English PEN meets Pussy Riot

This week, members of the Russian protest group Pussy Riot made a visit to London to meet some of their many supporters. Shortly before their arrival, English PEN was invited to arrange an opportunity for them to meet with PEN staff, members of our Writers at Risk Committee, and key supporters from our award-winning Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot project.

We were also asked to arrange a press conference with select members of the UK press. Read about their visit in Index on Censorship, New Statesman, the Guardian, and the Telegraph.

Both meetings were held under strict conditions in order to preserve the individual anonymity of the group members. As well as being a key principle for Pussy Riot – the belief that everyone is equal is fundamental to their ideology – this was also a security measure to mitigate any fallout for them when they return to Russia.

 

Here are the transcripts from our meetings with  Pussy Riot members ‘Serafima’ and ‘Schumacher’.

From Pussy Riot’s meeting with English PEN and key supporters, June 2013

Q: What is the purpose of your visit?

To find support, and to meet some of our many supporters. We are also meeting with politicians to ask for their support. It’s very important for us to build a network, and maybe even to create new things together. In different counties, there are certain problems. But there is also a common fight, there are common issues with Russia. The exchange of information is key.

Q: For me, the area of feminist protest was what was so exciting. Western media coverage of Pussy Riot seems to have lost some of the feminist message. How do we address that?

It’s difficult. We don’t have answers, it’s the question we keep raising. It was the initial concept of the group that it’s a feminist group. The aim is to promote a third wave of feminism. Not male and female opposition – but equality. We’re trying to find new ways to talk about gender equality. The old ways don’t work, so we need to find new ways to make the inequalities seen.

It’s typical for our work – we aim to raise a discussion. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether people view what we’ve done as good or bad, we want to spark a conversation. The places where we perform, the lyrics and music we write, are all chosen for a reason. Thanks to social media our message can now go so much further – it allows people to have a discussion about the topics we raise. We want to encourage a dialogue, a conversation.

Q: How did you get involved personally?

Every member has a different story. It’s a collective. Some people joined later than others. Everyone has different talents and we glue together to form one common body.

Q: How many people involved at the core?

At the moment eight, but Pussy Riot is open to everyone. The numbers do vary though. When an action is being prepared, more people tend to get involved.

Q: Given what’s happened (to fellow Pussy Riot members) are you still active?

Whether we are or not we can’t tell you – we don’t reveal what our plans our in advance.

Q: Are there any strong influences for the group, musically or lyrically?

A whole range of different artists, but we’d prefer not to name them because we don’t want to create an idol out of someone. Let’s just say we have a lot of different influences, from feminist art to punk, from DIY to Russian female artists at the beginning of the last century.

Q: As Pussy Riot goes global how are you insulating the idea to be authentic? Do you get together and talk about it?

First of all, we don’t want to be seen as a sect. We all have different opinions and motivations, but share a common ideology. We are seeing a movement backwards from anti-globalisation actions. We work in the context of today, the way we are pushed. Current issues are our muses.

The action in the church brought a lot of negative reaction. But there was also a positive side. It also brought us power, and continues to bring us strength.

Q: Hypothetically speaking, if someone were to desecrate a church in the name of Pussy Riot, how would you feel? How do you control ‘Pussy Riot’?

It’s not about controlling others. It’s more about people taking action. It’s not just about the group but the issues they want to raise. If you look at the beginning of Pussy Riot, it was a DIY project. If someone has an issue they want to raise, then why not? At the same time, we didn’t perform in the church for no reason – we sought to make a statement about church and politics.

This is a movement – and with movements you very often don’t remember who started it.

It’s also important to recognise context. One of our main ideologies is equality, and this very much impacts on how we function – we are all equal. You also need to look at the wider context of Russian society, its current issues and problems.

The fact that we use balaclavas relates to the idea of consumerism, we don’t want to sell anything, least of all ourselves. We don’t want to be idolised as individuals. Also covering you face allows anonymity, which is crucial for us.

Q: What books do you read, what music do you listen to?

We don’t want to make a list. We’re all individuals with different ideas and preferences, and don’t want to speak for the group.

Q: Regarding the performance in the Cathedral, did you expect it would end so badly? How hard did they look for those involved?

We didn’t expect such a sad result. When we plan action, we expect a reaction but this definitely wasn’t planned.

Obviously we don’t know what the investigators were planning. We’re certain that they have the names of the other participants. But the feeling is that they got three of us and that was enough.

There have also been positive effects and lots support actions, including people who aren’t part of the group giving interviews on our behalf.

Q: Are you worried for your families and friends?

Yes, of course. We never mention them. It’s difficult to predict what will happen. Look at the ongoing arrests around 6 May protests. Anything could happen, it’s impossible to predict. 

The actions of the group scared the authorities. It still scares them. If people are out on the street with balaclavas and placards it’s a huge concern.

If you look in terms of legislation, they have banned the use of balaclavas, and introduced criminal sentences for insulting the views of religious believers. The impact has been huge.

