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Interview With Pussy Riot: “Putin Is Just the Face of a Huge Machine”

VICE talks with Masha Alyokhina, five years after that first infamous performance.

by Maddison Connaughton
25 June 2017, 11:00pm

This originally appeared on VICE AU.

There's this moment in Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer, when Masha Alyokhina is being led from a Russian court in handcuffs by a guard. She's 23 years old and facing serious prison time over Pussy Riot's now-infamous guerilla performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

This was the performance that catapulted Pussy Riot to international fame, and made the group the new face of the anti-Putin movement. It also landed Masha and her bandmates, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, a two-year stint in a Russian hard labour camp.

But before all that—before Pussy Riot was sentenced, punished by their country, and venerated by the wider world—a younger Masha is there being led from court in cuffs, and she turns to the assembled crowd, and she smiles. It's this moment of perfect defiance.

Five years later, despite everything the band has been through, the consolidation of Putin's powers, the "Trump Russia thing"—the smile remains unchanged. And Masha is grinning at me down a very sketchy Skype connection from Hobart, where she was recovering from a big night at Dark Mofo.

So I start where most conversations begin, if not end, these days: Donald Trump. The Kremlin's hacking of the Clinton campaign, the constant talk of shady ties between Trump's associates and Russia. Masha sighs and takes a deep drag of her cigarette. "I think Trump is an example of what can happen if you do not vote, if you stay home," she begins. "If you decide everything will be there forever—like democracy. I think this right to chose, this freedom of choice, is very important thing for which you should fight everyday."

This brand of active opposition is what Pussy Riot has come to be known for. Since they were released from prison in December, 2013—the years covered in the new documentary Act and Punishment by the band's friend Evgeny Mitta—the group has become the most visible dissenters of "Putin's Russia" both abroad, and at home.

It hasn't come without repercussions—their bodies still carry scars from time in a hard labour camp, and their hunger strikes during imprisonment. In 2014, Masha and Nadya made headlines when they were attacked by cossacks at the Sochi Olympics—whipped and pepper sprayed just before a performance.

What got less coverage was the media outlet the pair started, MediaZona, covering issues of freedom in Russia. "Things like prison violence, police violence, and political courts," Masha explains. Quietly, in the background, MediaZona grew a loyal following. "It was very underground, small media as a beginning," she explains. "After two years it became one of the most quoted media in the whole Russian Internet sphere."

The site, Pussy Riot's public appearances, their music—it all pushes back against the conservative Russia that's thrived under Putin's tenure. The Russia of strict anti-gay laws, support for Bashar al-Assad, the annexing of Crimea. But Masha says calling Pussy Riot merely anti-Putin is oversimplifying things.


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"It's very important to say that Putin is just the face of a huge machine, which is running our country for almost a century. Putin is a product of FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) service. He is a KGB agent," Masha explains. "I think since Stalin, since the 30s, the Russian Federation has a very unique and terrible experience of destroying all the difference. And finding enemies inside the country. So this is like civil war, but an invisible one."

Masha speaks of the invisible resistance in all of this, of another Russia. The Russia she fights for. "It's the most interesting country in the world," she says of her homeland. "Putin's friends can own all the TV channels, but they cannot own all the eyes of the people, and people see what is going on… Now, on Russian streets [protesting], there are mostly teenagers. Like, girls and boys, 17, 18, 19 years old who are saying, 'We don't give a fuck who you are, we just do not agree with you.'"

This protest movement was catalysed earlier this year by the release of the documentary, He Is Not Dimon to You, which accuses Russian premier Dmitri Medvedev of embezzling $1.2 billion. It's estimated some 60,000 people took to the streets across Russia on March 26, frustrated by a lack of government response to the film. Hundreds were arrested, including the documentary's narrator and high profile Putin critic, Alexei Navalny.

"This is a great example of even if you put thousands of millions… I don't know, a lot of money to censor the country, you will not do it. Because people still want to know, and still want to be free. And they understand, they analyse," Masha says.

Pussy Riot perform in Red Square. Image supplied.

In May this year, the conviction of a popular Russian YouTuber Ruslan Sokolovsky on charges of "inciting religious hatred" sparked another wave of protest anger. "He was playing Pokémon Go in the church and his spent more than six months in jail [before trial]," Masha explains. "He got three and a half years probation for catching Pokémon, for like playing Pokémon Go in the church…

"If people from the government are so stupid to put young guy for play Pokémon Go in the church to prison, I mean what they are expecting? That people accept it? They will not."

"I think protest, any protest, any riot, it starts from your heart. When you feel that they violate something which is yours and you want to fight for yourself," Masha explains. "I mean, that's how I became a political activist. Just some arseholes… wanted to cut to forests that were, are, a very important for me. My son was born at this place and it's very unique forest."

After more than a year, she won that first fight. "That's how it started for me," she says. "If you have the fire inside for something, or for somebody which you love, you will see that this fire will come to the people who are around you. I think like that."

Just days before we spoke, young Russians had come out again across the country—some of the largest anti-corruption protests since 2012. According to Reuters, the crowds were met by "baton-wielding riot police" who arrested more than 1,000 people in Moscow and St Petersburg. Alexei Navalny was arrested again as he left his home and, in a midnight hearing, was sentenced to 30 days in prison for violating public meeting laws.

I ask Masha if, in the midst of all this violence, chaos, and frankly personal danger, she ever thinks about just leaving Russia for good. Moving somewhere else, far away from the turmoil. Maybe writing a country album. She smiles.

"Russia is totally unpredictable place, but I'm not going to leave my country, which I love. I'm going just to continue what I'm doing because I believe in it," she replies. "I think it doesn't matter how many of us exist, it matters that we are for the truth. That's why we, and I, will not stop."

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