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Maria Alyokhina is the closest thing modern-day Russia has to a rock star. And the diminutive 29-year old, clad in black with mousy blonde hair spilling out from under a beret, isn’t even a musician. For the past four years, she and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, fellow founder of the feminist punk art collective Pussy Riot, have travelled the world with the story of their time in remote prison camps — where they were sentenced to two years for their extraordinary protest against Vladimir Putin on the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral. They have made music videos with Chloë Sevigny and posed for photographs with celebrities from Yoko Ono to Hillary Clinton. They even had a scene-stealing cameo in a Putin-themed episode of House of Cards. Yet in her native city she cuts a low-key figure. “Who could ever have thought all this’d really happen,” she sighs, as I turn on my tape recorder.
I arrived at Dom 12, an unassuming café tucked into Moscow’s expensive Golden Mile district, to find her waiting for me with her 10-year-old son Filya, who has just got out of school, and Sasha, a friend-cum-assistant. It’s a rainy Thursday, and the place is nearly empty. If the few customers have recognised Alyokhina, they’re not paying any attention. We address each other with the informal ty in Russian, even though we have met only once before, when I kicked her and Tolokonnikova out of the FT bureau in the late hours of our office building’s summer party. (I’m still not entirely sure how they wound up there.)
The café, which vaguely attempts to emulate a smoky French brasserie, is a favourite late-night haunt of Moscow’s liberal intelligentsia. It’s also just a short walk from Christ the Saviour, the site of the infamous protest that made Pussy Riot’s name. Poignancy aside, the real reason we are here is because Filya needs to pick up his kit for football practice from his father’s place down the street.
In February 2012, Alyokhina and three other young women in bright tights and balaclavas crashed the cathedral altar to stage a 40-second performance, “Virgin Mary, Drive out Putin!” “None of us thought there would be charges or a sentence when we did it,” she says — but a week later they were on the run. After a bizarre trial that evoked Soviet-era proceedings against dissident artists, they were sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. “We joked that, if they caught us, we would be the new dissidents,” says Alyokhina, “which was just what happened.”
Pussy Riot owe their stardom foremost to the Kremlin. After tens of thousands of middle-class liberal Muscovites had taken to the streets in the dead of winter to protest against Putin, the Kremlin stoked a culture war aimed at convincing Russia’s “silent majority” that the opposition were a bunch of louche, wealthy perverts. Pussy Riot were the perfect poster girls. State TV ran endless denunciations from vituperative hardliners. The case inspired new laws that banned “offending religious believers,” as well as “gay propaganda”, attending unauthorised protests, and reposting allegedly “extremist” content, measures that have been used to jail hundreds.
Pussy Riot were always received much more warmly in the west, where Putin has become a bête noire of the feminist and LGBTQ movements — largely thanks to them. In Russia they continue to divide opinion even among fellow opposition activists, some of whom see them as a garish distraction.
But Alyokhina is now a rebel with a different cause. She divides her time between work on behalf of Russian prisoners at home and travelling the west to tell their stories. In August, she was arrested by police in the far-flung city of Yakutsk for protesting on behalf of a political prisoner; three months later, she was performing in London’s Saatchi Gallery. She faces the classic punk rocker’s dilemma, I think: how to stay true to your roots while being embraced by the mainstream. “Maybe some people live according to a pre-prepared plan in the form of school, university, and a career somewhere,” she says. “That’s just not me.”
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova spent their first year of freedom trying to bring their message about Russian political prisoners to the world. Although the group made as much as $700,000 in 2014 from donations and appearances at places such as Glastonbury, the money that Alyokhina saw went to two organisations she had helped to set up: Zona Prava, a human rights NGO, and Mediazona, an excellent news site that focuses on the myriad injustices of Russia’s court and penal system. “We didn’t make any money,” she says. “I had some savings. I’m not the sort of person who needs a lot. I rented a room. That was it.”