We’ve asked ourselves, if we’d done the performance at a different time would the result have been different. The girls were arrested on the 3 March, just before the elections. Their detention was like a present for the President.

We also ask ourselves what the reaction would have been if it had been a group of male protesters? Would it have been different? The society Putin proposes is a male-dominated society.

Q: Where do you get your support? Is it from family and friends? I know from attending a recent PEN International conference in Krakow that everyone at PEN supports you. I also wanted to ask about the impact this has had on your daily life?

Life is livable. Obviously things have changed – and we can’t explain these changes in detail. But we certainly don’t consider ourselves as stars.

In terms of support in Russia there’s not really anyone. Important issues have been raised at the European Parliament. All the coverage in Russia tends to be negative. On the other hand, the support from the worldwide community has been amazing, and has really inspired and encouraged us.

Q: You’ve really inspired us all too. What more could we do? What’s helpful? What is harmful? What is useless?

We would encourage people to continue with their actions, for example in front of Embassies. We hope people will use our symbols and ideologies to develop and create new projects. We want people to raise the issues we are raising, not just to focus on the group.

The other issue is to continue writing to the girls. It is very important to write in Russian. It’s so important that they receive letters. There has been a communication blockade – we’ve had no contact with Nadya for a month now. News from the outside world is crucial.

We also recommend that people use the opportunity of the President or other politicians travelling internationally to hold actions to coincide with their visits – either so that they see, or so that the media covers it. And encourage your own politicians to ask uncomfortable questions, particularly regarding restrictive legislation.

Nadya and Masha need to see support. They need first and foremost to know that people care, so personal contact with the penal colony is crucial.

[If you would like to send letters to imprisoned Pussy Riot members, Maria Alyokhina (Masha) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadya), please email cat@englishpen.org.]

Q: Are they receiving letters?

Things have changed following their most recent hearings. Nadya hasn’t received any letters for the last month. Masha declared a hunger strike which is why she is still receiving post.

Not only is pressure put on them, but on all the prisoners around them. If one prisoner violates prison rules, they will receive a collective punishment. Still it’s very important to continue to send letters. They’re allowed an unlimited amount of post. Even if they don’t get through, such letters still make the point.

When Masha was put in a general regime (rather than solitary confinement) they weren’t allowed out and had no access to medical care. She wanted to use her most recent hearing as an opportunity to speak out about these conditions, but was not allowed to attend the hearing, instead having to use a very poor quality video link.

Also, according to prison regulations, prisoners on hunger strikes require monitoring and medical attention. But Masha received no medical care until the eighth day of her hunger strike. On the tenth day the issues were finally addressed.

When taking actions on behalf of the group, it’s important to remember that their cases are not unique – they are an example of what happens in prisons. The girls are trying to raise awareness of the wider issues affecting Russian prisoners. It’s not just about the group, or the individuals, but about trying to raise awareness of broader issues, both in Russia and across the world. It’s like a litmus test – an example of what could happen to anyone, and therefore needs to be considered in a worldwide context.

If you look at how we’re being portrayed – as government stooges, American spies, by the foreign media – none of it is 100% accurate. Freedom of expression violations are not exclusive to Russia, it is a global issue. If we don’t do anything now, if we don’t protest, things could get worse.

Q: The situation is getting increasingly bad for prisoners all over the world in terms of access to the arts and human rights abuses.

When you see how any people are using your symbols, is there ever a sense that the time for celebration is now? This is real punk and the effect has been huge.

Success will be when the laws are changed, when something we stand for changes. Our symbols and ideology have been used, but not always as we would have chosen. We’re now in the context of a fight. When there’s a less sexist world, when we’ve achieved our goals, then we can celebrate. We’re at a point now where we need to establish a critical mass. We’re obviously in a difficult situation. Two of our members are in prison, and the government has adopted legislation that will put more pressure on us. Not everyone agrees with us, and we need a critical mass to break the bond.

We’re still far away from any victory: artists that raise similar issues have their work removed from exhibitions, whilst those who cover Pussy Riot in the media have had their articles removed, and in some cases lost their jobs.

Q: Did you like the film (Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin)?

We have a difficult relationship with the film. It was important that it was made, as it shows the trial and allowed the girls to speak out about more general issues. The support of Madonna and other internationally recognised artists again allows people to speak around it. Certain details of the film aren’t correct, but we’re in discussion with the filmmakers, and have suggested they might refer to it as ‘an artistic impression.’

This is not the only film that’s being made. And there are lots of books being written. We’re happy that the filmmakers are open to discussion. People will always have different understandings of the situation, some of which are not necessarily supported by the group.

Crucially, we want to prevent a mystification.

 

[NB The above transcript is not an entirely comprehensive record as it was based on handwritten notes. We would warmly welcome additions and corrections from others present at the meeting.]

 

Read the transcript from Pussy Riot’s meeting with the UK press.

 

About Cat Lucas

Cat Lucas is English PEN's Writers at Risk Programme Manager

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