Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina: “You can protest and you can win”

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Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina

As a play based on her experiences comes to London, Stylist speaks to Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina about prison, protest, feminism and freedom.

Do you remember Pussy Riot?

Back in 2012, the Russian feminist punk band made international headlines when three of its members were arrested for performing an anti-Putin “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral. Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were charged with hooliganism and inciting religious hatred, allegations that they were warned carried a sentence of up to seven years in prison.

Almost overnight, the young women became a worldwide cause célèbre. Viewed from the West, their story seemed almost like fiction: the three scrappy, sarky feminist underdogs squaring up to the authoritarian double-whammy of Putin’s government and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Amnesty International declared them “prisoners of conscience” and called for their release; Madonna, Björk and Aung San Suu Kyi were just some of those who publicly voiced their support. Such was the appeal of Pussy Riot.

Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in court in Moscow in October 2012, appealing their two-year prison sentence

Despite the sardonic smiles she shot at court photographers during the trial, Alyokhina – a 23-year-old literature and journalism student at the time of her arrest – took her role in the case incredibly seriously. Of the three women, it was Alyokhina who played the most active role in their defence, cross-examining witnesses, challenging court proceedings and questioning the charges against them. Her sucker-punch of a closing statement – “I am not afraid of you. I am not afraid of lies and fiction… Nobody can take away my inner freedom” – already reads like a speech for the ages.

Given the amount of international attention focused on their trial, it seemed almost unbelievable to many that Pussy Riot might actually lose. Except, of course, they did.

On August 17 2012, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were sentenced to two years each in a penal colony. Tolokonnikova was sent to Mordovia, in western Russia; Alyokhina to Siberia in the east, over 700 miles away from her young son. (Samutsevich was released on probation, after her lawyer successfully argued that church security had prevented her from committing ‘hooliganism’.)

Almost exactly four years later, I’m waiting for Alyokhina in the bar of London’s Soho Theatre. It's a cheerful, trendy place – all red leather booths and neon lights on the chipboard walls – but the theatre itself has a reputation for staging bold, political drama and stand-up comedy. Burning Doors, a play partly based on Alyokhina’s story, has just begun its run here.  

Maria Alyokhina
Maria Alyokhina onstage in Burning Doors

Alyokhina appears suddenly at my table, the scent of a just-smoked cigarette drifting from her sludge-coloured hoodie. “Hi,” she says, thrusting out a pale hand. “Masha.”

Since being freed from prison in 2014, Alyokhina – everyone calls her “Masha”, rather than Maria – has thrown herself into a wide-ranging roster of projects. She and Tolokonnikova launched the prisoners’ rights organisation Zona Prava (Zone of Rights) and MediaZona, an independent Russian news company. (They’ve also travelled the world delivering speeches, appeared in an episode of House of Cards, and appeared onstage with Madonna.)

But Burning Doors has been her priority this summer. Alyokhina plays herself in the show, and it’s a politically hefty, emotionally exhausting piece of drama: produced by Belarus Free Theatre, it explores the power of art as a form of political resistance.

It’s also surprisingly funny, nimbly taking the piss out of the absurdity of authoritarian regimes. There can be few more effective ways of undermining Putin’s cronies, after all, than depicting them sitting on the toilet.

Protestors at an anti-government rally in Moscow in March 2013 carry placards demanding the release of Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Revisiting life in prison

Alyokhina’s experiences are entwined in the play with the stories of Petr Pavlensky and Oleg Sentsov, two other activist-artists. Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker, is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence in Russia. His family, friends and human rights groups insist that the terror charges against him are totally fabricated.

“He didn’t do anything, he didn’t do any crime,” says Alyokhina today, in her heavy Russian accent. “He’s just a hero of this time.”

For anyone who hadn’t considered what life might really be like for a woman in a Russian prison, Burning Doors brings it starkly home. Ritual, humiliating strip-searches are at the milder end of the spectrum of horrors Alyokhina faces onstage.

But the play also highlights the more mundane, almost touching elements of life in a penal colony: the ordinary conversations; the bold, brash, meticulous make-up worn by all of the female prisoners, like war paint.

