Saturday 20 April 2019


Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina    {Reviewed by STELLA} 
Seen the documentarybeen to the performance - now read the book. Maria (Masha) Alyokhina’s Riot Days is a moving and searingly honest account of imprisonment in modern-day Russia. Pussy Riot started as an activist movement, one that was reasonably naive and chaotic: a group of young performers determined to make a difference, to call out corruption, political cronyism and draw attention to the structures of power that oppress the young and disadvantaged in this wealthy and powerful nation. In Russia the state, the church and the security forces are entrenched alongside wealthy oligarchs to decide the course of justice and ensure that all mechanisms of the state serve the interests of an elite group. In the opening lines of Riot Days, Alyokhina talks about the revolution - not the 1917 revolution, but the one that was happening right then (in 2011) - theSnow Revolution: “What will they write about it in history books? Will they mention it at all?....We were led by a belief in the possibility for change - a naive and childish hope that can awaken suddenly in adults. ... We went out into the streets. We wrote and, letter by letter, we became a revolutionary statement.” What started as a simple campaign to draw attention to the plight of Russians in Moscow, to draw attention to the Putin regime, its corruption and political machinations, through song and performance, soon became a name on everyone’s lips. Pussy Riot. A group of young women in balaclavas. Their initial actions were seen as a bit of silliness by the authorities and they were able in most cases to slip through the fingers of the authorities with a slap on the wrist, some false names and an indulgent sigh from the police. Yet their performance in a churchon the 21st February 2012, criticising the link and collusion between Putin, former KGB agent ‘Mikhalych’, and the head of the church, Patriarch of All Russia, former KGB agent ‘Mikhailov’, took the world by storm and embarrassed the church and the state. In the eyes of many, the Church’s approval of Putin was tantamount to giving him god-like status. Suddenly these young women, performing a-less-than-2-minute performance on the altar, were public enemy no.1. In Riot Days, Alyokhina tells her story of being part of this protest movement, the importance of the right to protest, her involvement in the now world-famous action, and the subsequent days on the run hiding in cafes, safe houses, abandoned warehouses, etc, avoiding their homes and watching the feet of those walking by (pointy shoes a clear warning signal of secret police). The film clip went viral and Pussy Riot was in demand by the international media. Hiding out in public toilets (while staff flicked lights off and yelled at them to leave), they communicated to the outside world via Skype and a crappy laptop, always on the move. As we know, Masha was arrested and judged to be guilty and sent to prison for two years. In prison, she was subjected to humiliation, torment from fellow prisoners (who saw ‘politics’ as troublesome), and to extra surveillance by guards and the authorities. Despite this, Masha didn’t waste her time in prison, and constantly fought for prisoners’ legal rights - having a lawyer helped (many of the prisoners didn’t have access to this luxury). Learning as much as she could about legal rights, she was able, through grit and determination (and several hunger strikes that became problematic for the penal colonies where she was sent), to make small changes that were significant ‘wins’ for the inmates. After a year of being in prison, she won her first case against the guards - no easy feat - and when she could have stopped, she carried on. Maria Alyokhina is plucky and stubborn, and if you had a chance to see her performance in Nelson recently you will know that the fight, alongside her colleagues, continues. Alyokhina’s writing style makes the book riveting and you are constantly aware of the cold, the humiliation and the miserable lives that women in Russia’s prisons endure. It’s also packed with great descriptions of prisoners and guards, and the humanity that both are capable of, as well as the fear and greed that drive others. 


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