English PEN meets Pussy Riot – part two

Last 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 the UK press, June 2013

Q: Why are you here?

To tell the truth about what’s happening in Russia. Through our journey we’ve discovered that Ambassadors provide false information, and that the media doesn’t have the full picture.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the so-called Pussy Riot laws?

There are new laws that forbid the wearing of balaclavas. Laws have also been introduced to cover ‘offending religious beliefs – to protect Orthodox Christians. The definitions are not concrete.

Q: Do you see these laws being used against the group in the future?

They could be used against anyone wanting to make a statement about religion, so members of Pussy Riot may be affected. The new laws concern Pussy Riot and the issues they campaign for – they are certainly aimed at the group, and at solidarity actions.

Q: How do you define yourselves?

First and foremost, we consider ourselves artists. We use different ways to express ourselves: site-specific performances, media activism, institutional critiques, and punk music.

Q: Are you activists or artists, or are the two inseparable?

We are artists.

Q: And that hasn’t changed at all in the last year?

In no way. We still make art connected to political issues.

Q: What’s the role of art in Russia right now in terms of what you’re doing?

The conditions in Russia right now are very inspiring. But every country has problems that need to be named and spoken about. In Russia right now the key issues for us are around democracy, free speech and gender self-expression.

It’s important that there are feminist artists. The criticism of Pussy Riot was very sexist. When we read the criticism, we knew we were on the right path because of how sexist the criticism was.

Q: Can you tell us more about the backlash?

There are suggestions that we are run by a producer, or a foreign agent – no one can imagine that a group of women would themselves be expressing their opinions. We are presented as stupid girls who don’t know how to think by the media. Certain people have suggested that we should stay at home – and Masha and Nadya in particular have been criticised for not fulfilling their roles as mothers.

Q: How is the detention of Masha and Nadya affecting the way the group operates?

In general not much has changed. We’ve always had to be careful, but now we also have to deal with the legal problems the group has to face. After the girls were arrested, we felt a responsibility for them and their families – there is additional pressure and responsibility for all of us. Before, individual members only had responsibility for themselves, but now we need to take responsibility for other members and their families.

Q: Can you give us an update on the legal case?

Both Masha and Nadya have recently been denied early release. They are appealing against the verdict. Two appeals have been denied already – but these were filed by their lawyers and they are now appealing in their own names.

Q: Why a punk band?

We see ourselves as artists, but all have different talents – some are musicians, some are more concerned with the legal side of things. Why did we choose punk? Because historically it has always been the music of protest against the conditions you are living in.

Q: How do feel about support from more mainstream artists, such as Madonna? How helpful has this international celebrity support been?

We appreciate the support and it’s very important – not because they’re well known, but because they are individuals. The important thing is that the issue is raised. For us it’s also important that people who speak out on our behalf also support our ideas and ideology. And celebrity support increases the amount of people that the message reaches many of whom might not have thought about it otherwise. 

Q: How do you feel about the image of Pussy Riot and how that’s been used and appropriated? In particular how do you feel about people using balaclavas without necessarily knowing much about what’s going on in Russia?

We appreciate the wearing of balaclavas if used to promote our ideas, but not as a trendy fashion statement. Then it becomes meaningless.

Q: Who are your feminist influences?

We have strong feminist influences, but don’t want to name anyone in particular. Soviet feminists of the 1920s are key – our patriotic side. In general, there are no borders though, we have a whole range of influences.

Q: Have you created a wider movement? Are there actions you want to see people taking?

It is becoming a movement. We may have inspired many people, but now we are inspired by them. Anyone can be Pussy Riot. We want to promote third wave of feminism in Russia – and this time, finish it, so there is no more sexism!

Q: How can young people create their own versions of Pussy Riot without knowing who your influences are? What writers should they be reading, for example?

There are feminists everywhere in the world – women who achieved more than their mothers, or fight for their rights, deserve the name feminists. During our trip to the United States we visited the Brooklyn Museum, where there is a whole department dedicated to feminist art. The first piece in it is ‘The Dinner Party’ [by Judy Chicago in collaboration with the Motherhouse collective] which recognises the achievements of many female artists and thinkers in the era before feminism, but who – by doing their work – were feminists. The piece uses female-identified crafts such as embroidery that are usually not seen in galleries. Each artist is represented by a table setting with an embroidered vulva. 