“Not so many people know what is happening inside prison,” says Alyokhina. “One of my goals is to show these very ordinary things which are happening in my country.”

Rehearsing and performing Burning Doors has been a cathartic experience for Alyokhina. “I wanted to take the most scary moments from the prison time – and from after prison time, which was very tough – and go through it again and again, twenty times, sixty times,” she says. “To go through these moments can make you stronger than you were before, I think.”

Even hearing her use the word “scary” seems incongruous, because Alyokhina herself seems fearless: iron-clad, bullet-proof. Her time in prison, she says, taught her that it is “totally not important that somebody presents themselves as a power.

“There is no power; power and freedom are inside. And you can protest and you can win.”

Why modern Russia needs feminism

Pussy Riot's trial revealed deeply entrenched attitudes about female behaviour and feminism in Russia. Witnesses testifying against the band reportedly cited the women’s loud dresses, their bare arms, the fact that they raised their legs too high, “so everything below waist is showing”. That these things were seen as shocking – as almost criminal – wasn’t surprising to Alyokhina.

“Our torturers, Putin’s team, were afraid of any touch of sexuality at all,” says Alyokhina. “These people still [act as though they] live in the USSR, where sex does not exist, and you cannot say ‘pussy’. This is shame.” She presses her palms to her cheeks in mock-horror, mimicking one of Putin’s supporters: “‘Oh, my God! They are saying not-nice names which I cannot say!’”

She drops her hands, looking disgusted. “Come on, you are killing people, [and] you cannot say ‘pussy’? Fuck you.”

Maria Alyokhina and Nadia Kaliada, co-founding artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre, in the Calais Jungle

Unlike many Western countries, Russia experienced no sexual revolution in the 1960s and ’70s. As a result, Alyokhina says, comparing the battle for women’s rights in Russia to the issues facing Western feminists is a fairly pointless exercise.

“I think it’s more relevant to compare the Russian feminist context with the context of the Middle East,” she says. Propped up by ultra-conservative religion, unchecked structural misogyny is alive and well in Russia – as is homophobia.

“We are completely lacking any social mechanism to protect women from domestic violence,” she says. “Women do not have any opportunity to ask for psychological help.” She estimates that around 30% of the women she met in prison were there for attacking a man who had been abusing them.

“And you can be actually killed because you are gay in Russia now, even if you are a teenager. This has become the worst time for LGBT communities I have ever seen.”

Cultural hypocrisy

When listening to someone talk about the battles facing women and LGBT people in faraway countries, one sometimes experiences an uncomfortable emotion: somewhere between horror and relief. Thank goodness we don’t have to deal with that sort of thing over here, we think. 

Except, of course, we do. Domestic violence remains a major, devastating problem across the UKas does homophobia. It’s a form of cultural hypocrisy that was pointed out by some commentators during Pussy Riot’s trial.

Alyokhina at the Sziget Festival in Budapest, Hungary, in August 2015

For her part, Alyokhina emphasises that she doesn’t want people to read her story, or watch Burning Doors, and dismiss her experiences – or Pavlensky’s, or Sentsov’s – as something that could only happen “over there”. After all, a human rights crisis is taking place in Western Europe right now: Alyokhina was inspired to take part in the play after visiting the Calais Jungle.

“It’s necessary to do something about the resistance of artists against authorities, because in our opinion it’s not a problem with [Russia] solely,” she says. “It’s a problem that exists everywhere, because authorities are always framed by the laws and rules they produce themselves.”

After it finishes its run in London, the company will take Burning Doors to Italy and Australia. Alyokhina hopes they will also be able to perform it in front of Belarusian and Ukrainian audiences: “I want Russian-speaking people to see this.”

Once it’s all over, she’ll head back to Moscow, the city where she still lives, despite everything. Many of her friends have left Russia for good, but Alyokhina has no plans to leave.

“I hope I will see the moment when they will leave,” she says, smiling. ‘They’, of course, are the authorities. “And I will help them do it.”

Burning Doors runs at Soho Theatre, London until Saturday 24 September 2016

Images: Adam Berry/Natalia Kolesnikova/Andrey Smirnov for Getty Images/AFP; Alex Brenner for Soho Theatre; Georgie Weedon; Rex Features