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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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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