ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Pussy Riot Member Visits Asbury Park to Talk Politics and Protest

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

Asbury Park’s new House of Independents was packed when a member of the famed Russia protest group, Pussy Riot, came to town. Maria or “Masha” Alekhina was joined by fellow activist Ksenia Zhivago and tour organizer Alexander Cheparukhin, both of whom also acted as translators. Tony Award honoree and creator of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” John Cameron Mitchell led the evening’s conversation.

Pussy Riot was founded in 2011 around political turmoil in Russia. Through protest performances and music videos the artists involved brought international attention to Putin’s policies. Alekhina was one of two members of the group to land in jail for nearly two years.

“The main result of this experience is this project,” said Alekhina.

The project is called Zona Prava. The women are working to provide legal help and research for prison reform.

Alekhina says that she witnessed prisoners sew police and military uniforms for 12 to 14 hours a day, unpaid, and that there aren’t enough doctors available to prisoners, meaning ailments from headaches to cancer are often treated simply with a pain killer.

“One day you should just decide to fight with it, to break it, to do what you can do against it. And when you win, and we won — we made hunger strikes which [were] quite effective, and I was going to court against prison guards, and some of them were fired,” said Alekhina. “If you see that changes are possible, you start to continue. And this is what we’re doing.”

That’s what keeps Alekhina brave. She says it’s a top-down problem — that many policemen and prison guards don’t relish their power and don’t like Putin. But, that doesn’t change the fact that laws are on the books impeding, for example, LGBTQ rights.

“There is still this law that bans homosexual propaganda,” explained Zhivago.

What is homosexual propaganda?

“No one knows. Yeah, exactly,” Zhivago answered. “I don’t know what’s that.”

And preventing protest.

“What you can go to jail for, if you protest — if you break the laws of public demonstration more than two times in six months. And breaking the rules is basically anything,” Zhivago said.

Other members of Pussy Riot released a music video in early February attacking Russia’s Prosecutor General and President Putin. Alekhina says that free elections don’t exist in Russia, so candidates who want to run don’t really have a chance.

What does she think about U.S. politics?

“I hope that Donald Trump will not win,” Alekhina said.

She compares Trump to Putin.

“You, you are very lucky. You have democracy, and you have the right to choose,” said Alekhina. “I really think you should look to Russia as an example [of] what can happen with a country if a president is a guy who is like Putin or supporting Putin.”

The conversation was a highlight for John Cameron Mitchell, a self-proclaimed “big punk rock fan”. He says he hopes the Alekhina and Zhivago’s visit to the States inspires young people here to become politically involved.