The waitress arrives and, in keeping with the café’s faux-euro theme, I order the French onion soup and chicken schnitzel. But Alyokhina demurs: “I don’t really want to eat, I don’t know if that’s all right,” she says, asking simply for water and a large americano.
“I should tell you that I’ve actually got huge problems choosing things. Choosing something is a whole adventure for me,” she adds.
“Especially clothes,” Filya chimes in.
“That’s why I limit myself to one colour in my life,” she says.
Sasha, meanwhile, orders the onion soup and a falafel plate, and Filya chooses a risotto, apple juice, and a chocolate cake. Alyokhina balks at the risotto before I explain that the FT will be picking up the tab. “Seriously, that costs Rbs 700 [£9]?” Alyokhina says. “I’ve brought you to a bourgeois place. Now I’m starting to feel ashamed.”
Her opposition to Putin may have defined her life as an activist, but she has no interest at all in talking about him. “We have this habit to talk just about the changes that the state provokes — the repressions, all the horrors we are living through,” she says.
But doesn’t it worry her that Pussy Riot’s main audience is outside Russia? A long pause follows. “I’ve got five huge cardboard boxes in my attic with all the letters that people sent me for the two years I was in prison,” she says. “They told their own stories. And for many people our story became the reason for changes in their life.”
The furore around her trial has clearly affected her less than her time in prison in Berezniki, a town in the northern Ural Mountains. Her memoir, Riot Days, is largely devoted to that period. It was in prison, she says, that she discovered what has become the Pussy Riot project’s main purpose. “People came up to me and Nadya and said, ‘Girls, if you don’t change this, if you don’t tell people about it, then no one will’.”
Alyokhina’s childhood was all too typical of Russia’s turbulent 1990s. She grew up without her father — she only met him after seeking him out at 21 — and was raised by her mother. Her teens were spent hanging out in a dormitory in the Hotel Ukraine, a Stalinist skyscraper whose lobby was full of mafia types and prostitutes, and going to poetry readings in a heroin addict’s burnt-out flat. She changed school four times, then went hitchhiking as her classmates sat university exams.
“They discourage people from thinking and asking questions, they only teach you to follow the rules and submit without explanation or, most importantly, reason,” she says. “Obviously I didn’t like that. Who would?”
While she was at one of those schools, Alyokhina was introduced to a lesbian couple who asked her to look after their cats in a grim Moscow suburb when they left Russia. Gradually, the apartment became a hang-out for members of the underground art collective Voina, or War. They shocked Russia with politically charged performances, crowned with a brilliant escapade where they snuck out in the dead of night to draw a penis on a bridge over St Petersburg’s canal so it would raise, erect, to face the local FSB headquarters.
The political point was often muddled — they were more anti-authoritarian than doctrinally anti-Kremlin — but Voina always delivered in shock value. In one notorious performance, a woman shoplifted a frozen chicken from a hypermarket by partly tucking it into her vagina. Voina’s radical action made them the enfants terribles of the Russian art world, but Alyokhina was more interested in political protest. While a student, she took Filya to environmental demonstrations in a sling, then a stroller. As Voina fragmented between its Moscow and St Petersburg cliques, some of the women hit on the idea of Pussy Riot as a showier spin-off inspired by feminist theory and riot grrrl bands. Or as she puts it: “Filming a frozen chicken being pushed up a c*** was good, but it wasn’t for a mass audience.”
Food arrives for everyone except Alyokhina. The onion soup is surprisingly authentic, given that Putin has passed “counter-sanctions” against the Gruyère with which it is ostensibly dressed, along with all other western cheeses. The slightly soggy schnitzel is decorated with a cabbage-and-dill “salad” and sits on top of a goopy yellow mass that I think is mustard sauce.
I realise Alyokhina — who went on hunger strike in prison to protest about the lack of vegetarian meals — has forgotten to order anything. At a loss, she asks Filya to pick. “I chose onion soup for you!” he says. “I don’t want soup,” she replies. “I chose risotto for you!” says Filya, having just devoured one himself.
