In 2012, Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova were part of a group that protested the reelection of President Vladimir Putin of Russia by donning balaclavas on the steps of Moscow’s Cathedral Of Christ The Savior and performing. They were subsequently arrested and jailed for “hooliganism,” and in the aftermath the name of their protest-art collective — Pussy Riot — became synonymous with a new style of activism, one that knew no boundaries and traveled at the speed of social media.
“We wanted to make a statement that was as bright, as loud, and as effective as possible,” Alekhina (through translator Pyotr Verzilov) told the capacity crowd at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, which hosted a discussion between the Pussy Riot members and CNN foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty Monday night. Pro- and anti-Russia protesters were stationed outside, a preface to a lively chat that touched on Putin, jailed Occupy Wall Street protester Cecily McMillan, and the idea of activism anywhere. “When you think about Pussy Riot, the main thing you should think about is holding your own government accountable,” said Tolokonnikova.
Earlier, the two women prepped in Harvard’s Winthrop House, and discussed using their activism-borne notoriety to make change through more official channels. This year, in conjunction with the nonprofit The Voice Project, they launched the nongovernmental organization Zona Prava (“Justice Zone”), which is working to change conditions within the Russian justice system — which they both experienced during their nearly two-year incarcerations. More recently, they launched the independent news outlet MediaZona, which currently focuses on Russia’s courts, police, and prisons.
Pussy Riot came to Boston from Chicago’s multiday festival RiotFest, where they shared a dais with some of Tolokonnikova’s punk heroes, including Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin, and met boldfaced admirers like Patti Smith. On Tuesday, the pair — along with Verzilov (who is Tolokonnikova’s husband) and Voice Project executive director Hunter Heaney — will visit with linguist and MIT professor emeritus Noam Chomsky.