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Maria Alekhina © Albert Wiking, We Have A Dream Fo

Pussy Riot’s Maria on prison, Putin and growing up a rebel

Maria Alkoyhina reflects on her first ever book, Riot Days, a punk call to arms

For Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, words are the seeds from which our minds grow. It’s no wonder then that she’s written a book to chronicle her Pussy Riot experiences, writing a both personal and punk history. Riot Days begins as a retrospective insight into Alyokhina's life before the previously imprisoned punk collective, including sketches from her childhood, as well as reflections on the events that led up to her arrest, the creation of the infamous Punk Prayer, and life in Russia’s penal colony. Since enduring a short personal hell, Maria has extended her activism to advocate for prisoner rights and launched MediaZona: one of the most trusted independent media voices in Russia. But the battle is not over, claims Alkyohina, whose work hauntingly reminds us to never stop fighting for democracy, even if we feel complacent within our current society's embrace.

Alyokhina is in London this week reading from Riot Days at Gimme Shelter x Book Slam – a cultural charity series calling on the public to fight against bad housing and homelessness hosted by Shelter. Dazed caught up with her prior to her reading to discuss her first book, activism in tough times, and growing up a Russian rebel.

Why did you decide to write a book on your experiences?

Maria Alyokhina: Because I believe that this book and our example can inspire people to take action. I believe that the world needs actions right now during this political time. So this story happened in Russia, but it can happen anywhere where people forget about what they are fighting for. It was not easy, it took around two years to write and there were a lot of people asking me why I was writing it and telling me that rather than write it, I should forget all of my experiences like you would any nightmare. People said it would be much easier to forget. But I believe that stories should be told. Truth should stay in history. It's all of us who are making history. Not politicians, not leaders, but us. 

”I think what's happening in the West right now happened because a lot of people thought that this democracy will stay with them forever and they should no longer fight for it, but now it's slipping away” – Maria Alyokhina

The book includes some sketches from your childhood. Were you always a rebel?

Maria Alyokhina: I’m still a child (laughs). I was full of surprises. I was kind of a troublesome child. I changed schools five times but that's another story (laughs). I think that it was the first experience of having battles with the system because the system was copying itself in different institutions. That’s why schools sometimes look like armies, armies look like a prison and so on. 

What would you say was your first form of activism?

Maria Alyokhina: In Russian schools, we have labour lessons. They separate girls from boys and they teach girls how to sew oven gloves and boys how to make furniture. I broke (skipped) labour lessons at school, I was about 11. All my friends were boys and I was quite surprised at why they separated me from my friends and why I was being forced to sew gloves because we have hundreds of supermarkets that sell them. I started to ask questions like why should I learn it, why is it useful? And all the school told me was 'you have to follow the rules’ and I asked them ‘why do these rules exist if you can't explain them?’ They didn't have an answer so I refused to do it.

Then they invited me to the director’s room and I said the same – if you can't explain and protect your rules, I will break them. Because it’s a stupid Soviet system when teachers are not teaching you to think but teach you only to obey and follow the rules. And almost all of them forgot why those rules exist, it became a habit and I don't think that something is alive when it has lost its sense. 

What was life like in prison?

Maria Alyokhina: Life? (laughs). It was interesting. No one stays in prison forever. The conditions in the Russian penal colony are terrible. It's legal slavery. People sewing police uniforms for twelve hours per day with only $2-$3 pay per month. There’s almost no medicine. And it’s not a Western prison idea, it’s a Soviet system with barracks so 100 women are living together in one room. They have 3 toilets and no hot water. So, when I came there the first time I was quite surprised, and that’s how I started my human rights battle with prison guards.

Yes, what are you doing to advocate for prisoner's rights in Russia?

Maria Alyokhina: I started with an article. I just wrote what I saw and that’s how I think my problems started because the guards started to say that I wanted to disorganise their penal colony, to start protesting there so they put me into solitary confinement for five months. From there, I went to court against them in 2013 and I won. Several punishment papers were written about me so I went to court to appeal them. Every person has a right to appeal against papers written by authorities, but nobody knows about that.

I started to read the law, page to page, chapter to chapter, and in the end of the story eight prison guards were fired and they started to reform living conditions. They cut the number of hours prisoners were expected to work a day and upped their salaries. But all of that as I said before won't exist for forever. We all should fight against it every day or it will revert to what it was. 

Will you keep fighting for prison rights?

Maria Alyokhina: Yes. When we were released in 2014 we started MediaZona which is an independent Russian media outlet. It used to be very small and now it’s one of the most quoted media sources on Russian internet. It's an organisation of editors and journalists covering topics such as police violence, prison violence and political courts and cases. At the very beginning, no one expected it to be popular and there were a lot of criticisms, no one was interested in reading dark stories from prison because everyone knows prison is hell. If you start something there will be 100 people who will criticise you and say that you will not achieve any success because it’s much easier to criticise something than to do something. But after 2 years it became very popular. 

“I believe that we should fight for our freedom everyday otherwise this world will lose its sense and it will become empty and useless” – Maria Alyokhina

In your book you say: ‘When I was jailed for political protest, I learned that prison doesn’t just teach you to follow the rules. It teaches you to think that you can never break them.’ Why do you say this?

Maria Alyokhina: The prison system in Russia does not want to prepare anyone for freedom. It wants you to stay in prison forever. All they want is to make you serve your prison term quietly. It’s not about relating with you as a person, but relating to you as a detail of the huge political mechanism. This is a huge Soviet concept – Stalin's concept. As a president, we have former KGB agent and as we all know, you can't be a former KGB agent because it’s a permanent way of thinking. That’s why the essence of the system moves like that. I believe that we should fight for our freedom every day otherwise this world will lose its sense and it will become empty and useless. And it’s actually not only for Russia, it’s for everybody. And I think what's going on in the West now happened because a lot of people thought that this democracy will stay with them forever and they should no longer fight for it, but now it's slipping away.

You were a journalism student when you first studied, is language still a powerful tool for you?

Maria Alyokhina: Yes, of course. Words have power. I think all the words that you hear and read from the moment you are born are an essence of you. All the words your mother and father would tell you, and read to you, they are with you forever. Like seeds of a flower, words are seeds in your mind that help you grow.

How do you navigate working across different mediums?

Maria Alyokhina: With the help of God (laughs). I don’t like labels and frames. I want to stay alive and I love surprises and experiments, that’s why I work across so many.

What are your hopes for the future of Russia?

Maria Alyokhina: Hopes? (laughs) There is no final result in my work. It’s a process, it’s our life and our country. I do not pretend to build a heaven, I just want to change the world for better a little bit, how I can.  

If you weren't an activist, what would you be doing?

Maria Alyokhina: As President Putin says: history does not know 'Ifs'. 

Alyokhina features alongside John Niven (Kill Your Friends) and Orlando Weeks (The Gritterman) at Gimme Shelter. Tickets priced at £15 across the events and all money raised will go directly to Shelter. You can find out more information here