“Resistance is always a choice. And there are always new moments for resistance. It’s not just in the prisons, it’s in everyday life.”
UP IN ARMS
Visiting the exhibition Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia, you enter a dark room. You are pleasantly greeted by a man sitting at a fold-up table spread with pamphlets and copies of Maria Alyokhina’s 2017 prison memoir, Riot Days. To your right: a video of a woman in a baggy, black dress fills one wall, blonde hair curling messily out from beneath a red balaclava. Standing above a portrait of President Vladimir Putin, she carefully lifts her dress and pisses all over him.
This is the first-ever museum exhibition of Pussy Riot’s work, and it’s being held at Reykjavík’s Marshall House. Maria Alyokhina has been through much to be here. When, on February 24, 2022 President Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of a “special military operation” in Ukraine, Maria, a founding member of Pussy Riot, watched the announcement from a detention centre on the outskirts of Moscow. Less than a year later, she and fellow members of the feminist punk band and activist group have created a visual omnibus of their political actions, a comprehensive critique of Putin’s Russia, in Reykjavík.
Pussy Riot is in theory a punk band, but their best-known works are acts of political protest and performance art. They first came to prominence in 2012, when they performed Punk Prayer, a frantic 60-second sonic protest at the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, in which Maria and her companions exhorted the Virgin Mary to become a feminist. Indeed, the exhibition’s title, Velvet Terrorism, comes from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s description of the protest. Several of the band’s members, including Maria (also known as Masha), served time in Siberian penal colonies for the performance. The charges: hooliganism and “religious hatred.”
“I think that art is basically asking the question:
Do we want to live like this, or not?”
OUT FOR DELIVERY
“I was concerned that all of this visual material might die in the exhibit,” Masha tells me. “We didn’t want any frames on anything.” It’s never easy to incorporate the provocative, rebellious spirit of performance art into the sometimes-musty confines of art museums. In lieu of frames, glitter and brightly-coloured tape decorate the walls, evoking a teenage girl’s poster collage. Nothing here is permanent, the entire exhibition ready to be torn down about as quickly as it was put up.
Among the many images and videos of their diverse political actions, one stands out. Two women, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, are dressed in blue and white sarafans, a traditional Russian women’s costume, accessorised with fishnet stockings and black boots. The scene resembles idyllic depictions of maypole dances, except the streamers are replaced with yellow plastic police tape and the two women are tying up a faceless, masked policeman. Nadya stares at the camera.
After politely pacing among many such images, visitors are finally challenged by a prison guard. To get through to the end of the exhibit, you must surrender your shoelaces, belts, phones, and keys and place them all in a grey, plastic tray. Your personal belongings disappear through a slot in the wall. It’s unclear where they’ve gone.
You are ushered into a small room, shuffling to not trip over your now-loose shoes. In front of you: a closed door. Above: an intercom, broadcasting in Russian. On either side: institutionally grey-green walls. It doesn’t help that the door is rather heavy and stiff. It takes some time to realise that freedom is only a quick, violent push away.
Hanging on the opposite side of the door is a bright-green uniform complete with an insulated backpack, the kind used by online food ordering and delivery services. This is the uniform that Masha used to escape from Russia in April 2022.
“We transported the uniform all the way from Moscow,” Masha says. “It took two months and got here just two weeks before the start of the exhibition. We never really know what’s going to happen to us, so it’s better for it to be here.” Police surveillance is a daily reality for her and her friends (you can always tell Kremlin agents from their bad taste in footwear, she says). And since 2021, Masha has been picked up by authorities for various trumped-up charges, including violating COVID-19 quarantine. For the past two years, she has been under intermittent house arrest, but the decision to flee only came when the authorities announced that she was to serve the rest of her sentence in a penal colony. Having once served out a sentence in Siberia, she had no desire to return.
“Sometimes we need to go out on an errand or whatever, so I came up with this idea to buy the uniform,” Masha explains. “The political police, you know, are quite stupid. The lower-level guys will be tasked with just monitoring you entering and exiting your home, and they often don’t notice much else.” With the help of the delivery uniform and Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, Masha was able to make it to the Belorussian border, and ultimately to Iceland via Lithuania. Ragnar’s exact involvement is left unstated, one of many cul-de-sacs in our conversation for the protection and anonymity of her friends.
Despite its dramatic nature, Masha is quite nonchalant about her disguised escape. “The most difficult thing,” she tells me, “is making the decision. Once you’ve made your decision, the rest is just practical.”
“Arrests can be fun.”
This decisiveness has defined Masha’s life from an early age. “I was quite a problematic child,” Masha says. This isn’t a surprise. “I changed schools a lot, I couldn’t get along with my teachers. The way they teach in Russia, it’s still Soviet-era patriotism.” It was shortly after completing secondary school that Masha truly became politically conscious. And it wasn’t contact with dissident students in Moscow or radical reading groups – but the destruction of a beloved forest – that led to the leap of faith.
“I read that the state was going to clear Utrish Nature Reserve for an oligarch’s mansion,” she explains. Located on the Abrau peninsula along the Black Sea, only a narrow strait separates Utrish from Crimea. Which at that time was still Ukrainian. Utrish Nature Reserve is also the only part of Russia to have a Mediterranean climate: a little slice of paradise. “It’s a very unique place that should be protected,” Masha says. “I hitchhiked there after finishing school. At the time, I didn’t know anything about activism. I wrote to some organisations like Greenpeace and WWF and asked what I could do. And then I just picked up my backpack and went.”
