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“Donald Trump and Brexit are a good sign”: Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina on the new resistance

A leading member of the feminist punk collective warns that Russia is still a Soviet regime – and that it could be interfering in our elections.

Defying the drizzle, Masha Alyokhina expertly lights a cigarette with one hand. She carries a bundle of books, mostly by George Orwell, in her other arm. England Your England teeters on top. We meet on a damp and grey stretch of the Strand outside the Penguin publishing house, which will be releasing her book, Riot Days, in September.

A petite figure glowering against the rain, the 28-year-old world famous Russian activist could be mistaken for a teenager by passersby. She is dressed all in black, from her skinny beanie to her scuffed trainers, and a checked Vans backpack lurches off one shoulder.

Five years ago, Alyokhina was a world away from smart offices and book deals. She was sentenced to two years in a Siberian penal colony for singing a song about Russian President Vladimir Putin at the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. She was one of the five members of feminist art collective Pussy Riot to partake in the “Punk Prayer”, dressed in their iconic brightly coloured balaclavas and yelling for the Virgin Mary to “drive away Putin!”

After being showily released by the Russian regime in December 2013 just before the Sochi Winter Olympics, Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova – a fellow high-profile Pussy Rioter who was also imprisoned – began campaigning for prisoners’ rights.

When imprisoned, Alyokhina was separated from her then five-year-old son, subjected to ritual strip searches, five months of solitary confinement, and repeatedly forced to undergo gynaecological examinations. And life hasn’t been easy since her release. Quasi-Nazi groups shot green antiseptic from syringes into her eyes when she was visiting inmates at her old penal colony, and she was detained and horsewhipped by Cossacks while protesting at Sochi.

Even so, she still lives in Moscow. “Because it’s my country,” she says. “I want to fight for it; I want to live there.”


Masha Alyokhina (left) leaves a police station in Sochi in 2014. Photo: Getty

Her book, which recounts her story, will be published in the UK, France and Germany – but she seems most enthusiastic about circulating it in Russia. “We will publish it by ourselves,” she grins. “Because there is no queue of publishers in Russia who are waiting for this. But there are a lot of people who want to read it.”

Other political artists in Russia will help her publish it; she has friends who own a printing house. But they will publish it without an imprint, to avoid trouble from the regime. “We will just continue on the underground – why not!”

Alyokhina is a veteran of anti-Putin resistance. She and Tolokonnikova set up an independent media outlet called MediaZona when they were released, which reports on subjects like the conditions in Russian prisons and the country’s warped justice system. A brave endeavour in a country with a heavily censored media, where journalists who attack the government are killed.

In March, protests against corruption in the Russian government sprung up simultaneously across Russian cities. Alyokhina calls this “a new generation of Russian protest”.

“This is like a miracle,” she says, gesticulating as she searches for the English to express her excitement. Her chipped purple nails glint in the harsh light of a café we’ve settled in. “This opposition is from the classrooms, from the schools. These are the next people!”


Masha Alyokhina (right) in court behind bars after the "Punk Prayer" in 2012. Photo: Getty

But she believes the West has taken such freedoms for granted, putting the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the US down to complacency.

“It’s happened because people who believe in democracy and freedom somehow felt that these things will exist for forever in their life, and they should not fight for it anymore, it’s just like a constant.” she says. “It’s not constant. It’s hard work, every day. So now I think maybe Trump and maybe even Brexit is a good sign, a good lesson, for people to rise up.”

Will the Russians be meddling in the UK election? “Russia has huge experience of spying; I will not be surprised if it’s involved in the process of elections,” she replies. “But I believe that people, any community, is stronger than any secret service.”

It is 100 years since the Russian revolution this month, and Alyokhina thinks this has partly fuelled some of the recent protest in Russia. The Kremlin has attempted to play down the centenary, concerned about the effect revolutionary fever could have on a country with a struggling economy facing elections next year.

Alyokhina notes the irony. “I think we cannot say goodbye to our past and say it’s our past. It’s still there. All the things such as the gulag are still there. Mostly because the system is a Soviet system,” she says. “The Lenins are still there. In the centre of the capital of Russia is a dead body, which is not in a grave but upstairs!” The idea of Lenin preserved in his Mausoleum has her collapsing into hysterics for quite some time.

“Putin, he’s a KGB agent. And there are no ex-KGB agents,” she concludes. “This is the face of the Russian President.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear