Words by Grace Hood-Edwards
Photography by
Chontalle Musson

Pussy Riot is not a punk band”, producer Sacha Cheparukhin opens in his introduction. He states that there is no fixed membership of Pussy Riot, and alludes that we are not about to witness a musical performance of the tracks – Police State, Make America Great Again – for which Pussy Riot may be known for. Pussy Riot is an artistic collective with many members and with multiple protest projects running simultaneously. Pussy Riot: Riot Days is based on the book written by Maria ‘Masha’ Alyokhina in a “small wooden house near Moscow” after being held in prison for two years as a political prisoner. 

It is likely that you will have heard of the original Pussy Riot protesters, for which two women, Masha Alyokhina and Nadezhda ‘Nadya’ Tolokonnikova, were arrested and imprisoned in a labour camp in 2012. Riot Days is a performance that recounts Masha’s experience, yet Cheparukhin tells us that for the first time ever three of the original core Pussy Riot members will be performing together. The group this evening entailed the drummer and keyboardist known as Kot, trumpet player Oleg Larionov, a bare-chested Belarusian actor named Kyril Masheka, Nadya on saxophone and Masha centre stage. 

The lights go down and the stage is saturated with red as Kot enters, wearing sunglasses and a t-shirt. A metallic whining fills Auckland’s Town Hall, with faint echoes of something like church bells mixed in to the electronic soundscape. The rest of the group filter onstage, emotionless, before they shout in unison – a crashing noise that melds with throbbing bass, breaking the tense anticipation in the room. 

Masha grabs the microphone and sets off, rapidly narrating in Russian while English subtitles paired with documentary footage run on the screen behind her. She says that “Revolution requires a big screen”. They want to make a movie about revolution. The current Russian Revolution.  

Anyone can be Pussy Riot. The words flash up on the screen as the performers shout in unison. Masha narrates in a form of spoken-word against a backdrop of heavy bass punk music, interspersed with jagged brass and the occasional chorus shouts to emphasise certain phrases. Masha narrates their story of revolution from beginning to present. She repeats the phrase “the freedom of civic anger” repeatedly in the first act of their performance. It keenly summarises their performance – a raging, wild protest – a riot. And as Masha states: “Riot is always a beauty, that’s why I got interested”.

A cry for the Virgin Mary to banish Putin and a change to blue signals is a clever shift as Masha moves on to her own turning point – their protest in the church. The other members start choral singing as they kneel down, while footage of the protesters in church – women in balaclavas rocking and kicking – plays overhead. Their “forty seconds of crime”. Masha’s head slowly rotates as they shout/chant “shit shit holy shit” repeatedly. 

This frenetic chaos, paired with a loud, insistent, driving pulse, defines most of the performance. However moments of raw humanity and vulnerability filter in, like when Masha asks, “Do I have the right to do this, or am I a barbarian?” The words flash up on the screen, bold white against black. 

The performance is also layered with a subtle wit, where moments of the biography shout out amidst the performance. Masha remembers whispering to one of the other protesters on their way into the church: 

“We have to act like ordinary girls in church. “

“How do ordinary girls act in church?”

“No idea.”

This is a personal narration. A personal story – with the heroes and victims on stage in front of us. 

As Masha shouts out, “In Russia, there are no women priests – there are Pussy Riot” and the group breaks down into wild uninhibited dancing along with an insistent drumbeat. Masha walks up to the front of the stage and the audience cheers, a few hands reaching up towards her. This leads into the third section: Operation Escape. Masha describes the events of those days and her arrest in incredible, unique detail. The timeline is fractured, with moments spilling into one another. Masha states that “every night in [her] dreams [she] ran, and every night [she] woke up in prison”.

As they begin to describe Masha’s arrest, the trumpet and saxophone play discordantly, jumping amidst a ticking drum beat and the chime of a clock, hastening a sense of panic and anxiety. Their crafted performance does a brilliant job of describing events almost matter-of-factly, yet capturing the emotion and feeling through the music and movement onstage. The moment climaxes and the group shouts out, “Russia will be free”. The audience cheers loudly and raises their arms, and Masha lets out a small smile. 

