these words and actions, performed over five nights in an air conditioned attic on a University campus, have seen Alyokhina and her comrades face jailtime, violent suppression and an ongoing, if ineffective, ban on leaving Russia. But comfort should not breed complacency, she says.

A supporter holds placards of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina (right) during their imprisonment (Photo: Shutterstock / elvisudio)
A supporter holds placards of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina (right) during their imprisonment (Photo: Shutterstock / elvisudio)

“What happened with us in Russia in 2012 can happen anywhere if people forget what they were fighting before,” she says of her arrest and imprisonment alongside fellow Pussy Riot members Nadezhda ‘Nadya’ Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich. “They will lose their freedoms. This can happen anywhere.

“I don’t think Russia is another world of course; we have a dictatorship and a worse political climate than Australia, but here is not ideal world [either],” she says. “It’s not my first time, I’ve spoken a lot with local activists and pirate radio stations about Christmas Island and so on – so I don’t think there’s no issue here to protest.”

There are indeed multiple Australian parallels to be found in Riot Days, which in recounting the group’s 2012 Cathedral of Christ the Saviour protest critiques the cosy relationship between Putin’s regime and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. Performed in the immediate aftermath of George Pell’s conviction, and the queue of former Prime Ministers and conservative commentators jostling to voice their support for the just-convicted paedophile, Alyokhina’s words highlighted the ways powerful, reactionary institutions all around the world look out for one another – often at the expense of victims and the public.

“In this country [Russia], in this context, the Patriarch promoting KGB officer is absurd, and in my opinion is anti-Christian,” she says, citing the bloodshed and repression faced by the church in the 20th century under Putin’s former employers. “But it’s the current situation. And it happened because Putin decided he is a kind of new Tsar, blessed by god to rule the country. To approve the concept he needed the church, and he used the church.”

Alyokhina in a quiet moment during her stay in Adelaide (Photo: Tony Kearney)

The other striking feature of Pussy Riot’s story is that while often described as a musical group, it soon becomes apparent that media itself might be group’s most powerful vehicle of punk expression. And savvy operators they are; the viral notoriety of Pussy Riot’s initial protests is built on the footage they themselves shot, spread via social media before the Russian State cottoned onto its potential in the 2016 US Election. In 2013 Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova launched their own media organisation Media Zona, documenting and disseminating what Alyokhina describes as “unique content from police stations, prisons and courts”.

“We were quite surprised and I’m really happy that we’re doing it,” she says. “In Russia we have almost all the state media strictly controlled by the administration of the President. That’s how social media became one of the main independent news resources.

“Media Zona is a media outlet which we started with Nadya and Pyotr [Verzilov] upon our release, it’s the only court journalism in Russia. In the beginning it was a small group of journalists, mostly people fired from other media because they wouldn’t cover Crimea in the way the State wanted. In three years it became one of the most important internet media in Russia, one of the most quoted.”

Read our full review of Pussy Riot: Riot Days here (Photo: Tony Kearney)

The scale and reach Pussy Riot has achieved is impressive, but as Ena Grozdanic wrote last week, some of Riot Days‘ most striking moments are in the minutiae of their revolution, from figuring out how to smuggle a guitar past security checkpoints to the weeks of preparation in members’ homes (“We all have flats and kitchens, it’s true,” Alyokhina laughs when I mention it). In this most Fringe-appropriate way, Pussy Riot offer a rousing call-to-arms: before being the imprisoned poster children of Russian dissent, they too were normal, arty young people.

“You don’t know how big your step will be, each thing was small before,” she says. “We didn’t expect all of that we didn’t expect any attention, stage, microphones, camera,” she says, peering over my shoulder at the exhausting-looking queue of other Adelaide media waiting behind me on a 40 degree afternoon.

“Just go and do it,” she says. “There are a lot of talks, but not so many people make the step from thought to action. This step, it is an evolution; revolution means upside down, a change.

“I believe in this kind of revolution that can happen inside any person.”

Pussy Riot: Live In Concert
Thursday, March 7
Maths Lawns, RCC Fringe
adelaidefringe.com.au

Header image:
Tony Kearney

Tony Kearney is an analogue photographer based in Port Adelaide. This medium format portrait of Maria Alyokhina is part of an ongoing series of artist portraits shot using a 55 year old Hasselblad camera and expired film. View the entire series here.

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