Women of Pussy Riot use prison experiences as inspiration
By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
Oct. 25, 2017
NEW YORK (AP) — One is dunked into a bathtub 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 they were convicted for an anti-Putin protest, members of the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot are using their ordeals in prison as creative inspiration.
Maria Alekhina, 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 in the near future.
Alekhina and Tolokonnikova recently spoke to The Associated Press about how they are turning their two years in a remote Russian prison into new artistic endeavors. Both 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 President Vladimir Putin was re-elected in 2012, Alekhina, Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich dressed in balaclavas for a "punk prayer" in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, where they sang: "Mother of God, drive Putin away." Their performance lasted only 40 seconds but the backlash was immediate: They were quickly tracked down and jailed.
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."
Samutsevich, whose prison term was converted into a suspended sentence on appeal, has largely disappeared from public view.
Alekhina and Tolokonnikova were sent to a remote prison where they sewed 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 basics such as medicine and hot water.
At a theater in New York's East Village, Alekhina bit her black nails and chain-smoked as she recalled their ordeal.
"I'm not just talking about it. I'm reliving it," she said. "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, Alekhina recounts — and others act out — her visits to a doctor who regularly performed vaginal inspections on prisoners — "a genuine sadist," she said.
Alekhina has also written an autobiography, "Riot Day," which was published last month in Britain in English.
After they were jailed, the two Russian women became global celebrities. Their multi-colored balaclavas became an instantly recognizable brand and entertainment icons including Paul McCartney and Madonna campaigned for their release.
Tolokonnikova, dressed in a Russian Penitentiary Service uniform during the AP interview, describes that support as "a miracle."
"We saw that our performance, it wasn't for nothing. We managed to get the message across somehow," she said.
Tolokonnikova has fond memories of an anonymous band that played outside the courthouse during their trial, often drowning out the judge. But there were also ultra-nationalist Orthodox Christian activists who rallied, demanding the women's incarceration.
In a twist of fate, Alekhina is now dating one of them, Dmitry Tsorionov, who has since been kicked out of the Orthodox group.
"I met that person and I wanted to understand why there was a movement to jail us," Alekhina said.
The couple recently went to the Russian Justice Ministry in Moscow to read Bible excerpts to protest a law restricting missionary work.
Alekhina 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.
Tolokonnikova has shifted away from performing to focus on video art. She spends a lot of time abroad these days, her big pink suitcase livening up a monochrome studio in Moscow. The day after the AP interview she was leaving for a literary festival in Mexico.
In one of her recent videos, "Organs," she bathes in a bathtub full of blood while reciting lyrics about prison and repression.
Another video portrays an American dystopia in which her character is imprisoned, tortured and eventually killed by the state. It features footage from U.S. President's Donald Trump's speeches and rallies, along with her dressed as Trump.
In a stark contrast to Pussy Riot's previous homemade videos, Tolokonnikova has gotten help from top talent — including Jonas Akerlund, who has directed videos for Beyonce and Metallica. She says the Trump video was a form of "art therapy" for everyone involved.
Tolokonnikova has also raised funds for an immersive theater 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 grueling 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," said Alekhina, 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 organizations," Tolokonnikova said. "You take one step, then another. But you cannot transform the entire prison system without profound political changes in society."