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Pussy Riot Members Speak of Protest, Imprisonment at IOP

UPDATED: September 16, 2014, at 7:00 p.m.

Two founding members of the Russian punk rock protest group Pussy Riot spoke out strongly against Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday night at a forum at the Institute of Politics, raising awareness of what they consider to be oppression propagated by Putin in their country.

Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, who have become the public face of the group, told a packed John F. Kennedy Jr. forum about their experience of political imprisonment, reflected on Russia’s recent incursions in Ukraine, and advocated for the right to free speech.

“We think no one should be banned from something because of nonviolent expression of their opinions,” Tolokonnikova said.

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina attracted international attention when they were arrested on charges of hooliganism in August 2012 after attempting to perform the protest song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Their arrest and sentence—other members of the group avoided jail time—were met with significant criticism in the West. The two were granted amnesty and released in Dec. 2013.

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A Panel Discussion for the IOP
From the left, Jill Dougherty, Masha Alekhina, Nadya Tolokonnikova, and Pyotr Verzilov discuss the implications of Pussy Riot in Russian politics at the IOP in September.

Later in the evening, the activists appeared outside the Cambridge Police Department, where, according to their Twitter account, they had gone to investigate the arrest of a Harvard alumnus who had violated a ban on entering University property to attend the forum. The man, who had been banned from Harvard property after a previous protest, was released shortly thereafter.

Since their release the two artists have travelled internationally to advocate several causes, including feminism, rights for the LGBTQ community in Russia, and political freedom. Monday’s event, dubbed “A Conversation with the Feminist Protest Art Collective Pussy Riot,” was relatively rare for the IOP, which usually hosts politicians, political operatives, and journalists rather than artists like the members of Pussy Riot.

When asked about the pair’s major objections to Putin, Tolokonnikova noted that the president’s actions have resulted in a severe "brain drain” in Russia.

"The problem with Putin is that he brings the level of political discussion to the Stone Age,” Tolokonnikov said. “People are leaving because his international actions are dictated by paranoia."

While in prison, the two women participated in hunger strikes to protest the harsh conditions they faced. Upon their release, they founded a prisoners’ rights NGO called Zona Prava (Zone of Rights).

"You should just see prisoners and their problems as human problems, problems that all of us have," Alekhina said.

The activists added that they encountered support, and even autograph-seekers, among the prison staff during their sentence.

Despite their critiques of the state, they asserted that they do not intend to leave Russia.

"No. It's our language, our culture, not the culture of Putin,” Tolokonnikova said, suggesting that Russia remains the state of its people.

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