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Jun 28, 2018

Al Letson Reveals: Pussy Riot

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Far from the World Cup stadium cheers, a prisoner held in Russia is six weeks into a hunger strike.

Reveal host Al Letson talks with Masha Alyokhina, a founding member of the Russian feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot, about the efforts to free Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker convicted of an armed plot during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He denies any involvement. His supporters fear U.S. President Donald Trump has undermined their cause. Alyokhina knows the topic well: She spent time in prison for challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin, too.

Credits

Produced by Emily Harris and David Ritsher with reporting by Matt Smith. Edited by Kevin Sullivan.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Hey, hey, hey, it's Al's podcast picks for the day. Listen, if you know me, then you know that one of my all-time favorite podcasts is Death, Sex & Money, hosted by my girl Anna Sale, and now she's taking on men.
Anna Sale: When you think about being a man today, do you think that it's gotten easier or harder?
Speaker 3: Yes.
Al Letson: On the podcast, they'll be digging into shifting gender norms to hear how men are thinking about how they're taught to be men, and what they're relearning now. Listen, I love the crew at Death, Sex & Money. They do amazing work, and you have to check out this new episode called "Manhood Now" wherever you get your podcasts, or at DeathSexMoney.org/men.
Speaker 4: Support for Reveal comes from a new show from our friends at KUOW, Battle Tactics For Your Sexist Workplace, the show that breaks down how sexism works in the modern workplace and, with help from some badass experts, brings you real tactics you can use to fight back.
On this podcast, they're taking on everything from the gender wage gap to imposter syndrome to manterruption to being working moms. We've all experienced it. Let's figure out what we can do about it. Find Battle Tactics For Your Sexist Workplace on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Al Letson Reveals, an occasional podcast where I talk to people making news or behind the news. And this week, we are going to Russia ...
Speaker 5: [inaudible 00:01:37] to Russia for the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup.
Al Letson: ... where they're hosting the World Cup for the first time ever.
Speaker 6: [Russian 00:01:45]. Welcome to Russia.
Al Letson: Russian President Vladimir Putin is front-and-center stage with plenty of attention and a team that did better than expected.
Speaker 7: And surely now Russia can celebrate three points in the opening match of the World Cup.
Al Letson: We wanted to watch the World Cup through a different lens. Not teams and scores and cheers, but President Trump, Putin and political prisoners.
Masha Alyokhina: I know by my personal experience Russian State. I mean, Putin's State can find any criminal article if they want to put you to prison.
Al Letson: That's Masha Alyokhina, an original member of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk rock group. She and another band member, Nadya, spent almost two years in a Russian prison. Their crime? Protesting Putin by jumping on an altar of a prominent Moscow church wearing brightly-colored dresses, tights, and knit ski masks. It was a very short guerrilla performance of their song "Mother Mary Banish Putin."
Masha Alyokhina: (singing).
We made a song criticizing Putin and performed 40 seconds of this song in the Cathedral of Christ's Savior. That's what we've done. In our case, that was hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, which we, of course, didn't have. The biggest sentence via this article is like up to seven years of prison. We've got two.
Al Letson: I spoke to Masha recently about her activism and what she's had to sacrifice.
What was that like when you were in prison?

 

Masha Alyokhina: So Russian prisons are ... they, let's say, copy off Soviet Union gulag system. The sense of this system is to break a personality. All the prisoners have to work about 12 hours per day, six days a week, and the work is sewing a police uniform and uniform for Russian army. There is no medicine there. Sometimes food is rotten. Prisoners [inaudible 00:04:07] like hungry people in one sleeping room. The worst is a relationships with ... of administration and prisoners, because they want people just to obey and that's it.

 

Al Letson: How did you end up getting out of prison?

 

Masha Alyokhina: International attention, of course. And that was a period before the Olympic games, which happened in the beginning of 2014 in Russia. So two months before the end of our term, Putin wrote in a special amnesty for me and Nadya, and we've been released.

 

Al Letson: Masha is hoping the attention Russia's getting during the World Cup will help free another people many consider a political prisoner.

 

Masha Alyokhina: So his name is Oleg Sentsov, and he's Ukrainian film director who got 20 years of prison because of his activism. He was arrested in the spring of 2014 during the annexation of Crimea by Russian troops.

 

Al Letson: Russia invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine. The international community was outraged, and it put sanctions on Russia and kicked it out of what is now the G7. Oleg was also outraged, and he protested against Russia and was charged with terrorism.

 

Masha Alyokhina: He was a member of the activist, big activist group called AutoMaidan, who was transporting people from Crimea to Ukraine. He didn't do any terrorist attacks, so he's totally not a terrorist. He is a film director, and he's an activist.

 

Al Letson: Four years after his initial arrest, he's still protesting from prison.

 

Masha Alyokhina: He is now in the age of life and death, because he is in hunger strike and he is in hospital now, in prison hospital, and I believe that Oleg Sentsov is one of the most brave people, brave artists, in the current time.

