Learning | Story by Lissa Townsend Rodgers
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The Rockstars of the Learning Series

Pussy Riot's Nadya and Masha made political activism "fashionable"

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It was two hours before the panel began, but the line extended out the door and around the building. The discussion would be focused on the theme of justice. But the crowds were not there to see former mob lawyer/Mayor Oscar Goodman. Nope, it was all about Pussy Riot, whose iconic balaclava-ed image advertised the speaker series.

Notice the words “speaker series,” because many of those waiting likely assumed that Pussy Riot would be playing music. Lord knows that Life Is Beautiful could have used more—hell, any—punk bands, but Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina were here to talk.

Goodman rambled about how important it was for his clients to get a good defense, although his most notable statement was about his post-legal life: “You know what I do for a living now? I drink. I start drinking at 7. It’s what I do.” Then Ed Gavagan talked about getting stabbed and forgiving his assailants; his wife, Sekeena, told a rather rambling story about being a public defender.

Then, finally, it was time for the headliners: Nadya is the philosophy student who looks like a cross between Carrie Brownstein and Anna Karina. Masha is the poet who has the serene smile of a Russian Madonna painting, but with pink streaks in her blond curls. Moderator Neda Ulaby of NPR introduced the “Russian performance artists and political activists …” before being drowned out by whooping and applause as they stepped onstage.

The discussion switched between English and translated Russian. At one point Nadya felt the translator got her wrong and deadpanned, “Just cut off his head. Kill him,” before adding that the translator is her husband and, “I’m such a lovely wife.” Black humor ran throughout the conversation, as they mused on being hauled away in a van that had a Pussy Riot sticker on it, and prison guards asking for their autographs.

“Putin and his bosses, they do pretty funny things,” Nadya said. “These guys have no sense of humor or ways of being self-critical,” which made them even riper for the mocking. Finding comedy in prison is part of what makes Pussy Riot punk and also explains why Putin hates them so much: They’re taller than he is and they laugh at him.

The ladies addressed their work to improve conditions in Russian prisons—preferring direct action or supplying food and clothing over attending conferences where people sit around a table and talk about “human rights, human rights, human rights, let’s have dinner,” explained Masha, adding, “people are starving.” Astutely, they also brought up the idea of activism as something that can be “fashionable”

At the end of the panel, fans and a barrage of phone-camera flashes swarmed Nadya and Masha. One fan handed Nadya a painting as a handler began gently steering them across the room to the exit.

In their own country, people attack them and throw things.

In America, they’re rock stars.