Whilst in the UK we have also had the chance to visit Parliament, and attended a session about foreign policy, where Kerry McCarthy MP [a long-standing supporter of Pussy Riot who went to Russia to observe one of the trial hearings] asked a question about the new LGBT laws in Russia. Kerry had cancelled her trip to South Korea so that she was able to meet us, and this was really valuable for us.

We were very impressed by how open it was – seeing democracy in action, and open criticism of those in power.

Q: Have you met people who don’t support you? Did you manage to change their minds?

There was a US congressman who had openly supported the verdict. We met him during our visit to the United States and whilst he didn’t change his view completely, he did agree that the sentencing was too harsh.  One big aspect of our current activities is to talk to people who didn’t know about our actions, or didn’t understand what had happened, and give them more information.

Q: I want to ask about provocation, about the use of the words ‘pussy’ and ‘riot’. Why are people so frightened of you? And are you frightened yourselves? What are you risking by coming here?

We’re not frightened at all. There is no provocation in the use of the word pussy, which is used widely in pop culture. If there is a provocation, it’s the combination of the words ‘pussy’ and ‘riot’.

Pussy Riot are frightening for two reasons. The first is the structure of the equality – we have no leader, we are all on an equal footing. Secondly they are not under the control of the authorities. That is frightening not only for the authorities but also for the majority of the Russian population who are not used to seeing women in an active role.

Q: Why are you reluctant to name your influences?

Because we don’t want to highlight anyone, or to make an idol of anyone. One of the main principles of Pussy Riot is equality – that everything is on the same level. Everyone is equal. There shouldn’t be any egoism.

Q: When it comes to trying to change opinion, did you get beyond the religious aspect of your performance?

The discussion has started – this is a process that will go on. And the way we work is interactive. It is not only about the actions themselves, but about the discussions that take place afterwards.

The reason for choosing the cathedral was that it is very local. You have to see it with your own eyes to understand. It was the right place, and the right time. It wasn’t only the fact that it was a church – that particular spot has always been a symbol connected with those in power.. It has always been used by authoritarian regimes, and is a symbol of the connection between the church and the state. Ordinary churches belong to the Orthodox church, but this church belongs to the Moscow administration. And it is also very commercial – you can hold birthday parties there.

Q: What is the connection between fighting sexism and fighting a dictatorship?

We’re often asked if we’re more political or feminist, but to us it’s just the same. Putin is very macho, and uses sexist tendencies to be perceived as a strong leader. We don’t want one person to be seen as the focus of our actions. But in general we don’t agree with Putin’s politics, for example providing arms to the Syrian regime.

The latest news from Russia is about Putin’s divorce. Interestingly the Orthodox church hasn’t commented on that.

Q: Is there anyone in the Russian parliament you can imagine supporting you?

There is probably no politician who supports us completely. There was huge support for the action at Red Square because it was seen as anti-Putin. But this isn’t a fight against Putin – we want to encourage everyone to create their own point of view and become an activist in their own way.

A general problem is that the opposition in Russia is not unified, so the situation is very difficult. Many potential leaders have been jailed.

Q: You said you weren’t frightened, so why all the precautions? [The meeting was held in a secret location, with no social media or photography allowed.]

The conception of the group – one of the principles is anonymity. It’s one thing to be afraid but another thing to be stupid and not take precautions.

Q: Have you ever discussed whether the action in the church was the right thing to do?

After the action in Red Square we had a huge amount of support. We discussed the action in the church, and were aware that people would see it differently. But there is no compromise, we have to follow the things we believe in. We were aware there would be a negative reaction, even among the opposition who had supported our previuos action.

Q: Where do you go from here? What do you want to achieve?

The action in the cathedral was aimed for maximum promotion of freedom of speech. Our most important aim now is to have the verdicts relating to the group overturned. We need to see the release of Masha and Nadya, and also for the charges against Katya – who can be rearrested at any time – to be dropped. We also plan to appeal the fact that four of our five videos of our performances have been ruled as extremist. Other media have issues reporting about us, including being fined. And a criminal case has been opened against artist Artyom Loskutov for printing Pussy Riot t-shirts.