 

Al Letson: Oleg was charged with lighting a fire at the door of a political office in Crimea and for plotting to blow up a Lenin statue. He says he didn't do those things. When he appeared in a Moscow courtroom, supporters applauded him. Putin has dismissed any suggestion that Sentsov was arrested for his politics.

 

Vladimir Putin: [Russian 00:06:34] ...

 

Speaker 10: This doesn't have anything to do with his positions. This doesn't have anything to do with his views on what happened in Crimea.

 

Vladimir Putin: [Russian 00:06:47] ...

 

Speaker 10: The point is his involvement in preparing for illegal activities which could harm our country's citizens.

 

Vladimir Putin: [Russian 00:06:56].

 

Al Letson: Oleg's supporters have protested in a dozen cities. Stephen King called for his release on Twitter, and at the G7 meeting in Canada, right before the World Cup, European Council President Donald Tusk called for attention to Oleg.

 

Donald Tusk: I want to make an important appeal in the case of Oleg Sentsov. Our solidarity can save his life.

 

Al Letson: Was that a big win for you guys to hear that coming from that high up?

 

Masha Alyokhina: Well, any words and any actions are important, of course, but this should be repeated as many times as he will be free.

 

Al Letson: You're basically saying that we have to keep hearing this message. It's not good enough for just him to say it.

 

Masha Alyokhina: There is always not enough while he will be not free, because I know that words can really change the situation, change the world.

 

Al Letson: So I want to play a clip of President Donald Trump and what he has to say about Russia while he was at the G7.

 

Donald Trump: You know, whether you like it or not — and it may not be politically correct — but we have a world to run, and in the G7, which used to be the G8, they threw Russia out. They should let Russia come back in.

 

Al Letson: What's your reaction that when you heard Trump saying that?

 

Masha Alyokhina: He didn't talk about the reasons, about why it happened. He's not talking why Russia had excluded from there, and this is stupid. Donald Trump as the President of United States should know the situation in the country with which he's going to work.

 

Al Letson: Oleg's supporters were angry that Trump seemed to be taking international pressure off Putin. At the same time, the U.S. State Department was saying Oleg should be released. I asked Masha how she made sense of this mix.

 

You've got two different statements coming out from the Trump Administration. You've got that clip that I just played for you where Donald Trump says that Russia should be let back in, but then the U.S. State Department has tweeted out and put out a statement saying that they think that Sentsov and other political prisoners should be released immediately. So how do you take in those two sides, that duality there?

 

Masha Alyokhina: Well, United States has democracy. That's why they have two different statements from the Department and from Donald Trump. This is the first thing. Second is I really do not think that Donald Trump cares about political prisoners and political repressions.

 

Al Letson: Pussy Riot has criticized Donald Trump in the past, accusing him of autocratic tendencies. They used their trademark extreme performance art to make a music video when he was a Presidential candidate.

 

Speaker 13: Burn them!

 

Al Letson: This video is brutal. Burly cops in orange wigs haul a young woman in, harass hit her, and brand her.

 

(singing).

 

The disturbing violence plays against a Brazilian beat.

 

(singing).

 

More recently, Masha has brought her confrontational art to the West in a play called "Burning Doors." It portrays the physical and psychological trauma she, Oleg, and other artists experienced in Russian prison. I asked Masha why she believes Putin feels so threatened by musicians and artists who are critical of him.

 

Masha Alyokhina: Because, well, art make a big influence. Art can change the mind. And also, Putin put pressure not only to the artists but for all the people who are not agree with this ... with his direction, let's say, political direction, and who are in the position. All the people. Oppositional politicians, activists, artists.

 

Al Letson: Are you going to protest, and are you prepared to go back to prison for protesting in Russia?

 

Masha Alyokhina: So we've been arrested in the April of this year because we were throwing paper planes to the building of Russian Security Service, FSB. So 12 people spent 48 hours in the police cage together and without any, I don't know, lawyers and so on. So I'm doing what I'm doing as before. But this is a question of all of us. This is not possible to give a responsibility of fighting for freedom to somebody. This is what we should all do. Otherwise, these words like freedom will just lose its sense.

 

Al Letson: Do you think the international pressure is going to work at this point?

 

Masha Alyokhina: Yes, I believe. I believe yes, because in our case that worked.

 

Al Letson: We're halfway through the World Cup this week, and Oleg Sentsov is more than six weeks into his hunger strike. We talked to Masha Alyokhina from Toronto, where she's performing the play "Burning Doors." We've been covering Russia and Putin for a while. You can hear the inside story of how Putin and his government use anti-gay propaganda to build political support on our show "Russia's New Scapegoats." It's on our website and wherever you get your podcasts.

 

Emily Harris and David Ritsher produced today's show with help from Matt Smith. It was edited by Kevin Sullivan, who is also our executive producer. Many thanks to our sound design team, the dynamic duo: "J-Breezy," Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando "My Man, Yo," Arruda. Our acting CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning.

 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 14: From PRX. From PRX.