Students and Ann Arborites lined East Liberty Street Thursday night to see two members from Pussy Riot, a Russian punk rock protest group that’s made international headlines since their 2011 inception.

Dressed in A-line skirts, tights and lace-up sneakers, Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria (Masha) Alyokhina did not look so different from their undergraduate audience — a few of whom wore the neon balaclavas that Pussy Riot members typically don.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were not there to play their own music, but rather to discuss their work, Russian culture and Zona Prava, their recently created prisoners’ rights non-governmental organization.

Pussy Riot has not released a single album. In fact, their punk rock songs consist mostly of yelling in Russian over instrumentals that are “badly recorded, based on simple riffs,” according to one Associated Press review.

They have seven songs and five videos, all targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and the poor state of women’s and LGBT rights in Russia. It’s their illegally held concerts — and their lyrics — that have caused their international fame.

Their most famous protest act, which took place in a reserved space within the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow — a symbol of the Orthodox Church’s resurgence in the post-Soviet era — in February 2012 caused waves in Russia and around the world as supporters and detractors rallied to the cause. The Russian government charged members of Pussy Riot with criminal hooliganism and handed down heavy sentences in what many saw as a politically charged trial.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina served just over a year in Russian jails before being released under a new amnesty law in late 2013. During their imprisonment, they received sympathy from individuals and institutions around the world, including Madonna, Paul McCartney, the German Parliament and Hillary Clinton.

“It touched all the wrong nerves of the Orthodox Church and of the ruling elite and offended lots of people in the general population as well,” Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History, said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.

Suny added that the women challenge Russia’s growing conservative element. With the fall of the Soviet Union, ideologies like Communism, Socialism and even Liberalism are unsavory or altogether non-existent in the political discourse. What’s replaced this, enhanced by Putin, is Russian nationalism.

Tolokonnikova had this same observation.

“Putin was really trying hard to create this mythology of this common Russian man from the Ural mountain who unconditionally believes in Putin and wants to chase critically thinking people out of the country,” Tolokonnikova said.

“This is what I call Putin’s war against his own people,” she added.

The two women came as part of the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. Sponsors included the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Michigan Radio, WUOM 91.7 FM and Arts @ Michigan. During the reading of this list, Tolokonnikova poked her green-and-brown-haired head from behind the curtains, evoking giggles and whoops from the audience.

Before the two women came on stage, a video played of Pussy Riot performing around Russia. The compilation showed reactions ranging from wizened church ladies wagging their finger to full-on police brutality; the women were horse-whipped by paramilitary Cossacks on patrol in Sochi during the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“I hate everything about what Putin stands for,” LSA junior Evan Vowell said at the talk. “But Pussy Riot represents the oppressed and the silent citizen in Russia.”

One clip showed Pussy Riot’s most infamous performance: “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.” In their typical get-up of sleeveless dresses, tights and balaclavas covering all but their eyes and mouths, Pussy Riot stormed two Moscow churches and sang in protest of Putin and the Orthodox Church.

“Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist, become a feminist, become a feminist,” they sang in mock-chorus. It elicited laughs from the Ann Arbor audience.

Less laughter came from the church and government. Prominent members of the Russian Orthodox Church demanded that the government punish their blasphemy. Nine days after the video was published, Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova and a third member of Pussy Riot made international headlines in March 2012 when two members were arrested.

Suny said protest is legal in Russia, but it can be trounced upon just like protests in the United States. More acceptable ways for Russian women to complain about the government, he said, are through writing newspaper columns, organizing political groups or petitioning the government.

“There are ways for women to get their voices heard,” Suny said. “Whether they are listened to — that’s another thing.”

“We have red lines beyond which starts the destruction of the moral foundations of our society,” Putin said in Oct. 2012. “If people cross this line they should be made responsible in line with the law.”

LSA senior Hannah Crisler said their actions against the Russian government were commendable.

“Because the Russian government and Putin have such power and control over their citizens, it’s so refreshing and honorable that Pussy Riot rebels against them,” Crisler said. “Even though at times they are extreme, which they are on purpose, they have created enough noise to be recognized around the world. They’re creating global awareness and push others to do something in order for change.”

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s entrance was received with loud applause and whoops. They were accompanied by Chrisstina Hamilton, the director of Visitors Programs at the School of Art & Design, who coordinates the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Lecture Series and led the discussion, and a Russian to English translator. The women spoke primarily in Russian, making a few statements in English.

The women’s wits survived the translation to English, and laughter was frequent.

“To be honest, the art from the conservative side can sometimes also be incredibly artistic and good,” Tolokonnikova said sarcastically. “For example, when I was in prison I was incredibly inspired by an action which took place in the Russian city of St. Petersberg, a slogan that read, ‘We are against oral sex.’”

Other effects of Russia’s conservative turn were less jovial. Alyokhina said many of her fellow female prisoners had suffered partner abuse. They responded to the abuse with violence, and then were imprisoned for assault.

“There are actually thousands of those women in Russian prisons,” Alyokhina said. “And it should be known that there is absolutely no domestic violence law in Russia.”

Indeed, much of their discussion revolved around their activism for prisoners’ rights. The women were imprisoned in a corrective labor colony, where prisoners are forced to work while serving their sentence. In a Sept. 2013 letter published by The Guardian, Tolokonnikova describes working up to 17 hours a day in a sewing shop for almost seven days a week.

Friday, the women will meet with two local prisoners’ rights activists: Lisa Greco, director of the Washtenaw County Children’s Services Department, and Heather Wilson, director of the Youth Arts Alliance. Both groups work to rehabilitate those in the juvenile justice system through creative arts.

“These kids are writing amazing poetry,” Greco said in an interview with the Daily. “They are articulating things that we have to understand as reality, like drugs and violence. We can really hear what they’re saying. We get to see what kids are really feeling, they’re writing it, they’re drawing it, they’re singing it.”

Zona Prava, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s prisoners’ rights group, embraces this idea of allowing typically silenced groups to express themselves. Their group promotes freedom of expression, along with legal aid for incarcerated Russians.

“I am just hoping to understand a bit more about the differences in the way that we are working on social justice in our respective communities and countries,” Greco said. “I am hoping to understand that in both directions.”

Zona Prava provides prisoners with legal consultation over the phone, investigates deaths in prisons and assists in filing suits against prison administrations on behalf of wronged inmates.

Alyokhina said having a lawyer was crucial to her sanity during her 21-month prison stay.

“No other people realize what it means to have a lawyer in prison,” Alyokhina said. “It is the thin thread that is your communication to the outside world. He brought me some newspapers and I read them. Then, I realized that the past few days, there had been this weird fog around me which had been nothing but people in green uniform. There was a big world of events out there. That was always a big surprise.”

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova said their prosecution highlighted the poor status of women in Russia and the shortcomings of what they see as a broken legal system. Feminism was considered a bad word to say in the church, and the fact that the young women are mothers was emphasized.

“We are bad because we do stuff like this,” Alyokhina said, “instead of sitting at home cooking soup.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.