Well, first of all no one should be in prison for their politics. Political cases against people are just wrong. I wouldn't necessarily call this the first problem of the whole penal system, though.
The number one problem, in my view, is medicine. Or, rather, its absence. There is no medical care in Russian prison colonies, you just don’t get treatment. They give you the same pill for your head and for you're a**. In the Berezniki colony (where I spent my time after the sentence for my performance in the cathedral in Moscow), there was a tuberculosis hospital on the territory of the prison. That means that women with open tuberculosis were just a couple hundred meters away from everyone else in the prison. And since most women who are in prison (about 70-80%) are there because of possession or selling of drugs, this also means that many of them have HIV. These people have to be treated for HIV, and if they aren’t, their immune systems stops working and they simply die. The are constant problems with procuring HIV medication, if you look at the statistics it’s just terrifying.
More broadly, the whole Сriminal Code has to be reformed.
There’s also the problem of mandatory labour. What should a penal colony be for? Theoretically, it should prepare you for life after you leave the colony. Because isolation of being at the colony is already punishment enough. Our penal system is built around backward logic – the fact that you are there is not even considered to be the punishment.
I think everything began when we received our sentences for our performance in the cathedral. I was sent to Berezniki, this is a penal colony in Perm region of Russia. It’s 3,500 kilometres from Moscow, and we had to travel there in stages because you cannot make it there in one go. Getting there was a whole separate adventure – how they transport you and so on.
But when I got there, it was evident the heads of the penal colony knew who I was. It was very cold there, about -35 degrees Celsius in the winter. And they don't give out any normal clothes at this penal colony, nothing nearly warm enough. So I was planning to go to the human rights activists to complain. The administration understood that I was going to do this, and they tried to create a provocation and make it so that I wouldn’t be able to take an active position there. So I sued them, and, unexpectedly, I won the case against then in court. And that feeling that you get when you realize you can win the case – that you are a person who wears the prisoner’s uniform, and yet you can win in court against people who are covered from head to toe in government insignia, symbols of power. This feeling is overpowering. Of course, it’s impossible to stop there once you get a taste of it. We succeeded in bringing about serious change in Bereznoki, and later also in the second colony I was sent to afterwards.
That same year, Nadya Tolokonnikova (who was also in prison for the song we performed in the cathedral in Moscow) went on hunger strike, and this made headlines all over the world. The Guardian wrote about it too. That’s how people outside of Russia learned about what penal colonies are like in the Mordovian region of Russia.
So we started to conduct media-and-human-rights-related activities from within the penal colonies.
Well, I found out about performance art (or “actionism”) when I saw a piece made by the group “Bombily,” the precursor to Voina art group. They blocked off a whole road and stood there with giant signs that said “We don’t know what we want.” I loved that. I thought that brilliantly reflected the general mood that characterized the times of my childhood. And then I started reading more about performance art, and I found out about the performance artist Alexander Brener, who wrote poetry.
In general, films inspired me too. Cinema was important for me. I changed 6 schools because I kept getting suspended or leaving school myself, and in the last school I went to, didn't have enough money for CD’s for when my friend and I would go to the music store. My mom told me that if I wanted money, I had to earn it, so I started working at video rental shop across the street from my school. I would distribute fliers for them, and they hardly paid me, but I had access to films. I could take several videotapes home with me every day and watch them for free, so that’s what I did most of the time instead of doing my homework. And that way, I found out a lot about cinema. When I watched Clockwork Orange for the first time, for example, I realized that this is just incredibly cool, how was it even possible to make such a great movie? Then I started making lists of movies and categorizing them, then I started inviting my classmates over to watch films – they wanted to become bureaucrats in the oil industry, since our school had links with a prestigious geography faculty, but we would meet at my house and watch these films, and we started talking about them. Then, I started reading books during class under my desk, mostly books that weren’t part of the school programme of assigned reading, like Chuck Palahniuk. And this really inspired me during the whole school process, which usually aims to impose norms on people and to standardize them. Then I started reading things on the internet, and I learned about the incredible history of protest films in the UK. The British New Wave is an incredible thing, the film “If” from 1968, for example, is great.
