About a month ago, I was sitting in a theater, surrounded mostly by fellow U.S.-Americans, all of us concentrating on the people sitting on stage: namely, Maria Alyokhina and Ksenia Zhivago of Pussy Riot, promoter Alexander Cheparukhin, and translator Mariana Markova. I had bought my tickets for this event something like half a year prior, and “the girls” and their witty, sharp, and compassionate answers did not disappoint.
Pussy Riot: the name alone suggests a spectacle to native English speakers in its crassness. I’m sure some people came out of that curiosity, and others out of a genuine interest (and concern) for them. Others for sure came out of a Russia connection: studies, a friend, family. The level of enthusiasm and respect for Pussy Riot’s message was palpable, which I appreciated.
But, but, but. My senses were jarred quickly, when, after showing a shortened version of the documentary film, Act and Punishment, a question was posed to the girls. “Why is it that only young people are protesting?” I flinched; in the film itself there was not a dearth of older people. I know where this question comes from – but it contradicted what we had just seen.
“It’s because the people who are over 50 sit around and watch TV!” joked Maria, before adding that she was totally kidding, and that in fact, many of the most prominent activists, people they greatly admire, are from older generations.
But in response to the TV joke, I heard someone whisper behind me, “oh yeah, our media is like that here!” I suppressed an eye roll. I am far from a fan of mainstream U.S. media, but the degree of censorship, intimidation, and government influence over Russian media absolutely does not compare.
I am not what I would consider to be a Russian expert, but, fact is, relative to the average U.S.-American – well, I am. I speak the language conversationally, I studied abroad there, have done volunteering there, have Russian friends I speak to on a routine basis… I have a decent view of what is going on. But still, I don’t know it all. So the confidence that accompanied these, in my view, erroneous comments startled me.
It’s complicated, really. There’s this fact: using what you know as a point of reference can often lead you astray. But there’s this other fact: other people, other places, aren’t completely different, either. There’s a tightrope strung between assuming similar contexts and denying commonality, humanity.
I know this from traveling, from spinning around in confusion until I managed to make sense – or at least more sense – of what surrounded me, of what was certainly not like from where I came, but was not totally different either. You have to scratch at the surface, peel back the layers. Things aren’t what they seem but they’re not alien, either.
During a switch-up onstage, I rushed up and delivered a hello to Maria from a mutual friend and answered her enthusiastic question about said friend’s whereabouts before I had to dart back to my seat. Connections matter if you want to understand. Cultivation is key; circles must broaden.
The wit, ferocity, and strength of the girls and the other activists they talked about was flooring, all the more because of the context in which it sits. Almost two years in a labor camp prison. When they speak out, we should listen, and also make an effort to understand what really, really is facing them.
And, intertwined in all of this, is a fact that exists both here and there. What is simplest most often has flaws. What is easiest to grasp most often is devoid of crucial nuance.
Scratch, burrow – that’s how we’ll slowly embrace the right of it all.