Pussy Riot Interview

Music Editor Jaysim Hanspal talks to Pussy Riot member Olga Borisova about feminist punk, political activism, and the power of freedom.

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In secondary school, I remember doing a side project called ‘Anarchitecture in the UK’. It was about how communities inspired punk and luckily, being near the Kings Road, we were surrounded by the history of a revolution: Vivienne Westwood had her first store just down the road. More inspiring to me was learning about the sudden appearance of a feminist anarchist group, Pussy Riot, and how they changed everything. Founded in 2011, the group has had rotating members, all influential, all rebellious. The group originally used music and guerilla-style performance art to oppose the current Russian regime, but has since expanded into literature and has a more transcendent ‘collective’. For me, an awkward fifteen-year-old with no plans to rebel anytime soon, Pussy Riot represented a new wave of feminism that empowered me far beyond what I could have expected. For twenty-year-old me, slightly older and wiser me, Pussy Riot represents the fight that is yet to be won. A couple of weeks ago, I had the honour of interviewing Olga Borisova, a member of the Collective, on punk, protesting, and the power of women.

Did you all have a background in art or music when joining the group?

All my youth I was fond of theatre and singing, but activism is different. First of all, it requires resourcefulness, a quick mind and great faith in what you do. Political art is about creation and searching, the formulation of the question. No one can help you with it, only you.

What do you do when you’re not protesting? Is it easy to separate normal life from the fame you have achieved worldwide?

I can not call myself a famous person, but I am proud of our work with Masha (Maria Alyokhina) on her book RIOT DAYS and I believe that it was our first political protest together. Now I am a content manager and almost an international student.

Everyone can be Pussy Riot, everywhere. It is about political movement and action.

The members seem to change every so often; is there a criterion to join Pussy Riot?

I spent a lot of time reflecting on this, so I can tell you my story. Three years ago I used to work in the police force and my first protest action happened when I quit my job because I didn’t want to be part of this system. I then turned into a real activist, I started to participate in protest demonstrations, invented my own actions, went to the courts, participated in media campaigns in support of political prisoners, and collected money for them. One day I met Masha and we started to work on her book. I edited the text we created together to have the structure and the image of a punk manifesto. Everyone can be Pussy Riot, everywhere. It is about political movement and action.

As a punk band, which bands do you take inspiration from? What artists inspire you?

I really like Public Image Ltd and The Clash, and I really want to mention Archy Marshall (King Krule). I really like him and his music. I think I understand him sometimes.

Your political method of protesting seems to transcend mediums, from art to music to traditional protests methods; was this intentional when you first started?

Pussy Riot was created as a feminist punk group, yes. But as you know a lot happened after. All artists are constantly searching for new things. Nadya continues to make music which is also a form of political protest. We try different forms. Me and Masha created a book and then a play of it was staged. After our performance in Moscow, the people who gave us the theatrical space lost it. Because of Pussy Riot, because of this text. Me and Masha have been detained many times by police after actions in support of Ukrainian political prisoner Oleg Sentsov, or against the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, successor to the KGB). We protested in the Crimea, Yakutsk, New York and Moscow.

But it is important to tell the world about real problems: about torture, corruption, political murders and repression. It is very significant to have freedom of speech. It can save lives.

The World Cup protest: what would you want readers to know about Russia’s Human Rights record? Do you think by supporting countries like Russia and Qatar in hosting events like the World Cup we are encouraging their behaviour?

I do not support the idea of a boycott, I believe that silence can’t be effective or useful. I believe that such big events are an opportunity to show real Russia to the world. But it is important to tell the world about real problems: about torture, corruption, political murders and repression. It is very significant to have freedom of speech. It can save lives.

Russia – is not Putin. Russia – is us.

How has your fame affected your relationship with Russian authorities? How has the backing of liberal countries and organisations impacted your ability to protest effectively?

The Russian authorities have exerted a lot of effort to ensure people hate us. But people don’t hate us! We got a lot of support from the world and our goal is to pass it on. Pussy Riot’s case was the first. But now criminal cases like Pussy Riot’s are Russian reality, and at such moments media support is very important because they are afraid of noise, they always want to hide everything, hide themselves. If you were detained, but no one found out about it – it means that they can do anything with you; understanding how important that is, we, first of all, try to use the media resource to help other people. This is how Mediazone was created. Mediazone was created by Masha, Nadya (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova) and Petya (Versilov); it covers topics about the Russian Siloviki (FSB, police, special forces), and writes about the police violence, courts and criminal world in Russia.

You anticipated the Trump election victory – why did you think he would win? Do you think his term has damaged the reputation of the US as a free nation?

We do not think about the Trump [sic], but we are in touch with American activists; freedom does not exist if you do not fight for it every day. And we can see it clearly now. People need to remember their history and if someone has achieved freedom for them, it’s not forever. Trump in the presidency is a great opportunity to remind yourself and others that you are free (if you are) and protest for it. I believe that this experience can be useful in a long-term sense.

Do you feel like we’re in the midst of a new wave of feminism, with the #MeToo movement and women’s marches happening all over the world?

The voices have become louder and I admire and enjoy this atmosphere. They are not afraid anymore. But it is a huge difference between Russia and the West. Our situation is much worse. Six months ago, several journalists confessed that they were molested by one deputy during interviews. Many of my friends went to the parliament with posters to support girls. But the next day some fans of Putin’s came to defend Slutsky and blame the women. Many female deputies spoke in support of Leonid Slutsky, and their point was: he is an attractive man and his attention should be taken with gratitude. We continue to do what we do. I believe in Russian women!

When I was at school, we had a workshop on the concept of anarchy, and my class and I walked around school in Pussy Riot-esque balaclavas to see the effect it had on other students. Do you feel that the shock factor makes your method of protest more successful?

We believe that the protest should be desperate, sudden and fun. We do not think about “successes” we just do what we like and what we feel is right.

And finally, what can people do to support Pussy Riot?

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