"If you will not fight for your democracy, you will lose it"

Pussy Riot visited Madison last week, with the Trump era looming.

Still from Pussy Riot's new Trump-themed music video, "Make America Great Again."

Still from Pussy Riot's new Trump-themed music video, "Make America Great Again."

Maria Alyokhina and Alexandra Bogino—known internationally as Masha and Sasha of Russian punk/performance-art group Pussy Riot—came to the Wisconsin Union Theater last Thursday for a talk moderated by Russian filmmaker Alexander Cheparukihn, who also advocates for Pussy Riot's efforts. According to Cheparukihn, the Madison crowd was the largest they've had on their current U.S. tour. Madison's enthusiasm was only further evidenced by the extended minute of standing ovation for Masha and Sasha, who arrived on stage in all-black after the screening of a short edit of the Cheparukihn-directed documentary Art & Punishment, which chronicles the group's formation and rise to fame. (As of now, the doc hasn't been shown in full in the U.S.—Cheparukihn is attempting to garner support to change that.)

"The biggest moments from our imprisoned life were not documented."

Masha set the tone with a sobering account of her time in a penal colony during a two-year sentence for criticizing Vladimir Putin, describing it as a "strange village" where more than 100 women slept in one room with only two toilets, showered once a week, ate rotten food, were denied medicine, and spent up to 14 hours-a-day sewing uniforms for the police and Russian Army. She even spent five months in solitary as punishment for her noncompliance with the system. Masha took it to court and won three of four cases against the Russian government, resulting in eight fired guards and improved conditions for the women there.

After a few hunger strikes—which got Masha thrown back into the colony—Putin eventually pardoned her and the other two members with amnesty. The move said less about Putin, of course, than about Russia's concern with its reputation amid massive international support for Pussy Riot and the impending 2014 Summer Olympics in Sochi.

"I don't know thousands of people who were standing for three girls they didn't know before," Masha said.

"The history of modern Russia is written in the courtroom."

Upon the trio's release, Pussy Riot founded their MediaZona independent news service, specializing in critical coverage of Russian prison conditions to combat Russian state media's overwhelmingly negative depictions of prisoners, if they cover prisoners at all. A few years later, MediaZona continues to rank among the most influential media sources in Russia. Sasha spoke of a world where you can be imprisoned by a Facebook post critical of the government, and discussed how Russian officials manufacture their own approval through organized distraction. The trio showed several MZ clips: one of "The Headless Man" about a cop who murdered someone with an axe, after which the dead man was charged for his own murder, and another on a bus bombing targeting journalists and protesters, which resulted in a man losing his vehicle—his livelihood—only to receive $30,000 on Kickstarter to get a new one for supporting efforts against oppressive forces in Russia.

"Maybe it looks like a different world—strange men with strange beards shooting at everybody," Masha said. "But it's not another world. It's our country." Though the trio expressed less concern over whether Americans will organize against Trump much earlier in the process—to a room full of laughter—Masha remained firm on the responsibility of fighting for your rights in spite of all that oppresses you:

"And if you will not fight for your democracy—really believe in it—you will lose it."

"You have a voice, which is stronger…"

After an extended section in tribute to the work of Petr Pavlensky—an artist currently serving 20 years in Siberia for burning the doors of a KGB office—Masha and Sasha opened up the conversation to audience questions. The Q&A covered the differences between Russian and American feminism, Donald Trump's relationship with Putin, Russian journalists being murdered and silenced, and the role of artists and students in protest. A few choice quotes from these exchanges:

  • "The government is not that important as the community you belong to." —Sasha
  • "I think [Scott] Walker should somehow be sent away." —Masha, to a riotous applause
  • "The option of choice is the most important thing in the democracy; actually, for freedom." —Masha
  • "[I think] that [in] socially-progressive circles, there should be more incentive to find a way to rank-and-file the people, simple people." —Alexander
  • "Putin's people provide a war between Russians and Russians. They tried to draw some concept of normality, which actually does not exist…" —Masha
  • "It's up to you what country you want to live for." —Masha

A member of the anti-Walker, pro-labor Solidarity Sing Along was in line for the Q&A, and offered a gift bag for the Pussy Riot crew as a gesture of appreciation for their work from abroad in solidarity with the Walker recall election in 2012. His gesture came with an invitation to join the singalong at the Capitol the next morning. The women met him with a simple response: "We'll come."

Standing with us

For my first-ever visit to the Solidarity Sing Along, I observed the joyful singing from a distance while observing the creativity of the protesters' signage. I arrived in the middle of the protest that Friday afternoon, on an unconventionally-brisk 60-degree day, to a circle of older white folks singing "Eyes On The Prize" from their songbooks. I recall hearing this song on the VHS tapes of yesteryear, when learning of Dr. King and Malcolm X as figures from a time I'd yet to understand outside the screen. Admittedly, I was shaken at the dissonance, but felt a warm welcome nonetheless.

Other songs included "Which Side Are You On," "If I Had A Hammer," and "Hang Down Your Head, Scott Walker." Some of these folks came from other parts of the region, others were arrested years ago during the state's crackdown on protests, and some are still congregating regularly even with the recall election almost five years in the past.

When Masha arrived in black attire and running shoes, a few folks were unsure if it was her. With confirmation came small wave of people asking for pictures and brief conversations. Her energy was one of solidarity, but also of modesty: She seemed to want to blend into the scene like everyone else without becoming a distraction.

Masha, back left in black cap, joins the Solidarity Sing Along. Photo by Michael Penn II

Masha, back left in black cap, joins the Solidarity Sing Along. Photo by Michael Penn II

Before the protest's end, one of the singing leads stopped to explain the significance of her arrival, calling for a large "Thank you!" chant they haven't had to do in months. As quickly as she appeared, Masha left soon after the 1 p.m. hour, clearly on her way to maintaining the hectic schedule coming with the territory of being an international star who can face death at any moment for sticking to their truth.

The sentiment wasn't lost on any of us at the talk or the rally, where Masha said the following: "People are still risking, but they don't want to risk too much."