Pussy Riot Comes to L.A. - The Culture Files Blog - Los Angeles magazine
 
 

Pussy Riot Comes to L.A.

The Russian punk band hits town to talk about Putin, prisons, and the power of art

Pussy Riot's Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova

Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova have a seamless simpatico that’s undoubtedly a result of having been detained, put on (mock) trial in a glass box, and sentenced together. The two members of the Russian punk performance group Pussy Riot served their time in separate prisons but have seemed almost inseparable since their simultaneous early releases in December. During their first visit to Los Angeles, at a Sunday panel at the Harmony Gold Theater and then a Voice Project panel Monday night at Mack Sennet Studios, their bodies leaned toward each other, comfortably and conspiratorially, as they deftly parried questions from sycophantic moderators and emotional audience members. 

“I went free in a whole other country than I was imprisoned in,” Tolokonnikova said Sunday, explaining the impact of recent Russian anti-gay laws. (The women spoke in Russian; Tolokonnikova's husband Pyotr Verzilov translated.)           

Dismissing the idea that there’s a difference between creative expression and political action, Masha offered simple advice: “Keep your ears open and think and feel about what happens around you. That’s where art and activism come from.”

Pussy Riot’s West Coast debut came on the heels of their appearance at the Women in the World Summit in New York, where they hung with Hillary Clinton. They spoke Sunday after a screening of the documentary Pussy vs. Putin, organized by the nonprofit Cinema for Peace. Afterwards they rubbed shoulders with the Hollywood elite at a dinner hosted by Roland Emmerich. Monday night they were the stars of a panel that included artist Shepard Fairey, musician Wayne Kramer, and KCRW’s Anne Litt. The Harmony was half-filled, but Mack Sennett was packed. All eyes were on Pussy Riot, who were dressed conservatively at both events, in skirts, blouses, and black tights. They were elegant, poised, and blazingly intelligent, able to deftly counter sometimes hostile queries. 

“How do you define political prostitution?” asked a Russian woman at the Harmony, after inquiring who was footing the bill for Pussy Riot’s Hollywood tour.

“Political prostitution is when thugs are hired by the government to attack two young women who are trying to visit prisoners, as happened to us,” Nadya replied. 

Kramer almost stole the show at the Voice Project panel. The MC5 guitarist did jail time, albeit for drugs, and now works with the prisoner advocacy group Jail Guitar Doors. He spoke eloquently and passionately about America’s incarceration epidemic, even name-dropping Michel Foucault. “This is a conversation that doesn’t happen in America,” he said. “It’s a national disgrace. These are our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and friends.”

For all the talk about Putin, the power of art, and prisons (Masha and Nadya have formed their own NGO, Zona Prava), there was very little discussion of punk rock and/or feminism—the two movements that gave Pussy Riot their name and their fire. Alekhina and Tolokonnikova have become global leaders on current issues, urging the world to support Ukraine, for one. But the first artists to really make the world see Putin as a "dick-tator" were heeding Bikini Kill’s call for “Revolution Girl Style Now!” when they first pulled on their balaclavas. This week as they sat on LA stages, strong and casual, they showed just what a force girl power can be.

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