I went to church with Pussy Riot

I took Pussy Riot to church and they almost got kicked out…

cambridge union pussy riot Masha Alekhina Nadya Tolokonnikova Petr Verzilov pussy riot cambridge pussy riot go to church

I met Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina for the first time eight months ago.

Two months on from their release, they were holding a press conference in Amsterdam and I flew out on a quest to meet them. By my last day in the city, my attempts had proved fruitless. I wandered aimlessly around the city before stopping at a small café just off the Red Light District for lunch. A few moments later, Nadya and Masha walked in.

After the initial shock had worn off and my Russian had run its course, we made small-talk over coffee. I realised that any tentative attempt to ask them about their time in prison was a bad idea. They were cold and tetchy, exhausted by the constant hounding of the press and the repeated questions about the grim conditions of the Russian penitentiary system.

Pussy Patrol: Verzilov, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina

Back in Amsterdam

But last night, attending a Q&A at The Cambridge Union, they were transformed. With their brightly dyed hair and confident English, they seemed much more at ease with their global status as political activists – or as they called themselves, “enemies of the Russian state”.

A number of controversial issues were bravely addressed: from feminism and LGBT rights, to the Ukrainian crisis and the harsh realities of Putin’s regime. When the Union’s microphones started breaking up, they joked that it was the FSB tapping in on the talk.

Away from the spotlight, they are much the same.

As we walked through the idyllic grounds of John’s and King’s, they took selfies and smoked cigarettes, chatting about Crimea and recently imposed sanctions on Russia.

“Crimea is Ukraine. But the fact is that people need to listen to the people of Crimea: a large part of the population has really nostalgic feelings towards the Soviet Union, and this is the same case with many parts of Russia as well.

“That is the reason that the referendum was so successful and why the ‘little green men’ were able to occupy Crimea without any bloodshed.”

At the closely-guarded gates of King’s, they laughed at the furious, “bureaucratic” porters, who asked them who they were and ordered them to stub out their cigarettes.

Taken just before they got deaned

Taken just before they got deaned

On Tuesday, they embark on a visit to the Ecuadorian embassy where they will meet Julian Assange. They grilled me on what they should ask him. Flustered, I scrabbled around before saying that I wanted to know why he had sacrificed himself for the truth. Nadya gave me a piercing look.

“That is what journalists ask. As activists, we know why. We know that we have to.”

This unfaltering determination permeated their talk. On feminism, they said simply: “There is no state of feminism in Russia. We try to fight for it but we get whips in our faces for trying”.

"The Kremlin's discourse is: either there’s Putin or there’s chaos"

“The Kremlin’s discourse is: either there’s Putin or there’s chaos”

The group remain realistic about the tangible change they hope to push through within the social and political constraints they are faced with.

“We started an organisation which is not recognised on paper, it is incredibly difficult to be a human rights organisation in Russia. It’s humiliating, abusive and rigidly controlled… Our central aim is to improve the penitentiary situation in Russia – even if just a little bit.”

Whilst they were naturally critical of Russian political system (“There is empty space which Putin is leading, half-naked on a horse”), they were equally vocal about the failures of the West, stressing that leaders must act morally and ethically and not for financial and economic interest.

Earlier that evening, I took them to King’s Chapel Evensong. It was difficult to ignore the irony: going to church with Pussy Riot, the same women who staged a notorious ‘Punk Prayer’ in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour, was probably a once in a lifetime event.

Having never visited England before, the activists were intrigued by the solemnity of the Anglican service, finding its gravitas amusing.

“It’s totally unlike Russian Orthodox services because religion stands for something entirely different in Britain… the relationship between church and state does not exist in the same way.”

IMG_6415

Punk Prayer (Cambridge Remix)

In the closing prayer, Richard Lloyd Morgan, the King’s chaplain, uttered an unexpected dedication: “We pray today for political prisoners across the world… we pray today for those are still imprisoned and forgotten.”

In one sentence, he summed up what is so important to remember: what it is that Nadya, Masha, and their team at Mediazona/Zona Prava continue to fight for.

Those who are, indeed, still forgotten.

Didn’t agree with what Pussy Riot had to say? Write to us [email protected]