From the streets of Moscow to their prison cell in Perm, Maria Alyokhina and the members of Pussy Riot have made activism a central part of their lives. They perform in Ireland tonight, writes Ed Power
It’s just over five years since Maria Alyokhina and four co-conspirators stormed the glittering barricades of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.
Faces concealed behind colourful balaclavas, the members of feminist protest punk group Pussy Riot jumped the barriers surrounding the altar and performed ‘Holy Shit’ — their condemnation of what they argued was the Russian Orthodox Church’s inappropriate ties to Vladimir Putin (sample lyric: “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out”, “Shit, shit, holy shit!”).
A city-wide hunt ensued, and the members of Pussy Riot were forced to go underground (giving Skype interviews to Al Jazeera from the bathrooms of Moscow cafes).
Eventually the three leaders of the collective were tracked down and put on trial. As one of the alleged “ringleaders” Alyokhina was sentenced to two years imprisonment for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.
Despite widespread international condemnation and accusations that the regime had mounted a Stalin-esque show trial, Alyokhina and her band-mates were shipped off to the modern day equivalent of the Gulag.
In a prison in Perm, in the shadow of the Ural mountains, Alyokhina was verbally and physically abused by guards.
When she refused to co- operate, they placed her in solitary confinement. In June 2013 she went on hunger strike for 11 days, in protest at a crackdown of security at the facility in advance of her parole hearing.
Unbowed and broken, Alyokhina and the rest of Pussy Riot became a lighting rod for opposition to Putin within Russia.
Their treatment also demonstrated to the international community how criminal dysfunction that had come to define the post-Communist regime.
Masha was released in December 2013 and, once more at the head of Pussy Riot, now comes to Ireland to tell her story.
As you would expect from an anarchist art ensemble with a penchant for multicoloured balaclavas, the tale is not spun in conventional terms.
Riot Days is a sensory over-load of music, visual imagery and spoken word.
It arrives at the Button Factory in Dublin tonight, after a run in the UK hailed by reviewers as a “kinetic invitation to dissent” and “blazing with hope”.
Riot Days is adapted as Alyokhina’s memoire of the same name, published to acclaim in September.
The book utilises a fragmentary narrative technique to convey the horrors of the Russian prison system — and the inspiration she took in knowing she was not alone.
The goal she says is not just to pay testament to what is happening in Russia — but to inspire others, regardless of where they live. The message of Pussy Riot — stand up and be counted — is universal.
“This is not about tragedy,” says Alyokhina, 28. “This [the production] is about choice, which everyone can make. It’s our story— the story of Pussy Riot. But we believe anybody can be Pussy Riot.”
If the political situation in the West cannot be compared to that in Russia, she nonetheless agrees that, with Trump in the White House and Brexit lurching from debacle to debacle we are living through a period of unprecedented turmoil. Her answer is direct engagement by citizens — the less inhibited the better.
“In the current political climate we need more riots.” she says. “This is a wake up call — one we feel we [Pussy Riot] can give.”
Reading the memoir, it’s remarkable how much strength Alyokhina found in adversity.
In Perm, she rallied the other prisoners through simple acts of civil disobedience —calling out guards when they were verbally abusive and, with help from her lawyers and supporters, facing down their open-ended campaign to arbitrarily change the terms of her incarceration.
The protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour gained the headlines — but the real triumph, the book makes clear, was the dignity and courage she exhibited behind bars.
“Freedom is is not something that government or somebody gives to you,” says Alyokhina. “You should fight for it — if you don’t fight for freedom it doesn’t exist. That’s why, in prison, I had battles with prison guards,wars against the prison guards. If you are political prisoner, you have a responsibility.”
Did she ever want to just give up?
“No, I knew my friends were out there for me. When I was there, on my own, I remembered that, really, I was not alone. The support I got from people was tremendous — they wrote letters, sent food… all of that convinced me I should not give up. It made me stronger.”
In the West, it is sometimes argued that Russians aren’t interested in democracy and will continue to support Putin so long as his regime brings stability.
“You are fools — anyone who believes that,” says Alyokhina. “ I am living in Moscow — with so many brave, smart, strong people who do not agree. We are here to show you that Russia is not represented only by Putin and the mafia state.”
She has no doubt that Russia sought to influence the Brexit vote. However, we in the West have questions to answer too, she believes.
A lack of engagement with politics and reluctance to educate ourselves plays into the hands of those who would manipulate democracy for their own ends.
“I’m sure there was involvement by Russian security services. But the main problem is apathy and fear.
"A lot of people think that politics is something that happens far away — in some White House. It’s not true — politics are everywhere. We have a choice to act or not, and that is, in itself, a political choice.”
Pussy Riot were inspired by punk rock and by 1990s “riot grrl” bands such as Bikini Kill. With one or two exceptions, politically conscious rock music has died out in the West.
“This can change,” says Alyokhina. “I am not a pessimist. People have been coming up to me after the shows saying this is one of the best rock concerts they’ve been to because it made them want to think. It’s really important to hear that.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved