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Interview: Russian activist group Pussy Riot on being unapologetically loud

Russian activist group Pussy Riot know how to make a scene. But take away their signature neon balaclavas, and they appear remarkably normal.

Olya Kurachyova and Nika Nikulshina from the notorious punk rock collective are in Hong Kong for a four-day LGBT+ travel advocacy forum, Miles of Love, which explores how to make the travel industry more inclusive. It is a topic close to heart for the famously outspoken group, who are from a country where LBGT+ rights are restricted.

“What are we doing? Well first it’s about art,” Nikulshina says, curling her leg up onto the chair.

Pussy Riot members Olya Kurachyova (left) and Nika Nikulshina (right). Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

In 2012, Pussy Riot were thrown into the international spotlight when their infamous performance of an anti-Putin “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour landed three of their members in jail. Since then, the group have become renowned for their obscenity-laden riffs and lively demonstrations.

In June, four of its members stormed the 2018 World Cup Final between France and Croatia in Moscow dressed illegally in police uniform. The stunt put Kurachyova and Nikulshina behind bars for 16 days – a sentence they said was lenient owing to the global attention on Russian authorities at the time: “We were ready to be arrested,” Nikulshina told HKFP. “Fortunately it wasn’t worse.”

See also: Video: ‘Voices of solidarity should sound loud’ – Pussy Riot activists stand up for Hong Kong freedoms

Kurachyova said: “I even thought it could be a couple of years. If you live in Russia you…”

“Must be ready to die!” Nikulshina interrupts, laughing.

But in reality, she is only half-joking. Veteran Pussy Riot member Pyotr Verzilov was hospitalised in September after a suspected poisoning left him temporarily blind and delirious. Verzilov had been investigating the deaths of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic in July – their colleagues claim they were targeted for probing Kremlin-related military activities. After four days in a Moscow hospital, he was flown to Berlin, where a German medical team confirmed that he had probably been poisoned.

Pussy Riot said they believe that Moscow is behind the suspected poisoning.

“It’s a very unusual situation,” Nikulshina said. “If you are a political activist you’re ready to be arrested, you’re ready to be detained. You’re not ready to be poisoned, because it’s a different level.”

“We remember journalists and opposition politicians in Russia who were killed. I never thought that we were going to be so interesting to Russian authorities,” Kurachyova added.

The use of poison is typical in attempted assassinations by state security services. In 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was poisoning following her coverage of the Russian invasion of Chechnya. While Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza has survived two suspected poisoning attempts, one in 2015 and another last year.

‘Playing a game with no rules’

The duo describes the poisoning of Verzilov as a new effort by the Kremlin to silence Pussy Riot as well.

Nikulshina said that she believes the substance used to poison Verzilov was military-grade and therefore linked to the government: “When you just work in a hospital, there’s no sample of military poisons,” she said. “I think they were just fed up with him.”

pussy riot joshua wong badiucao

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Nikulshina added that the poisoning could have just been a warning: “If [authorities] wanted to kill him, they would have killed him.”

“Especially if you’re a human rights activist or opposition activist, you know that if Russian authorities want to punish you, they will punish you. It’s not about regulation[s] or rules,” Kurachyova said. “Living in Russia is like playing a game without any rules. You never know what is going to happen to you today or tomorrow.”

This proved to be true when, in September, Nikulshina was unexpectedly detained in downtown Moscow by “anti-extremism agents” for refusing to agree to a check of their car, according to a tweet from the group.

International solidarity

Pussy Riot said that international solidarity lies at the heart of collective activism: “It’s a very important part in the global fight for human rights and it’s good that we can somehow build a network and connection,” Kurachyova said.

Nikulshina added that the group admire the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong as a model for civil disobedience: “If we’re talking about Joshua Wong, he just asks people to go to the street and say something, and do something. It’s a way of bringing people together.”

Last year, the group posted a video in support of Hong Kong activists Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, who had been jailed or were facing trial for participating in peaceful protests.

Their display of solidarity did not go unnoticed. After its members were jailed over the World Cup incident, democracy activists in Hong Kong protested outside the Russian Consulate General in Wan Chai, shouting “free Pussy Riot” and “free all political prisoners.” The action included around 20 activists from the League of Social Democrats and Demosisto, led by Joshua Wong, Leung Kwok-hung and Avery Ng.

Weaponising art

At the heart of Pussy Riot is their use of art in civil disobedience. But even their members say that their work cannot lead to dramatic political change.

“We cannot make a revolution with art,” Kurachyova said. “But I think on the other hand that art is a wonderful weapon because it’s about people’s minds. When people start to think and discuss, art can be something that can inspire people to act.”

Nikulshina added that art is able to trigger public conversation: “Art is the best thing you can use in political competition and fighting,” she said. “Art is a good mechanism to turn on people’s brains, their hearts, souls, whatever – it’s a kind of interaction. Art is not one-way information – it’s interaction and it’s time to be interactive, to give something and get something. It’s about sharing everything, it’s one way to build something.”

The duo was scheduled to appear at the first public exhibition of Chinese dissident cartoonist Badiucao in Hong Kong on Saturday. But the event was cancelled on Friday amid safety concerns. The pair marched alongside a small group of activists, including Wong, on Sunday evening to Tai Kwun to protest tightening restrictions on free expression in the city.

For now, Pussy Riot vows to continue doing what they have always done in the face of repressive regimes – be defiant, disruptive, and unapologetically loud.


Find out more about the Miles of Love forum here. HKFP is a media sponsor.

Interview: Russian activist group Pussy Riot on being unapologetically loud