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Russia’s Pussy Riot protests Ukraine war on North American tour

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RIGA, Latvia — More than a year after members of the Russian activist group Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina and Lucy Shtein escaped from Moscow disguised as food couriers, the feminist punk-protest band is touring the United States with a new antiwar anthem that howls in rage at Kremlin propagandists they accuse of poisoning Russian minds.

The group borrows from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake — music wedded in Russian minds as synonymous with sinister official censorship — for their song about the poison of state television in a nation where, according to the lyrics, “the happiness of the Motherland is more precious than life.”

Alyokhina was imprisoned in 2012 with two other Pussy Riot members for nearly two years for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” over a punk performance that year in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. She was arrested again in January 2021 for organizing protests over the jailing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

For months, Alyokhina faced a string of trumped-up charges, such as spreading “Nazi propaganda” or “inciting hatred.” She was repeatedly placed in detention — often rearrested as she walked out of the prison gate — or sentenced to house arrest with a police car constantly watching the Moscow apartment she was sharing with Shtein, who is her girlfriend.

In a carefully planned spring 2022 escape, Shtein left their apartment disguised in a green food courier outfit and fled Russia via Belarus. Weeks later, Alyokhina escaped Russia in the same disguise.

“There were no scary moments,” Alyokhina said in a phone interview after one of the group’s performances. She was beaten by Cossack militias in 2014 in Sochi with other members of the group and has been arrested so many times that she has learned to tamp down her fear — a trait she jokingly calls a “deformation.”

In their first North American tour since the escape, Pussy Riot is protesting the horrors of what they call President Vladimir Putin’s “fascist” regime to a U.S. audience that appears increasingly divided over support to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s invasion.

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Pussy Riot’s “Swan Lake” weaves a tale of the ominous social themes unfolding in Russia against the background of the war — the appalling casualty rates, the demands from Russian politicians that women stay home and give birth to many children, the jailing of antiwar protesters, and the increasing militarization of education.

The value of life is overestimated

Women should give birth more

Don’t spare the soldiers

Our women will have more babies

They don’t consider us as people here.

In a video for the song, the group in virginal white cotton dresses walk barefoot in an agricultural field outside a wooden cottage. Inside, a small boy plays with toy soldiers in front of a television set, and suddenly finds his hands covered in blood.

War is a celebration, everything is fine.

Pussy Riot collaborated on the video with artists still in Russia, including Alisa Gorshenina, of Nizhny Tagil, a city in the Urals, who works in textiles and other media.

“We use the Swan Lake theme because that theme was used during the Soviet Union to censor news,” Alyokhina said.

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It was played on state television when Soviet leaders died and during the 1991 coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The new song was authored by Alyokhina, Shtein, Olga Borisova and Diana Burkot.

“The whole song is our protest against Russian propaganda,” Alyuokhina said. “Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, they started to brainwash children with new patriotic lessons that they created. They forced children to learn the so-called new history of Russia.”

Pussy Riot operates as a creative activist collective with shifting participation in performances and actions. They stage protests, perform in different groupings, stage exhibitions, give speeches, write books and release political songs.

Alyohkina’s 2017 memoir, “Riot Days,” tells of her activism and time in prison and her insistence on her dignity — defying prison warders who ordered her to strip. She is writing a new book, to publish next year.

The group’s tour performance, also called Riot Days, is a mix of music, performance and protest designed to tell audiences “who Vladimir Putin is and what they are going to do. The main goal of this regime is to rebuild the dead body of Soviet Union with tanks, rockets, the army, whatever they have,” Alyokhina said.

Pussy Riot performed in Washington on Saturday and will appear in other eastern coast cities this week.

They were spurred to write Swan Lake because of an incident at school No. 22 in the city of Yekaterinburg in September 2022 when teachers ordered children to write supportive letters to Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

A fifth-grader named Timofei wrote a letter begging the recipient not to kill anyone, according to local media channel It’s My City, and was reproached by his teacher for sending the wrong message.

Another incident that inspired the song involved 12-year-old Masha Moskalyova, who was reported to the police by her school and placed in an orphanage after she drew an antiwar picture protesting the war.

Her single father, Alexei Moskalyov was sentenced to two years in jail over online comments about the war. His daughter is now living with her mother, who had been estranged.

Pussy Riot’s 2012 cathedral protest song “A Punk Prayer,” won little support from Russians, 42 percent of whom saw it as an attack on the Russian Orthodox Church. A poll by Levada Center independent polling group at the time found that only 6 percent of Russians sympathized with the group.

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That song evoked the gilded corruption of the church in toxic symbiosis with Putin, “the KGB’s chief saint,” descending to choke freedom, chain LGBTQ+ people, and send “punks to prison vans.”

Eleven years later, as the Kremlin presses forward with a regressive “traditional” Orthodox agenda, banning the “international LGBT public movement” as “extremist,” restricting abortion, banning transgender people from transitioning, and pursuing a messianic war against Ukraine, the cathedral protest now seems a prophetic warning.

Still, public support for the war remains high, thanks to state propaganda.

Alyokhina was alone in a prison cell on Feb. 24, 2022 when she heard on the radio that Russia had invaded Ukraine.

“It’s useless to scream when you’re alone, but I wanted to scream,” she said. “But instead of screaming, I just started writing. I wanted to just write everything I felt.”

Working feverishly to continue her protest action outside of Russia, she feels torn from her country, although there is no way back as long as Putin remains in power.

“I cannot imagine my life without Russia,” She said. “So now I’m on the road, and I do not consider my road as a final escape, because I just cannot live without this country.”

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