These legal issues are very important. Too often artists in Russia get into trouble and then make work under the table and don’t fight back. It is important to be active, and to use all available methods, including legal recourse.

But we have also travelled abroad to connect with supporters, to exchange views, and to talk about future actions.

Q: What can activists do? What do you need? What do you need to see happen?

Balaclavas were also used at Occupy Wall Street. But every country has its own problems, and needs to find its own symbols. We wanted to set an example, through actions that were open source and DIY, as a call to everyone to get active and get influence. This is a call to everyone to get active to face the problems and to fight them.

There are three areas of leverage – orthodox church, parliament, foreign representation abroad.

We met people from the Occupy Wall Street movement when we were in the US – they were very interesting and we support what they are doing.

Q: Pussy Riot’s first action was in 2011 – what was the impetus?

The first action took place in October 2011, shortly before the Duma elections when political activities were particularly important. It was a coincidence that we were able to act at that time, as it had taken a while to prepare. Pussy Riot members had been involved in the opposition movement, but wanted to express our opinions in a different form.

Q: How do you recruit members?

There are people who want to join – and we’re very open to this. People contact us via the email on freepussyriot.org and on our livejournal. We have intense discussions with potential new members. We don’t receive that many ‘applications’ though – because to become a Pussy Riot member you have to be very brave – the danger is very real. We know every performance could lead us into, shall we say, ‘intense contact with officials’.

Q: Are you still planning performances?

We’re always planning something.

Q: What influence have you had on the political debate in Russia?

It is difficult to define, as there are so many different factors. Russia is very unstable.

Q: Did you ever imagine it would take on such global proportions?

There was the wish that more people would become aware of the issues in Russia we’re seeking to raise, but we never expected it would develop this far. The conception of the group was aimed at a Russian audience, but there has been less support in Russia and more internationally. There’s a Russian proverb: ‘No-one is a prophet in their own country.’

Q: How conscious were you of the level of international support whilst in Russia?

It wasn’t that obvious when we were in Russia – it has become clearer as we’ve travelled, but we probably still don’t fully understand. It was only after her release that Katya became aware of the level of support, and Masha and Nadya are still not aware of the extent of it. The media try not to write about the case – and when they do there is always a negative aspect. There is a war of mass media against us.

During all our meetings with activists we’ve been urging people to write to Masha and Nadya so that they know that they are not alone against the system.

Q: Are letters delivered?

They have the legal right to receive them. It is important to write in Russian if possible. It takes three days for a letter in Russian to be censored, and ten days for a letter in a foreign language, and we know that a large delivery of letters in English still has not been delivered. Use Google Translate if you have to – it’s not good Russian, but it’s still more likely to get through.

Q: Do you see any links between your own work and other events around the world, such as Occupy, the ‘Arab Spring’ or the current events in Turkey and Greece?

The common link between all these is civil political activism. People are more aware of their situation and trying to move forward through different methods.

It was very surprising how those links influence each other. Egypt was an inspiration for us – one of our lyrics was ‘organise Tahrir in Red Square’. And during the trial, there was an ‘Occupy the court’ action, which saw people living in front of the court. We met activists from Occupy and have asked if we can use their symbols.

One very interesting thing is how the media in Russia have portrayed Occupy as positive and Pussy Riot as negative. The opposite is true in the US. There is a fight against global media.

The key things are civil responsibility and political activism. People will say “you’re too small, you can’t change anything” or “you’re a woman – you just have to love and give birth”. But individuals can change things. You have to be active.

We only stage actions in Russia, because we know the context. But we will advocate globally.

Q: Are there protection issues when you return?

There’s always a danger. We’re trying not to be seen. Our voices have been altered on recordings – we’re doing all we can. We’ve only met with a very limited group of people and we’ve checked everyone out in advance.

Q: We’ve heard about the issues in Russia, but what are you most proud of?

We love our country, its history, its culture but we want to help improve it and make life better there than it is now.

 

[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 for Pussy Riot’s meeting with supporters here.

About Cat Lucas

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

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