Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina: Every person has a choice – now is the time to break out

‘Riot Days’ is not so much your typical memoir as the work of an original thinker

Pussy Riot protest band members, including Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were released from a police station on Tuesday (February 18) after being held in connection with a theft in the Winter Olympics host city of Sochi. Video: Reuters

 

Just last month, Maria Alyokhina was arrested after she and another member of Pussy Riot, Olga Borisovsa, travelled to Siberia and unfurled a banner in support of Oleg Sentsov, a pro-Ukrainian filmmaker serving a 20-year prison sentence. They were freed after the judge discovered errors in the case file but the incident underlines just how difficult it is to silence or intimidate Alyokhina.

She is a woman who knows exactly what the Russian authorities are capable off. Her new book, Riot Days, outlines the inhumane conditions she experienced during her 21-month stint in a remote penal colony. But she will not be deterred from action. Today, crouching on a chair outside a coffee shop in central London, smoking cigarettes and picking at the cuticles of her bright blue nails, the tiny 29-year-old, who goes by “Masha”, is defiant.

“Rainer Werner Fassbinder said ‘Fear eats your soul’,” she says baldly, by way of explaining her continued courage. “When you overcome yourself and your fear, you grow. Only by overcoming that, by actions, you can learn something. If you stand in one place, afraid of something, thinking of all those ‘ifs’, it’s a prison. It’s more of a prison than governmental bars and gynaecological exams.”

Alyokhina’s story is the stuff of international headlines but to briefly recap: as a member of Pussy Riot, she performed a punk song protesting against the Russian Orthodox church’s support for Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral in February 2012. A video of the performance – in which the group urged the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and banish Putin – was shared online and, although they weren’t apprehended straight away, their supporters and friends urged them to go on the run.


Members of 
the all-girl punk band “
Pussy Riot
”
: Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. 

photograph: getty
Members of the all-girl punk band Pussy Riot: Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in court. Photograph: Getty Images

After some time hiding out in and around Moscow, Alyokhina and two other members of Pussy Riot – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich – were arrested and charged with “disorderly conduct, committed with the purpose of inciting religious hatred by a group of persons in an intentional conspiracy” and held in custody until their trial began. Samutsevich was later freed but Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova spent two years in prison.

Devastating observations

All this is recalled in Alyokhina’s extraordinary new book. Riot Days is the work of an original thinker, a woman who seeks to incorporate art in her protest. In intimate diary-style entries, she makes devastating observations with memories woven among jokes and the occasional drawing by Alyokhina’s 10-year-old son Filip. A powerful and poignant prison diary, it lays bare the cruelties women in Russian prisons face.

Art has always been key to protest for Alyokhina; even before the Pussy Riot performance, she was writing poetry, and I met her last when she appeared in Burning Doors, a play produced by Belarus Free Theatre in London in 2016. “Art is one of the strongest weapons,” she says today. “I think protest is more effective and more interesting that way.”

Pussy Riot continues to stage performances and protests around the world but it has become more a wider movement, welcoming new members such as Borisovsa – who is also accompanying Alyokhina on her book publicity tour – rather than remaining simply a punk band.

Alyokhina was born in Moscow to two mathematicians, and while she is reluctant to talk about her private life, she concedes that her parents are proud of her, especially of the book, which they “love”. She is still based in Moscow, living with her son and her son’s father, but she travels extensively, as Pussy Riot becomes an international collective.

Unbearable

Her commitment seems almost unfathomable, given what she has already endured. The long periods separated from her son – who was only five when she went to prison – must have been particularly unbearable. But her activism drives her completely and even when reflecting on the time spent apart from Filip, she is adamant that protest is the best gift she can give him.

“When I understood that a prison term would happen and we would be separated from each other, I understood . . . that I should do everything that I can, even inside there, for him. Because it’s not only about my son, it’s about all children, because their time will come and they will ask us what we did and their lives and their activism will exist or not exist because of those examples.”

She says the support of others, the letters and the blog posts and the endorsements, was particularly important when she was in prison. “It sounds, sitting here drinking coffee in the centre of London, like words in the air,” she admits. “But there, if you see only walls and fences and so on, these words mean much more.”

Ireland

Now, with prison behind her, it’s clear she continues to derive strength from other campaigners and activists. When we talk about Ireland, she hoots derisively when I mention that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is a gay man who does not believe the country is ready for abortion on demand. She knows about the Repeal the Eighth movement through Bill Shipsey, an Irish barrister who founded Art for Amnesty. She’s been to Dublin once before but hopes to come again soon.

The hypocrisy of the church is a subject she is particularly passionate about, and something she sees prevalent in Ireland as well as in Russia. The post-Soviet resurgence of the Russian Orthodox church and its actions were, after all, the initial focus of Pussy Riot. She recalls how “the whole country was really happy” when the church enjoyed a revival in the 1990s, but explains that realising it was “serving the same interests as the chekists [members of the secret police and law enforcement in Russia]” was a huge blow.

The church

“It was so painful to understand that now the church is just a corporation. And that’s not how the church should be. So many people died for this, so many people went to prison for this belief in the church during the last 100 years. But the church is upside down these days, the face of the church should be different. It shouldn’t be this tobacco businessman who steals money, and says, for example, that the war between Russia and Ukraine is a good thing. Christianity is not about that.”

If she has any belief system, it is about choosing to act and that is what Riot Days is about. “This particular story I decided to tell because I believe that every person has a choice and now at this time – political time, I mean – it’s necessary to break out … I believe that every person during their days has this choice, it doesn’t matter where you are – are you in the prison or courtroom, are you at your office or school – you have difficult situations and choices.

“People,” she says, “if they are not fighting for something, they will lose it, it’s a law of life.”

So what is she fighting for now? What is her ultimate goal? She scrunches up her face and allows 10 seconds to pass in silence. “I want people to read this book and Oleg Sentsov to be released. Because a prison term of 20 years means death and he has two children and he should be with them. For today, that’s it.”

  • Riot Days is published by Allen Lane
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