Pussy Riot interviewed in prison

Hunger-striking Pussy Rioter Maria Alyokhina speaks to Dazed over Russian jail webcam

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Maria Alyokhina of Russian protest movement Pussy Riot went on huger strike yesterday. In this exclusive interview, conducted by Inessa Tsulimova and Fiona Cook two months ago, she decribes her imprisonment and hopes for the future. 

When Maria Alyokhina and two other members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in separate prison colonies for their “punk prayer” protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour last August, Alyokhina made a provocative closing speech. “All you can deprive me of is ‘so-called’ freedom,” she said, after branding it a “so-called” trial in a “so-called” court. The statement became all the more poignant when Alyokhina was moved into solitary confinement in November, allegedly at her own request. That same month saw the launch of Russia’s “internet blacklist”, a loosely worded law allowing the government to block websites promoting anything that comes under its definition of “extremism”. The video of Pussy Riot’s 40-second anti-Putin protest never stood a chance. And yet here we were, a year later, carrying out a perplexingly obstacle-free interview with Alyokhina via webcam. That’s if you discount the involvement of a Russian credit card, a translator and several video experts, anyway. Unsurprisingly, Alyokhina’s outlook was as defiant as ever.

Why have you been in solitary confinement since November? What’s an average day like?
My typical day begins with breakfast, followed by studying for a seamstress qualification. Later I have a break for lunch, and then I go back to studying until around 3pm. I believe the reason I’ve been put in shiza (the Russian term for solitary confinement, an abbreviation of ‘schizophrenia’) is because it is a way of isolating me from the rest of the colony, and I can only assume that I might be released from here in a month or two. Meanwhile, I have signed a document agreeing to prolong my stay there, as it is in a way the best out of two evils, and possibly the only solution to maintain some kind of comfortable living.

Do you consider your protest to have been a success?
I think yes – it has definitely been successful. To my regret there is a two-sided situation here. Among intelligent/thinking/questioning people, who understand us, we are seen as people who have brought up and highlighted a very serious issue, a range of problems even. But sadly, among the general crowd that I have encountered, our act has not been understood at all. People have heard only fractions of the story, out of which they puzzle together one big terrifying piece, and to explain the reality of everything happening,
I need a lot of time. I don’t have a problem trying to explain, it helps me see the situation clearer, but clearly propaganda is doing its dirty job. At any encounter people tend to take a negative view on the situation. Everyone I speak to in person changes their opinion after a single conversation. And people become fascinated with the story, showing real and honest interest. There are a lot of people who actually do want to change the country for the better, who admit they have no rights and feel lost.

So the key idea was to change the country for the better?
A lot of people want it. The quality of life in this country is very low, so to change it for the better is a priority.

Your coloured balaclavas have become a symbol of rebellion throughout the world. Do you think that without the masks you would have achieved such notoriety?
To be honest I didn’t even think about it. Masks and balaclavas are one of the key elements... We didn’t want to be female faces talking because the aim was to create fictional characters and make them speak. That’s why I never even considered such an option. Didn’t try to imagine.

Is being anonymous a protester’s greatest weapon?
Definitely. I hope the main hero for modern Russia would be anon. Meaning a civil activist who is actively participating in the political life of the country.

Russians can now be fined for taking part in unauthorised demonstrations, and the video of your ‘punk prayer’ has been blocked under extremism laws. How can opposition survive in this climate of censorship? 

How to act in such a situation is a personal choice for everyone. I would like to believe that first of all people will be morally strong and independent and will find a way, but mainly that they will have a will to find that way, to continue what we started. As we know, in Soviet days times were much harder and more challenging, but people nevertheless valued freedom of speech. Words seem to have meant much more than they do today. Repression in some ways is even a positive factor, as it teaches people to appreciate what they have, to express themselves and value the freedom of that expression. 


Do you think the majority of Russians are for or against these two examples of censorship?
Sadly I think the majority of Russians do not realise or notice the censorship that is being introduced at the moment. Unfortunately, that’s the truth. People do not see it happening at all.

So it did not exist before?
It did exist. But since the fourth re-election (of the Putin administration, in 2012), measures have been taken over a very short period of time that show that things are going to get harder and control stronger. I watch news and try to analyse what is happening, I mean government channels specifically. I want to say that the angle at which news is presented is much harder than we saw during Medvedev (president from 2008 to 2012 while Putin was prime minister), for example. Censorship has existed all this time, obviously, and even those working for government channels have mentioned it on numerous occasions, but from my point of view it is really getting worse now.

How vital is the internet as a tool for protesters today?
It is one of the key mechanisms, I think. It is becoming more and more prominent.

In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
The way things worked out is a big achievement. We saw the reaction of a big number of people and now we can analyse it for a long period of time. Hopefully this has created a foundation for a dialogue. I wish there were more events like this to stimulate that dialogue.

You said that things were not understood correctly – how did you want to be understood?
I don’t want us to be perceived from a certain limited angle. I just want our message to come across clearly. I am talking especially about the creative side of the matter.

So what was your message?
Our action was half creative, half political. A massive problem with this country is the absence of a sense of humour. Nobody found it funny, when in reality it was quite humorous. What is happening to us might seem very tragic, and it is of course, but it does not deny the fact that we tried to bring out the humour in the difficult situation our country is in, showing it in a funny and absurd light. Highlighting the actions of the elite but in an absurd way, to make them look at themselves in the mirror...But nobody saw it the same way as us. Instead, people thought that we were determined to offend – though I haven’t encountered a single offended person throughout my imprisonment. I can’t really talk to anyone outside of prison, but here no one has been offended. Some people here were strongly affected by propaganda, and even repeated, word-for-word, press statements including those by Putin about the offensive band title etc. It is amusing how effective propaganda is, actually.

What do you think the best hope is for changing the restrictive environment in Russia?
I think there is a very strong society that has matured, and this society is capable of protecting itself.
If it becomes as proactive as it has the potential to be, everything will work out. I believe we can change Russia for the better.

What are your plans for after your release?
I don’t have any plans. I will continue what I was doing before: arts.

Translation by Inessa Tsulimova

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