“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.

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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.