Opinion: Pussy Riot artist talks art and activism

Every year the University of Arizona College of Humanities puts on a festival. The theme of this year’s Humanities Festival is Resistance and Revolution.

I had the pleasure of attending the first event of the festival on Oct. 3. The College of Humanities brought one of the biggest and most well-known female activists from Russia, Nadya Tolokonnikova. She gained international attention in 2012 when she and two other members of Pussy Riot (an art/activism group) were arrested for hooliganism after performing at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Tolokonnikova and one other member, Masha Alyokhina, served two years in prison before being released just before the Sochi Olympics.

The arrest was big news because it was not thought to be valid. Pussy Riot wanted to protest politics, but instead were arrested on the grounds that they disrespect God and the Church, which is not tolerated by the Russian government. Women are not allowed anywhere near the altar in a church, so when these women held a protest on it, people could not look past the location and listen to the meaning of the song. They could only see disrespect for their religion.

While Tolokonnikova was in prison, she was subjected to illegal work conditions and hours; the women in her prison were forced to make 150 police uniforms a day on broken machines, without the equipment or mechanics to fix them. She wrote a letter while in prison titled “Why I am going on hunger strike,” which outlined the illegal practices of the prison and discussed why she was taking it upon herself to protest for change.

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In her talk, she discussed further why she went on a hunger strike. She was the only one in the prison with access to lawyers who could publicize the horrors of the prison and was looked to as the only one who could make a change. If other prisoners wanted a shorter work day and had the courage to ask, they would get sent to solitary confinement for a few days while they increased the work hours for the other prisoners. When Tolokonnikova asked for change, the warden worsened the conditions and sent her to get beaten. 

By going on the hunger strike, Tolokonnikova almost died. She was feeling psychologically beaten down and her spirit was broken. Prisoners who had been in prison seven years were getting denied parole just for having a cup of tea with her. Both women were finally released before the Sochi Olympics to improve the government’s image. 

After their release, Pussy Riot got back together and protested in Sochi. They were publicly whipped by Cossacks, an ethnic military group of Russians who form a sort of militia during times of war. After this performance, Pussy Riot split. Tolokonnikova is still making music videos discussing problems in Russia and in the United States.

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At her talk, she discussed some of the similarities in Russia and the U.S. in terms of leadership. She emphasized that just one person cannot be the representative of a country. She said Russia is a “dangerously beautiful” country and while Putin holds power, he does not represent the interests of the entire country.

Most of Pussy Riot’s work about issues in Russia deal with the issue of separation of church and state, equal rights for females and members of the LGBTQ community, rights for prisoners and political corruption. They also released a song about the death of African American Eric Garner. 

During the Question and Answer portion of Tolokonnikova’s lecture, many guests asked if they could join Pussy Riot. She answered that she doesn’t own the idea of Pussy Riot and it is for everyone. Anyone can be a member if they wish to be. It is a movement, not an exclusive group.

Resistance and Revolution will run through Nov. 7.


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