The Trials, Battles, and Victories of a Pussy Rioter

Maria Alyokhina, one of the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, relates her saga of protest, imprisonment, and advocation for human rights in Riot Days.

“I have things.

I have rights.

I have a voice.”

Riot Days, p. 128

Pussy Riot is more than just a punk band. True, they started as a music collective embracing the rebellious sound and DIY attitude of Regan-era punk in all its lo-fi glory. The group as a whole, however, rose from the ashes of Voina, an anarchist performance art group that constructed subversive street art and staged politically-influenced happenings to vocalize their message of dissent and revolution. This politically-orientated, multidisciplinary background defined Pussy Riot’s impetus as a band that valued the visceral quality of punk rock, with its raw and unpolished warmth of feedback and power chords, as a vehicle for statements about government, religion, and social unrest.

The arrest and incarceration of members Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich for their “punk prayer” performance at a Moscow cathedral drew international headlines. The news of a feminist punk band arrested and placed on trial for a politically-motived performance escalated the tensions between Putin’s regime (with its recent controversial re-election) and diametrically-opposed parties and politicians around the globe. From trial to imprisonment to release, Pussy Riot’s story was acknowledged by artists, activists, and journalists as a dark turn for free speech in Russia, albeit one that concluded with some sense of justice with their freedom. While we know the story from the headlines and see their images championed in Western media (note their cameo in season three of House of Cards), we neglect their personal stories, the everyday reality they faced between the February 2012 arrest and their eventual release in December 2013.

In Riot Days we see this reality through the eyes of Alyokhina, one of the three arrested for their act of hooliganism (as deemed by the Russian courts). Riot Days details the formation of Pussy Riot and their politically charged performances, as well as their trial, imprisonment, and eventual release. As a writer, Alyokhina is frank about her surroundings and her emotions; she relates her passions, anger, flaws, and fears in a gracefully unguarded manner. She’s at once worried about her child as she runs from the police, yet she’s nonetheless unapologetic for her actions. Alyokhina believes in her cause, yet she fully understands the impact of her actions on those around her. All the while she’s deeply analytical of her social scope at large, taking in the glares of passing strangers for contempt, respect, or misled ambivalence.

Her writing style is short and punctuated, providing just as much information is needed from moment to moment. Each paragraph reads like a journal entry: direct, clipped, and unromanticized, yet loaded with as much intent as any two- and a half-minute punk song.

Writing about the birth of Pussy Riot, Alyokhina openly admits that their rooted message of rebellion held a higher priority than the music itself. When she writes “We loved only heroes”, we know who she means: the political dissidents, the revolters, the avant-garde artists and poets who created and protested as a means to condemn the institutional injustices they witnessed in everyday culture. The distorted guitars, balaclavas, and bright dresses all added to Pussy Riot’s message of opposition to Putin and his grip over the church. This all traces directly back to the birth of punk: a musical vehicle, more focused on attitude than polish, for relaying cries of subversion.

There’s a balance of excitement and melancholy in the chapter detailing Alyokhina and her bandmate’s evasion from the police. She’s realistic when detailing the cinematic frenzy of their lives at this point: sleeping in new places every night, living on donated bread and tea, and hiding in cafes bathrooms to steal wifi for Skype interviews to news outlets.

Amidst the chaos of couch surfing to avoid police throughout Russia, we don’t avoid the personal turmoil Alyokhina suffers from being a fugitive from the law. Sneaking off one morning to find a church, she speaks to a priest (unaware of who she is) about Pussy Riot’s highly publicized performance. The priest curses their performance, relates his disgust with what he considers to be foolish and unmerited actions, and acknowledges his hopes for their future detention. Alyokhina is open about her anxiety and feelings of hopelessness. Her clipped writing style, which so far has felt energized and immediate, suddenly seems morose. The writing voice remains the same, but the effect is suddenly sobering.

From here we learn more about the arrest, ensuing trial, and subsequent imprisonment. It’s the last of these events, Alyokhina’s brutal incarceration, that forms the largest section and, undoubtedly, the most gripping material in Riot Days. The conditions of her cell are dire; freezing temperatures caused by gaps in the window panels are just barely contained by bread crumbs mashed together to form insulation. Regarding boiling water for tea, kettles are banned, but commercially illegal and highly dangerous immersion coils are permitted. Her cellmate, desperately in need of her glasses, hasn’t had access to them since she arrived in prison.

The way Alyokhina writes about her cell reads like every bad stereotype of a Russian prison we’ve become accustomed to in Western media. Guards are heartless, food is grim, and beds are shelves with thin mattresses. Prisoners are forced to strip in front of the guards (an event colloquially named “naked Thursday”) to prove they don’t have any newly minted tattoos. Alyokhina’s account is isolating and dehumanizing, a bleak depiction of the conditions for modern-day Russian prisoners.

Alyokhina’s interactions with a human resources advocate are detailed in the same clipped style, free of any sentimental remembrances. Honest accounts related to the advocate of her everyday conditions lead to windows repaired, eyeglasses returned, and various other issues rectified in her and her fellow prisoner’s cell. Again, her matter-of-fact writing style, which may be grating for some at this point in the book, takes on a new turn of cautious optimism. Through hunger strikes and unabashedly voicing concerns for the health and well-being of herself and her fellow prisoners, we see how Alyokhina’s rebellion on the inside makes changes for the better. Her tone is precise and clear, never sounding self-congratulatory or prideful.

The dreadful conditions of her imprisonment impact but never dehumanize her. From this incarceration up to today, she continues to fight for prisoner’s rights, championing the need for better food, allotments, and conditions. As the telling shifts back and forth between her painful everyday reality and meditations on the political and cultural conditions of modern-day Russia, we gain insight into her thoughts on humanity and endurance.

To detail more of her story in a review would rob Riot Days of its heart. The up close and personal moments of punk rockers, the intimate ones we typically don’t see, often reveal the more interesting sides of their personalities. Much as the photographs of Steve Emberton show a more vulnerable side to Sid Vicious, the honesty of Alyokhina’s words reveal the heart of someone with both undying beliefs and an eye for the bigger picture.

Punk rock is a spirit, one that always needs to be greater than the music itself. With its slick production and steep music video budget, Pussy Riot’s latest single, “Make America Great Again”, sounds nothing like their earlier work. The music itself is far more conventional pop than crusty punk, but their message of political dissent and rebellion is still the same. It’s got a bigger budget, granted, but the message is still intact. With Riot Days, whether critiquing Putin or the Russian prison system, Alyokhina indicts the wealthy elite who abuse their power with her call for justice and rebellion.

RATING 7 / 10