Pussy Riot: 'Freedom does not exist unless you fight for it every day'

Cry Freedom

credit: Jack Kirwin

As the art, theatre and music collective bring their punk manifesto to Edinburgh, they explain how nothing will stop them from speaking out

For many women around the world, 2018 has been a year of reckoning. While discussions of sexual assault, gender-based discrimination and the importance of feminism in the 21st century remain permanent fixtures in contemporary discourse, never have these discussions penetrated the public mindset in quite the same way as they have this year. With Time's Up and #MeToo adding a new level of engagement with women's issues and female empowerment, the global consciousness has shifted in a way that feels real and irrevocable.

Beyond the fight against patriarchy and sexual violence, women have been at the forefront of social justice movements and human rights causes for decades. After gaining notoriety for their 'Punk Prayer' in 2012, which attacked the Orthodox Church's support for President Vladimir Putin, Pussy Riot have long been a source of inspiration to a new generation of feminists, spreading awareness through their message of punk protest and anti-authoritarianism.

'Political murders, new anti-constitutional laws, violence of police and "patriotic activists", arrests, terrible prison terms and attacks against independent media: this is the reality in Russia,' states Pussy Riot as one entity via email. 'Anyone can get a prison term for just a post or comment on Facebook nowadays. Pussy Riot always resists the growing oppressions of the Russian authorities against any oppositional activity in our country. We call for solidarity with political prisoners in our regular shows and festivals, contribute a significant part of our income to political prisoners and independent human rights media. For all these actions we and our supporters have been detained many times by the police, spent many days and nights in prison cells, have got fines and community service orders by different courts. But we will not stop.'

Cry Freedom credit: Perry Brandon

The last mass anti-Putin protest in Russia on 5 May 2018, initiated by lawyer and activist Alexei Navalny, led to 1600 protesters being detained nationwide, with many being confronted by nationalist violence and administrative arrests. As Pussy Riot notes, 'the aggression against oppositional and human rights activities became especially severe after Putin's annexation of Crimea in 2014, when the Kremlin and the mass media started its propaganda against "enemies of Russia".'

When Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were imprisoned for 'hooliganism motivated by religious hatred' after their performance inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, their sentencing triggered a series of solidarity marches in cities the world over. But despite their punk persona and adoption of riot grrrl-esque themes, Pussy Riot's music is just one element of their global appeal.

'From the very beginning, Pussy Riot was a protest art collective of different creative people: contemporary artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers. The punk band was just the "surface" of the collective. Nobody knew the members of this mysterious band and we changed nicknames; the only form of Pussy Riot's public appearances was unexpected short protest action with girls in balaclavas singing one song. Every action has been filmed and edited with recorded song, then videos have been disseminated via the internet.'

Social media has certainly been vital for the collective, whose protest songs, videos and actions have reached millions of people through Facebook and Twitter. While anonymity was an initial goal of the collective, members of Pussy Riot have inadvertently become public figures as a result of the publicity that surrounded the 2012 trial and the way it has resonated with activists everywhere since.

'At the end of 2013, Nadya and I had been released from prison,' explains Alyokhina. 'Since then, in most cases, we did not hide our faces, and step by step we started to perform on stage. Now we have two main stage shows: Riot Days, which combines music, theatre and video, and Nadya's show with her more recent songs.'

Cry Freedom credit: Perry Brandon

Riot Days, the accompanying piece to Alyokhina's memoir of the same name, traces the ascent of Pussy Riot, from the performance, trial and incarceration to their subsequent protests. The show is an exploration of resistance, with Alyokhina joining a host of collaborators to share her story through the medium of performance art.

'All components of Riot Days, the dramatic narrative, music and video, are equally important. 'We use old songs of Pussy Riot, with new arrangements and live performances by the AWOTT (Asian Women on the Telephone) duo.'

The response to Riot Days has been everything that Alyokhina and Pussy Riot could have wished for. 'It's been incredible, both from the public and press, everywhere we've presented Riot Days which includes the USA, UK, Australia, Germany and many other countries in continental Europe. We should say that we met one of the warmest audiences in the planet at our only Scottish show at The Art School in Glasgow last November. That's why we are eager to play ten shows in a row at the Edinburgh Fringe, and we hope to again feel this unique spiritual connection with the Scottish public.'

Ultimately, the world needs women like Pussy Riot; women whose actions are a regular reminder of the multiple tipping points that we as a society have endured. Women who do not sit in silence and apologise for their existence and challenge gender norms and structural oppression where they see fit. 'We hope to continue exploring new ways of artistic expression in the future and we are sure that we will always react to the most crucial issues of our society, trying to do whatever possible to help create a new reality.'

Riot Days is described as their 'punk manifesto', and as the collective prepare to bring the touring piece to Edinburgh, their message and mission statement remain intact. 'We fight for freedom and equal rights, in all senses of these words. We aim to passionately deliver to Fringe audiences our key Riot Days message: everyone can be Pussy Riot. Freedom does not exist unless you fight for it every day.'

Pussy Riot: Riot Days, Summerhall, 0131 560 1581, 10–19 Aug, 7pm, £17.50.

Pussy Riot: Riot Days

Russian protest punk-rock collective.

Summerhall, Edinburgh

Fri 10 Aug

The Dissection Room

£17.50 / 0131 560 1581

Part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Sat 11 Aug

The Dissection Room

£17.50 / 0131 560 1581

Part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Sun 12 Aug

The Dissection Room

£17.50 / 0131 560 1581

Part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

…and 7 more dates until 19 Aug

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