The music gets quieter and the group go still as Masha asks, “What is a criminal? A human?” The group strip down and everyone dons a balaclava (and one panda mask) as they dance strangely around the stage, a mockery of the quote from the trial. “Planned leaping and hopping” – the act for which Masha was imprisoned. Footage of three Pussy Riot members at the trial smiling and talking with one another is striking. They look so much younger in the video than they do onstage. 

Masha states that “although fearful and shy… you can’t allow yourself to be afraid.”

Under the loud accompaniment and the wailing of one of the performers into the microphone, there is an awful strange quiet in the audience as Masha describes the moment during the trial where a medical team takes her into a truck with an open door and tells her to remove her underwear.

The beat picks up and Pussy Riot marches to the front of the stage before dancing wildly, the audience stirring as well. We learn that Masha is banished from court for laughing. They don’t allow any of her defence witnesses to testify. The whole crafted performance – the footage, the spoken word, the dancing and music – does a good job in capturing the ridiculousness of the accusations, the cruelty of the treatment and mostly – Pussy Riot’s righteous anger. The group starts screaming as the drumbeat breaks down. 

Nadya plays a lonesome dirge on the saxophone, as the group cluster at the back of the stage. The footage on the screen details the beginnings of Masha’s imprisonment. Masha lights a cigarette and leads the performers in a funeral-esque parade around the stage. She kneels at the front of the stage, smoking a cigarette and haloed by a spotlight as she states “I promise myself that I will not regret. Not a single thing”. 

The rest of the performers hum solemnly in the background as Masha insists that “we must change Russia. It is our duty… Cripples are strong”. We see Masha’s hollow eyes as she talks about what it is liked to be pumped full of aminazine. “There is no humanism in Russian prisons.” The drumbeat breaks out and the group howls. “A more terrible dawn.”

Kyril begins to take water bottles from the table at the back of the stage and sprays the crowd repeatedly with water, a shock to the system in an over-heated crowd. Masha stands at the back pouring bottle after bottle over her head. The saxophone screams. 

The audience noticeably braces as they realise where this woman in front of us was imprisoned – in a penal colony in the Urals, where the first gulags were opened. The footage on the screen sees never ending prison walls and thigh deep snow as “violation” keeps flashing up on the screen. Masha states that “nature in the north is not indifferent. Not apathetic. It is in cahoots”. 

Masha is now wearing a raincoat, hood up. A glint at her chest marks a cross or some sort of rosary hanging from her neck. She is clad in iron as she recalls her thoughts: “I have to keep walking. I’ll never forgive.” She describes the cruel and unrelenting practices of the prison, yet she remains true to these words. She wins her first of four cases against the justice system a few months later, with this first case against a guard being the first in the penal colony’s history. This detailing of defiance is broken up by a picture of her son holding a sign in the snow that reads “Let mom go”. It is a heart-breaking moment which hearkens back to the line earlier where Masha said she’d told Philip she’d be back later. She walked out the door and returned two years later. 

The narrative jumps and Masha is on hunger strike. Her protest is, in a way, successful. She is moved to another prison. They give in to her. She repeatedly shouts out, “My hell, my rules.” Pussy Riot cry out and begin to roll around the ground, scream, do star-jumps on the back table. A savage triumph. 

Photographs of political prisoners are presented on the screen in quick succession. Prisoners who have and are being tortured. Masha has been given amnesty, yet states that everyone needs amnesty except for her. The lights flash up, illuminating the audience as Masha cries out “I’m free. Are you?” 

The performance ends with the words vocalised and on screen – we have to fight for freedom every day. Pussy Riot: Riot Days is a chaotic, but highly intelligent construction and melding of music, media and spoken word. It is not simply a show, but a reminder, a wake-up call, a call to action. Their performance is a revolution and a reminder that performance can be a revolution. Freedom is not given. You have to fight for it, every day. 

PUSSY RIOT

UNSANITARY NAPKIN

About The Author

Chontalle Musson
Photographer & Music Editor

there is always time for good coffee

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