“I don’t want that either. So then I don’t need anything,” Alyokhina sniffs, before turning to me. “Do you smoke?” I don’t, but agree to accompany her outside. She asks for a second americano, before we convince her to order a beetroot salad.
By the time of her release from prison, Pussy Riot had become a global sensation. The two women spent the next year taking their message to the international jet-set. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova had never been particularly close friends, had only done one performance together before the cathedral, and served their sentences in different prisons. The remaining members of Pussy Riot, whose identities are mostly unknown, spoiled an Amnesty International bash in Pussy Riot’s honour in New York by disowning Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova in an open letter.
Many lofty plans never came to fruition. Madonna wanted to make a movie about them, but the idea fell apart over creative differences. “It would have been a very particular film,” Alyokhina says, without elaborating. They scored a hefty advance for a book from Penguin, but spent it without delivering a manuscript (Alyokhina ultimately repaid the debt by producing a book by herself). Alyokhina then went to Cambodia with Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr Verzilov, who had masterminded their support campaign while they were behind bars, to write it. Instead of producing a manuscript, they had a brief affair.
Though friends describe their marriage as more of a business arrangement, Tolokonnikova was furious. She and Alyokhina have performed separately since 2015, though they insist they are still friends. Now, Tolokonnikova spends much of her time in the US making music revolving around Putin, Trump and the word “vagina”.
Alyokhina’s latest project is a play, Burning Doors, developed with the Belarus Free Theatre, who put on underground shows in a garage in their repressive homeland. The play is often uncomfortable viewing thanks to its unflinching depictions of the physical violence and psychological pressure Alyokhina endured while in prison.
She filed dozens of appeals against the prison wardens and went on hunger strike several times. She was eventually transferred to a better prison, while several of the wardens were fired. Since public attention died away, however, things have taken a turn for the worse. In November, Mediazona reported that three women had killed themselves at the prison this summer under duress from sweatshop-like conditions in its sewing factory. Does she not wish she’d had more of an effect on the system?
“It’s not about the state. It’s about the people who were touched by this story and the changes that have happened,” she says, before asking for another coffee, her third. “I try not to drink more than eight,” she says.
It’s getting dark. Sasha runs off with Filya to football practice. “I asked him once, at school, do they ask you where I am? . . . He says, I tell them my mother’s in prison because she sang a loud song against Putin in church. And I realised you need to keep things simple sometimes,” Alyokhina beams.
After we go for another cigarette, I take the opportunity to ask her about her personal life. Last year she started an improbable romance with one of her biggest detractors when she began dating Dmitry Tsorionov, leader of the hardline activists who lobbied for harsher sentences against her.
She met Tsorionov at a party last autumn, curious to find out what had motivated him. After a two-hour theological discussion, they went to buy a bottle of wine; one thing led to another, and they became an item. He was recently kicked out of his own Christian group, God’s Will, for failing to disown her. Her circle was also shocked; Tolokonnikova made a thinly veiled reference to a “friend f***ing a fascist”.
I think the story, which recently hit the Moscow hipster press, is a suitably touching conclusion to Alyokhina’s mission — winning over her biggest detractor so much that they fell in love. But it turns out they have already broken up. “We had a fight,” she says bashfully. “Because of different stuff. It’s hard to say. It’s complicated.”
She needs to go and pick up Filya, then pack her bags for a trip to Berlin and the UK. The constant touring must make it hard to keep her grounded, I say. But she sees Pussy Riot as a community she takes wherever she goes.
“When you do something, you realise that people immediately show up and stand up with you,” she says. “The point is that it’s better to be brave and honest than just to be a function of this system, which is going to wear itself down in the end. It’s important to be consistent. Don’t quit what you’ve started, don’t give up, don’t walk away. It’s important that those aren’t just words.”
We walk over to Filya’s father’s house, where Alyokhina gives me a samizdat copy of her memoir, which has a quote from feminist icon Chris Kraus on the back: “This book is freedom.” I think of Aloykhina’s final sentiments as I leave: “At every stage, you have to do everything you can. Everything you feel.”
The writer is the FT’s Moscow correspondent