Pussy Riot: An Under the Radar Visit to Purchase

by • March 12, 2014 • Latest NewsComments (0)744

by Kristi McKee

Photo by: Kristi McKee

By: Allee Manning

In the midst of their whirlwind New York media blitz, Russian performance artists and political activists Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot made a less publicized trip to Purchase College. 

On Friday, Feb. 7, the two met with Suzanne Kessler, Purchase dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who also serves as chair of the board for Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), an organization that brings innovative arts programs to five prisons in New York. Also present in Kessler’s crowded office was Katherine Vockins, the organization’s founder and Executive Director, Kim Breden, a volunteer, four students, and two faculty members invited to observe the meeting.

Their trademark vibrant balaclavas replaced by modest, black and grey business attire, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova sat attentively through the meeting with their hands on their laps, or taking notes. Due to their limited English comprehension, they remained mostly quiet, sometimes speaking with one another in hushed Russian or through Peter Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband, who served as translator and occasional representative of the group. 

The Purchase visit came during a week in which Alyokniha and Tolonnikova appeared on “The Colbert Report,” made a speech at the annual Amnesty International concert after being introduced by Madonna, and visited with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Having refocused their attention on Russian prison reform since their 21-month jail sentences ended on Dec. 23, the punk personas they exhibited in their now-infamous performance “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away” seem to have vanished.

The pair’s ties to Pussy Riot itself have become unclear, as an anonymous post on the group’s LiveJournal page announced, “It is no secret that Masha and Nadia are no longer members of the group, and will no longer take part in radical actionism.” The letter challenges their neglecting “the aspirations and ideals of our group – feminism, separatist resistance, fight against authoritarianism and personality cult, all of which, as a matter of fact, were the cause for their unjust punishment.” On Feb. 10, however, Tolokonnikova maintained that she was still a member of the subversive anti-Putin group. “Pussy Riot can be anyone, and no one can [be] excluded from Pussy Riot,” she was quoted in the New York Times. “Pussy Riot can only grow.”

Only once did the duo’s estranged collective come up over the course of the conversation at Purchase. Discussing the possibility of which they could become involved with RTA, Vockins told them they might be able to serve as interns, studying “theater as a form of use in corrections… but nothing else. No Pussy Riot, no nothing,” evoking laughter from the whole room, themselves and Verzilov included.

Verzilov, himself a member of the Russian activist group “Voina,” played an active role throughout the course of the meeting. While the band members were in prison, he had posted an official statement to the Pussy Riot LiveJournal stating that he “has never been and am not a producer, leader, organizer, promoter, spokesman, or any other executive of the Pussy Riot group.” 

“Right now we’re working to organize prisoner’s rights in jail that focus on these topics that Nadia raised in her letter and other topics like establishing cultural programs in Russian prisons because…  [we] are longtime political actors,” he said, adding that they intend to continue utilizing performance art to attain their goals. “Performance right is something that goes parallel to [prisoner’s rights] so there are obviously plans to create a music video with these themes, but that’s something different than the NGOs.” 

Hunter Heany of the Voice Project, an American human rights organization, served as liaison during the trip and had originally contacted RTA as a means of getting the group to visit a prison. When that didn’t pan out, an informational meeting was scheduled instead. At Kessler’s suggestion, it was held at Purchase. 

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by Kristi McKee

“They want to improve Russian prisons, that’s clear,” Kessler said after the meeting. “They want to improve the entire Russian prison system. They’ve got a very big, idealistic but yet wonderful goal. Do they actually want to set up this kind of program in Russia? I don’t know. They were asking questions, very precise questions, about, ‘How were you able to get this into the prisons all these years ago,’ and, ‘How have you been able to stay in the prison; how are you able to walk this line?’”

Addressing the need and means for prison reform in Russia is now the main goal of both Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, who began speaking out while still incarcerated. On Sept. 23, 2013, Tolokonnikova wrote a letter describing the type of prison labor and mistreatment she and her fellow inmates faced in Penal Colony No. 14, a prison camp. There, she claims to have worked daily in a sewing shop for up to 17 hours a day, observed peers being denied medical treatment, and even witnessed death at the hand of the commonplace beatings prisoners receive.

“The letter she wrote from prison… basically, when she went on hunger strike October this year, became the most widely read written piece in the Russian language in the past 20 years. It gave incredible coverage to the prison problem,” said Verzilov, who believes that in terms of human rights, “Russian prisons right now are really at the point American prisons were [during the] ’50s, ’60s, maybe ’70s.”

Members of RTAs said programs like theirs cannot be radical or politically charged, in order to continue their work.

“We don’t publicly criticize the prison system…,” Kessler advised the three on creating programs for arts related therapy for prisoners. “And there are many opportunities to do that, but we don’t. You have to keep this very separate.”

“Do you give [performance footage] to other NGOs or people who do criticize [the prison system]?” asked Alyokhina through Verzilov. They were told that RTA does not.

While members of the RTA and Purchase administration were unable to directly answer how the activists might be able to achieve their goals in Russia with a program like RTA, all agreed that there is a need for them to make the most of their moment.

[That letter was] really a conversation opener,” said Kessler, who has been following their story through The New York Times since the trial began. “Given the 24 hour news cycle and how quickly people get bored of stuff, those windows of opportunity to talk about these things is… narrow.”

Headed quickly off to the Federal Correctional Institution of Danbury—where staff had initially accepted in their request to visit but later failed to confirm—Verzilov encouraged his idea to take a shot at showing up anyways. 

“This is something like the Russian methods, because in Russia when you do things, you almost have to feel like a performance artist,” he said while Allyokhina and Tolokonnikova posed for some final photos. “…You have of think of how to avoid things like the door being shut. You need a creative way to get through the door.”

 

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