She started to collect signatures to save the nature reserve from development, and when she returned to Moscow, she wrote again to Greenpeace and WWF asking what more she could do. From there, things started to snowball: she organised small demonstrations, filmed political actions, and collaborated with others. It was also during this time, as a student at Moscow State University, that Masha met Nadya. Together, they would become two of Pussy Riot’s founding members.
Masha’s problems with authority continued at university. “I was studying literature, and all of my professors were writers and poets. They knew what was going on, why were they not in the streets?” While some in the ivory tower agonise over the relationship between art and political commitment, for Pussy Riot’s project, the interconnectedness of the two is quite simply axiomatic. Art and activism at the same time.
For Masha, “punk isn’t a genre of music. It’s a way of life.” And this “way of life” isn’t merely an aesthetic identity. It has to do with asking the authorities difficult questions, being willing to come into real confrontation with the state. This is something that Masha is deeply familiar with, having spent a total of two years of her life in prison, and about the same amount of time under house arrest. “I think art has a responsibility to change the norm,” she explains. “So many things that are normal now, that we take for granted, are still very new. It was totally impossible to imagine gay pride within some people’s lifetimes. You could end up in a mental hospital. Some people had to sacrifice themselves to change the norm. I think that art is basically asking the question: Do we want to live like this, or not?”
Since those early days of activism, Masha and her companions have toured and lectured throughout the world, led major demonstrations, and, of course, made themselves enemy number one in Putin’s Russia.
FACE OF RESISTANCE
A common motif in Pussy Riot’s visual vocabulary is the moment of arrest. This moment, the frequent conclusion to many of their actions, could be seen as an integral part of the performance, the standing ovation to a virtuoso protest.
In one such image, from a demonstration of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Cossacks in fur-lined ushankas lash Masha and her companions with heavy horse whips. There is a curious detachment, as if neither party particularly wants to be here. The action takes place in the passive voice; there is whipping being done. Masha and her friends stand there stoically disassociated from the blows, while the Cossacks, half-bored, wait for 5:00 PM to roll around, like the rest of us. In other images, Masha’s face is illuminated by a saintly calm. Looking at the camera as hulking, armed guards take her away, she resembles nothing so much as the Pietà.
“Of course, it’s stupid to resist these large men with guns,” Masha says. The saintly appearance is, in a very practical sense, a signal to these violent men that she’s no longer resisting. But her calm passivity in these images also casts absurdity on the proceedings, men in special forces gear surrounding the diminutive Masha. “Even these men are just working a job,” Masha says. “There are definitely some true sadists who enjoy the full extent of their power, but they’re not the majority. The majority are tired. They want to go home to their wife and kids. And just like everyone else, they’re not being paid enough for what they do.” In some of these images, however, the attentive viewer might catch something else: the shadow of a smile. “Arrests,” after all, “can be fun.”
And Masha’s defiance extends well beyond the moment of her arrest. “The penal colonies [often referred to as ‘the zone’], are still the same as in the Soviet Union,” Masha says. Prisoners live on strictly regimented schedules, sewing military uniforms for slave wages. During her time in the penal colony, where she was subjected to a total of five months of solitary confinement, Masha maintained contact with human rights observers. Through learning her rights and hunger striking, she even successfully mounted a campaign to reform conditions from the inside. “I started to defend myself,” Masha remembers. “I asked for a copy of the prison regulations. Many don’t know this, but they have to give you the regulations if you ask for them. I started to read the regulations and I found out it was them breaking the law, not me.”
But it wasn’t easy. During all of this, guards would sometimes break script, asking her why she didn’t make life easy for herself. Why she always had to take the hard way. But, as Masha tells me: “Resistance is always a choice. And there are always new moments for resistance. It’s not just in the prisons, it’s in everyday life. I knew that if I submitted in prison, even when I regained my freedom, I wouldn’t be free.”
THIS WAY: WAR
Over the last year, pedestrians in downtown Reykjavík may have noticed some new graffiti in several locations. Over a field of blue, an arrow points east. War: 3,963 km. Beside the arrow, a black bomb crashes through a house.
An island on the edge of the Arctic Circle, Iceland has always been on the periphery of world history. But it is Iceland’s marginality that has often thrust it into the centre of things as well. Its Mid-Atlantic disposition made it an important shipping lane during the Second World War. It was likewise considered a sufficiently central, yet neutral, location for the famous nuclear disarmament talks between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986. Iceland’s peculiar position has also made it home to high-profile asylum seekers and political refugees over the years, most famously the controversial chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, who called Iceland his home from 2005 until his death in 2008.
It makes sense, then, that Pussy Riot’s first-ever exhibition took place at the Marshall House. The house, built in the post-war years of development under the Marshall Plan, was originally a fishmeal factory. The Marshall Plan’s goal was to develop post-war Europe, especially Germany, to keep it within the American sphere of influence. Today, the Marshall House is home to Kling og Bang, i8 Gallery, and several other spaces for contemporary art. Iceland, so far away from it all at first glance, is not so insular after all. “War,” Masha says, “is always closer than it looks.”
“War is always closer than it looks.”