“It's like we are still in the Cold War”: Pussy Riot speak at Union

Image credit: Denis Bochkarev via Wikimedia Commons

Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina, of the Russian protest collective Pussy Riot, addressed the Cambridge Union yesterday evening to general acclaim.

The punk duo were characteristically frank in response to the first question of the night, regarding the state of feminism in Russia today, saying “There is no state of feminism”. They were similarly frank when asked if social conditions under Communism were better than today, saying: “In the Soviet Union there was nothing, not even washing detergent.” Keen to dispel any nostalgia for the USSR, the speakers pointed out that the Western intellectuals who supported Communism in Russia only ever saw an elaborate staging of life there, not the reality. Even today, Tolokonnikova described how journalists disillusioned with their own government needlessly vindicate the Kremlin, causing serious damage.

Infamously, the pair were charged with hooliganism in 2012 after staging an anti-Putin protest in an Orthodox Church. They were released from prison last December. Talking to the Union about life behind bars, the activists said Russian inmates “are not treated like humans”. However, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were keen to stress that, despite widespread homophobia in Russia, lesbian sex in prison is not despised. They highlighted this as just one example of the inconsistency of Russian popular opinion.

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were keen to assert that Putin’s and Russia’s beliefs are not synonymous. Their new work involves projects to bring legal aid to prisoners and to achieve much needed improvements to living conditions and health care.   

The pair also emphasized the pressing need, in their eyes, to change media perceptions of Russia. The simple East / West binary, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina stressed, must be replaced with a dialogue. “It's like we are still in the Cold War” was the bittersweet joke of the evening.

Outside the Union, the mood was giddy. Ellen Parker from Jesus spoke of her delight at finding “that they’re not just poster girls”; another student, Amelia Oakley was stunned by their “sass”.

However, not everyone was satisfied. Some were critical of the Union’s hosting of the event. One student from Queen’s, described Tim Squirrell’s chairing as “very sarcastic and disinterested ... undermining people who ask question is going to discourage others from speaking”.

Others were left feeling Pussy Riot didn’t go far enough. Saul Nelson was wistful: “grassroots liberation is so important, I wanted a call to arms”.

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