A sold-out audience welcomed Russian activists and Pussy Riot members Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Alexandra “Sasha” Bogino to the Humanities Lecture Hall at UNC Asheville on Wednesday, Nov. 16.
The Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot stages protest performances in public locations. Videos of the performances have been widely circulated on the internet and have attracted the attention of the international media.
A 2012 performance in a Moscow cathedral protested the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Three members of Pussy Riot were arrested and jailed; Alyokhina was one of them. Since her release from prison in December 2013, she has been traveling and speaking to groups about her activism.
Bogino has been working as a journalist for Mediazona, the group’s independent news outlet, for the past year.
Alyokhina also works with Mediazona to bring attention to other political activists in Russia. While she won three of her four court cases, the typical success rate for similar cases is .04 percent, and she advocates for people who don’t have access to the same level of media attention she does.
After watching a video about journalists who were attacked in Russia, Lori Horvitz, panel moderator and UNC Asheville professor, asked, “What can we do to make sure that doesn’t happen here?”
Bogino and Alyokhina said the majority of Russian media distributes what they consider propaganda. When independent journalists present objective information, the pair said, they’re putting their lives at risk. Most news organizations are controlled by the Russian government, and any independent news must be shared on western social media such as Twitter and Facebook, they said.
“The government has access to all of Russian social media, so you have to be careful,” Alyokhina said.
They said after the recent U.S. election, stores in parts of Russia celebrated the outcome with sales and publicized their support. Some stores even displayed posters of president-elect Donald Trump.
Audience members asked the panel about Wikileaks, Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election and the experiences of Alyokhina during her imprisonment.
International attention to Pussy Riot’s plight made a big difference throughout the trial, Alyokhina said. “All that support gave me safety,” she said. “They can’t do anything to a person that has public attention.”
After the panel discussion concluded, the women sold merchandise to benefit Pyotr Pavlensky, an activist involved in several court trials for his political performance pieces. While Alyokhina and Bogino tended the booth, audience members came up for autographs and pictures, with a few asking the activists to record messages for friends who couldn’t attend.
One woman asked the pair to record a message for a neighbor who has had trouble leaving her house after the presidential election results. Another asked them to say something to a friend who is imprisoned for protesting.
An audience member asked the women how she and other activists could be Pussy Riot. The message was clear: fight.
“People think democracy will last forever,” Alyokhina said. “If you don’t fight for your democracy, you will lose it.”