I personally started doing protest-related things that were related to ecology. There’s a nature reserve in the south of Russia, in Bolshoi Utrish, there is a juniper forest there. It was supposed to be destroyed and at some point between lectures I saw this online and I decided to skip the next lecture and to go to something about it. I wrote out a list of organizations that could help. I packed my bag and went there. After a year 10000 people were part of the movement to save this nature reserve. So that’s how I found out about what’s happening in Krasnodar region, which is one of the epicenters of sh** in Russia where a lot of terrible things happen in terms of human rights violations, like police torture and the prevention of any civic activity.
People probably have lots of different perceptions of us. I honestly haven’t met a single person who would wish me bad things to my face. I think that since the time we were freed from prison, what happened to us back then has now become pretty commonplace - it’s just something that happens to a lot of people. You open the newspaper and you read about someone who went to meet someone else, and suddenly that person is in jail. It’s now part of everyday life. And our sentence of two years is quite small – lots of people get longer sentences for nothing. It’s important to speak up about this. Each person has a voice – you don’t need any special set of skills, you can just go do something about it if you feel you need to.
When I use the word “punk”, I mean more the lifestyle rather than the musical genre. To me, “punk” stands for something like “fuck the norm.” The word “norm” is one of the most important words in this regard. If you’ve read the Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin and his depictions of “the norm” in his books about the Soviet period, you’ll know what I mean. When I was a kid and a teenager, being “normal” meant being like everyone else, and of course no one should have to be like anyone else. The fundamental principle I try to follow is to fight against the standardization of people, the turning of people into parts of a single mechanism and into soldiers of some kind of state army. That everyday fight is what “punk” means to me, and I view Pussy Riot as a sort of punk team.
If I had to project this idea on the political system of Russia, if I had to look at who is responsible for winding up the entire machine that standardizes people, I would say that the process happens all throughout society. It’s the most obvious and blunt at the level of the prison system, where everyone has to wear the same uniform with a tag and a number, and you toil away sewing police uniforms 14 hours a day. But this exact thing happens absolutely everywhere throughout the social order.
The Punk Prayer, which Pussy Riot performed in in February 2012 in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, happened five years ago. That was what we were eventually jailed for. Back then, in 2012, Pussy Riot was a Moscow-based group comprised of anonymous members. Anyone could join. Our token sign was the balaclava, which hid our faces. But a lot has changed since. The balaclavas were stripped off three of us during the trial and prison period, so we had to forget about anonymity – our identities were revealed.
If I had to define Pussy Riot today, I think I would say it’s a punk team. Anyone can still become a Pussy Riot member, that part hasn't changed. The number of people who are part of it has definitely changed a lot, because since our balaclavas were stripped from us, thousands of new people ended up putting them on. At first people worldwide started doing this to support us through the trial and prison process, and then people began doing it as a sign that they agree with the ideas we stand for.
So Pussy Riot exists all over the world today, but it’s hard to say exactly what Pussy Riot is. It could mean one thing for me, but it might mean something entirely different for somebody else.
Pussy Riot is the art of protest. It can take just about any form. Maybe this is a weakness of mine, but I can’t stick to doing just one thing for many years in a row, and in this sense I’m not a professional, I’m just a constant dilettante. But I’m sincere, and when I pick a new form for protest, I try to grasp it and live it as deeply as I can.
I was not one of the founders of Pussy Riot, I joined later. Initially, when I joined, one of the first things we did together was sing the song “Puti zassal” (roughly translated as “Putin has pissed himself) on the Red Square. I got involved in political art when my friend introduced me to “Voina art group”, and we decided to create an improvised musical collective called “Dick the in ass.” This was around the time when Andrei Yerofeev and Yuri Samodurov (former director of the Andrei Sakharov Center) were being sued for their exhibition titled “caution, religion!” [which included paintings and other art critically examining the intersection of religion with commercial interests, politics, and popular culture, deemed extremist by critics of the exhibition]. Together with the collective “Dick in the Ass” we interrupted a 2009 courtroom hearing against Yerofeev by singing a song called “All cops are bastards, remember this!” at full volume with instruments in the courtroom. I liked this a lot. I decided the film the whole thing on video.
It was all very new and incredibly interesting. And as time passed, together with my friend (who is the base guitarist who introduced me to Voina) we started recording Pussy Riot songs at her house. I lived there at the time. It was really interesting, so I decided to join.
At the time, around 15 people were in Pussy Riot if you count everyone who wrote the words, played the music, filmed and photographed the actions.