Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina wants world to see Putin as war criminal

The exhibit Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia opened at the Musée d’art contemporain on Wednesday.

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It seemed entirely appropriate that the news conference Tuesday morning to launch the Musée d’art contemporain’s Pussy Riot exhibit was completely anarchic. It was a punk rock moment — wild, angry, funny, disturbing and more than a little disconcerting.

Maria Alyokhina — a member of the Russian art collective/protest group/punk band Pussy Riot — was giving a group of journalists a tour of the show, Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia, which opened at the MAC on Wednesday. (The contemporary art museum is still for the moment located in the basement of Place Ville Marie while major renovations take place in its usual site right beside Place des Arts.) This is the North American premiere of the exhibit which was first shown at the Kling and Bang art space in Reykjavik in November 2022.

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Alyokhina was dashing from display to display talking about the context of the pieces, which feature videos, photos and text written on the wall of the museum chronicling various Pussy Riot activist actions since the collective formed in Russia in 2011. On Tuesday, staffers were still rushing around finalizing the preparation of the exhibit and there was a cacophony of noise, mostly from the ferocious metallic punk music blasting from the videos of the band in action. Add to that Alyokhina’s rapid-fire delivery and heavily-accented English and it wasn’t easy to follow. In short it was as chaotic as a Pussy Riot live event.

Shortly after the news conference, in a quiet room just off the exhibition space, Alyokhina was much more subdued and highly articulate, as she talked about the group’s bitter fight to try to marshall support both inside and outside of Russia to depose the country’s leader Vladimir Putin.

Maria Alyokhina speaks into a handheld microphone as she points to pictures and text on the wall of an exhibit
“I never was a musician and I’m not a musician, and Pussy Riot is not a musical band, and it never was a musical band,” Maria Alyokhina says. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

The conversation started with Alyokhina objecting to this journalist calling Pussy Riot a punk band.

“I never was a musician and I’m not a musician, and Pussy Riot is not a musical band, and it never was a musical band,” she said. “It is a feminist protest art collective movement. We are definitely using music to provide a message, but this is an instrument. Though I was writing some of the (lyrics) and I wrote all of the texts for this exhibit.”

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The original punk bands from England in the late ’70s were also very political, snarling their way through protest songs like the satirical God Save the Queen from the Sex Pistols or the insurrectionary anthem White Riot by The Clash. But Pussy Riot took the protest right to the streets — and churches — of Russia and several members ended up doing lengthy prison time as a result. They first rose to international fame in 2012 when they played their song Punk Prayer, an attack on the collusion between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Three members of Pussy Riot, including Ayokhina, were sent to penal colonies for their “crime”.

A video of that moment in the church is part of the MAC exhibit. For Ayokhina, music is first and foremost a way to deliver a political message.

Maria Alyokhina speaks into a handheld microphone next to a wall with a screen displaying video of three people in masks.
Maria Alyokhina spent almost two years in a Russian prison and was later put under house arrest for 18 months because of her activism. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

“This is feminist political art,” she said. “We’re fighting for women’s rights and protesting Putin’s regime. This is a description of Pussy Riot.”

Ayokhina has already paid a big price for her political activism. She spent nearly two years behind bars after the action at the Cathedral and she was later put under house arrest for 18 months. She secretly made her way out of Russia in the spring of 2022 when she heard her house arrest was going to be transformed into another prison sentence.

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I ask how she finds the strength to keep fighting, mentioning that a lot of people would just give up faced with this kind of adversity.

“Give up and do what? And cry in the corner?” said Ayokhina. “It doesn’t matter if you’re crying in the corner. It matters what you do. History doesn’t give a f— about your feelings. The only thing that can change history are things that you have done and I really really want the world to remember that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, that he built a terrorist state. I want to show how he built it and I want to see him in a (prison) cage, minimum. … I just want it. Why should I cry? I cry. We all cried when we saw the photos from (Ukraine). We are people and it’s impossible to be indifferent to all these horrible things the Russian Army is doing. But that’s not a reason to stop.”

Riot Days, a multi-media show based on her memoir of the same name and featuring Ayokhina and others on stage, will be presented at the Rialto Theatre Nov. 1.

For more info on the exhibit, visit the MAC website: macm.org

For info on the show Riot Days, visit the popmontreal.com

bkelly@postmedia.com

twitter.com/brendanshowbiz

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