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With Pussy Riot

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Two members of the Pussy Riot collective were in London last week to meet their supporters and discuss future plans. They had to keep a low profile for security reasons – the meeting I went to was in a room at the back of a nondescript café. The activists, who introduced themselves as Serafima and Schumacher, spoke about the difficulties they face in Russia. Four of their videos have been placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials; though not officially banned, the group is a de facto underground movement; and of course two of its members remain in prison. There are currently eight people in the collective, flanked by a support group, which has been infiltrated by government spies.

Questioned about important artistic and political influences on Pussy Riot, Serafima and Schumacher said that the group ‘is against any personality cult and for equality’, and wouldn’t mention any names. ‘Early 20th-century Russian feminists’ was as specific as they were prepared to be. They see themselves as part of the third wave of feminism and hate the idea of a female face being used as a trademark. What about bright tights and balaclavas? That’s unacceptable too, as is the apparent product placement in the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, released in January. The activists also say it takes liberties with the facts. Talks are underway with the film-makers, who may agree to add ‘fictionalised version’ to the title.

People asked about ways of supporting Pussy Riot – Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in particular. Serafima and Schumacher urged us to write to the imprisoned women. Their contact with the outside world has been restricted, but the few letters they get mean a lot to them. We were also encouraged to protest, like the demonstrators at the G8 summit in Belfast who called for the Russian government to free the members of Pussy Riot.

I asked Serafima and Schumacher if they had a lawyer. They said it would be good to be able to afford one. A fund set up to support Pussy Riot, managed by the Voice Project, is divided between the two jailed activists, but the possibility of splitting it three ways is now being discussed.

Someone suggested that it may be time to celebrate Pussy Riot’s achievements, mentioning the surge of creativity the group has inspired all over the world. Serafima and Schumacher looked bemused: the interpreter had translated ‘celebrate’ as prazdnovat’, which primarily means ‘to have a party’. She tried rephrasing the question in several ways. When they finally understood what kind of celebration was implied, their answer amounted to: ‘Definitely not.’

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