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5:16 am
Thu February 6, 2014

Pussy Riot: Prison Ordeal Will Help Us Fix Russia's System

Originally published on Thu February 6, 2014 3:19 pm

Members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot were just released from jail after spending nearly two years in a penal colony for a controversial performance at a Moscow church in 2012, but they are far from done fighting. Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova and Maria "Masha" Alyokhina continue to be outspoken against human rights abuses in Russia, bringing the band's message to the U.S. for the first time.

While there have been protests against the Russian government before, it's a country where the political opposition is always struggling to build widespread support. But that doesn't seem to be stopping Nadya and Masha — both married, both moms, both unabashedly critical of Russian leaders, its government and now, its prison system.

Nadya, Masha and an interpreter stopped by NPR in New York City to talk with Morning Edition's David Greene, an interview they wound up cutting short — with apologies — because they needed to leave to turn their attention to helping some protesters facing charges at home.

But when they sat down in the studio, they began singing in Russian.

"It's a Pussy Riot song called 'Putin Is Lighting the Fires of the Revolution,' " Nadya says. It's the song they wrote when they were being sentenced.

"He's clearly asking for a revolution," she says.


Interview Highlights

On life in a prison camp

Maria "Masha" Alyokhina: You go to work, and you watch people turning into obedient cogs in a machine that produces police uniforms. If anyone tries to decline to do this work or disagrees in some other way, they might get thrown in solitary or they might get beaten either by the prison guards or by other prisoners who work together with the prison administration and collaborate with them.

On whether, if they could rewind, they would perform at the church in 2012, which sparked their arrests

Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova: We don't like to speculatively look back and think about what if. The only way to go is forward.

Masha: This might be hard to understand, but I'm actually grateful to the leadership of Russia for providing me with this experience of being in jail. I think I became a freer person as a result and understood many things that will now enable us to work on fixing this prison system.

[This freedom is] freedom as responsibility for your every step and gesture, freedom for choosing to act honestly and honorably, or dishonestly and dishonorably; freedom as in life.

On why it seems people in Russia aren't looking for an Arab Spring-type revolution

Masha: Russia isn't necessarily that different from any other country, but there are two factors that come into play: The first is that if you regularly have the protest beaten out of you by the riot police, of course it's natural that you will eventually back down and take a more passive stance. And the second is that people don't believe that change is possible in Russia, and I think one of the things that is vital to turn this situation around — because it can be turned around fairly quickly — but for that we need free media, we need free speech, we need channels that will give the opposition a voice.

On whether there will be more Pussy Riot performances in Russia

Nadya: We are planning on going back to Russia, and the reason we are in a hurry to go right now is we have some very important things to do in support of those who are still jailed in connection with [another demonstration in Russia].

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, as Elizabeth just mentioned, many Russians were turned off by Pussy Riot's actions. And it's worth remembering, while there have been protests against the Russian government, this is a country where the political opposition is always struggling to build widespread support. That does not seem to be stopping Nadya and Masha - both married, both moms, both determined to keep getting their message out.

When they sat down in our studio, they began singing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: What were you just singing there a minute ago?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through Translator) It's a Pussy Riot song called "Putin is Lighting the Fires of the Revolution."

GREENE: Is that a new song or is that one you've performed before?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through Translator) This is the song that we wrote when we were being sentenced.

GREENE: Do you really think that Putin is lighting a fire right now for a revolution to begin?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) Well, he's clearly asking for a revolution.

GREENE: And in Russia today, both women say revolution, forcing change, sometimes comes at a cost. For them, time in prison camps. Masha remembers what those days were like.

MASHA ALYOKHINA: (Through interpreter) You go to work and you watch people turning into obedient cogs in a machine that produces police uniforms. If anyone tries to decline to do this work or disagrees in some other way, they might get thrown in solitary or they might get beaten either by the prison guards or by other prisoners who work together with the prison administration and collaborate with them.

GREENE: I'm looking at two mothers. You both have young children. You had to be away from them for years. If you knew that this was going to be your punishment, would you have done that performance in the church in Moscow?

NADYA TOLOKONNIKOVA: (Through interpreter) We don't like to speculatively look back and think about what if. They only way to go is forward.

GREENE: That was Nadya. Masha, let me ask you that. Do you have regrets? Would you have done that again?

ALYOKHINA: (Though interpreter) This may be hard to understand, but I am actually grateful to the leadership of this country for...

GREENE: Russia, we're talking about.

ALYOKHINA: (Through interpreter) Yes, Russia, for providing me with this experience of being in jail. I think I became a freer person as a result and understood many things that will now enable us to work on fixing this prison system.

GREENE: You feel freer, you say. What do you mean?

ALYOKHINA: (Through interpreter) Freedom as responsibility for your every step and gesture, freedom for choosing to act honestly and honorably or dishonestly or dishonorably, freedom as in life.

GREENE: When people outside Russia see crowds on the streets protesting, I think there can be an expectation that, oh, you know, here comes Russia's Arab Spring, that they're going to overthrow the leader. But a lot of people around Russia don't seem to want a big democratic protest movement right now. What is different in Russia? Explain the country to us. Masha?

ALYOKHINA: (Through interpreter) Well, Russia isn't necessarily that different from any other country, but there are two factors that come into play. The first is if you regularly have the protest beaten out of you by the OMON, the riot police, of course it's natural that you will eventually back down and take a more passive stance. And the second is that people don't believe that change is possible in Russia.

(Through interpreter) And I think one of the things that is vital to turn this situation around - because it can be turned around fairly quickly, but for that we need free media. We need free speech. We need channels that will give the opposition a voice.

GREENE: And the last question, Nadya, do you and Masha plan to go back to Russia, and will there be more Pussy Riot performances coming?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: (Through interpreter) Yes, of course we're planning to go back to Russia and the reason we're actually in a hurry to go right now is we have some very important things to do in support of those who are still jailed in connection with the May 6 protest.

GREENE: They're talking there about some fellow Russian protestors who are on trial now for taking part in demonstrations in Russia. And Nadya and Masha were sure in a hurry. They actually cut off our interview, apologizing, saying they needed to turn their attention to those people facing charges at home. The two women rose from their chairs in the studio, leaving me sitting with their interpreter.

Thank you both. Thank you.

And there is also this. Russia's ambassador to the United Nations sounded frustrated that his American counterpart, Samantha Power, decided to meet with Pussy Riot. He mockingly asked if she had decided to join the band. As Nadya told us in a slightly different context, quote: Anyone can be a member of Pussy Riot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.