Pussy Riot: “In Russia, to dream is now against the law”

Having outraged the Russian authorities, Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina served two years in prison. She tells The Big Issue that Russian people have forgotten they have rights

Pussy Riot outraged the Russian elite by performing in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012. Maria Alyokhina and another band member served two years in a penal colony for hooliganism and religious hatred. But she won’t be silenced. As Riot Days, her account of the protest and imprisonment is released, she says that revolution is part of daily life…

The Big Issue: This year marks 100 years since the Russian Revolution – was it worth it?
Maria Alyokhina: You’re asking about revolution like it’s a project but it isn’t a project with a beginning and end confined by dates, like a history text book. Revolution – it is life, where you’re constantly confronted with a choice: to act or to stand aside. Our biggest enemies are fear and indifference. I believe that revolution is a political process inside each of us. A choice for each of us, a choice to act and overcome the fear that arrives every time you act. Fear is simply instinct, but in the hands of an experienced puppeteer it becomes a good enough weapon.

Were the worst aspects of Tsarist rule worse than the political system in Russia today?
The experience of the 20th century taught us that we don’t need to wait for Lenin, because then it is his revolution; just an exchange of the will of a monarch for the will of one leader. Today in Russia we are moving ‘forward into the past’. The majority of Russians know about thieving bureaucrats, false elections, but they just shrug their shoulders and say: “How can it be any different?”

The majority of Russians just shrug their shoulders and say: “How can it be any different?”

What do you think revolutionaries would have thought about the current government?
I think today’s revolutionaries are the ones who need to think about the current government.

People outside Russia might not have heard of Pussy Riot had you not been detained. Did the authorities know that by trying to silence you they would instead amplify your voice?
They didn’t think anything, they simply thought: “How quickly can we shut these girls up?” In principle, to imprison us for a song is no more than a stupid and hysterical pre-election gesture. The problem with the Russian authorities is that by making a mistake, they can’t say ‘it’s a mistake’. On the contrary, when they make mistakes, the authorities insist even more on being right, using all the mechanisms available to them.

Pussy Riot's anti-Putin protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, 2012
Pussy Riot's anti-Putin protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

You were convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ – do you hate religion?
“Virgin Mary, banish Putin” – that was our motivation. It was a week before the so-called presidential elections. It’s very simple. There is a line in our Punk Prayer, “The Virgin Mary is with us at the protests”. Our performance was not to fight with God, but a criticism of the institution of the Church and its role in Russian reality. The officials thought up the motive of religious hatred to blot out our real motives from everyone’s minds. To engender hatred, and to justify the repressive tactics they used against us. We did not go to the cathedral to destroy it but to show that Christianity is for us too, and not only for officials in black cassocks, making wine-fuelled homages to relics and sacred belts.

Putin said: “The court did the right thing to convict them. You can’t undermine our moral foundations, you can’t destroy the country. What would we be left with then?” – What is left?
Given that the government can’t boast about the economy, productivity, quality of life, education or health, the simplest option is to take spirituality and patriotism as their base. If you dig deeper, you can see that patriotism is hypocrisy, and spirituality is only a front.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

Why do most Russians love Putin?
It is propaganda. When the state doesn’t have anything to brag about apart from the great achievements of Soviet times, propaganda convinces that enemies are all around. It’s no surprise that people are prepared to sacrifice their freedom for security. People are afraid of change. No one believes in their personal voice, that they can change something. People have forgotten that they have rights, that they themselves are the source of power. People have stopped dreaming in Russia. You could even say that to dream now is against the law. But not for us.

Can you give us an example of something that doesn’t seem controversial but you would not be allowed to say in Russia?
For example, to say: “Crimea is Ukraine” is already an incitement to destroying the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. No one can forbid me to say something. Yet most people are watching what they say. We are fighting against self-censorship imposed by the state.

In Russia, dozens of people are serving sentences of several years for peaceful protest

You continued to protest in prison?
If you see injustice around you, what difference does it make if it is prison?

Did you meet prisoners who should not have been sentenced?
In Russia, you can land behind bars because of a Facebook post or an anti-war poster. Dozens of people are serving sentences of several years for peaceful protest. Many are behind bars even now. We are against criminal responsibility for opinions and even if I don’t agree with someone and think he’s an idiot, the government shouldn’t take away his right to be an idiot.

You were separated from your son who was around five at the time. How did you explain why you had to go away?
My parents lived in the Soviet era, when there was censorship, repression and abuse of leadership. When I asked them if they knew what went on in the USSR, I heard the reply: “Yes, we knew.” When I asked why did you do nothing, nothing to fight for your freedom? – there was no answer. I live and act so that I do have an answer. Philip, my son, came to see me in prison every three months. We cooked and played board games. Once I asked if his classmates knew that I was in prison and he said: “Yes they did.” He then added that if they asked “Why?” he answered, “Because mum sang a loud song.”

You are untouchable when you feel that you are standing up for kindness and truth

Does music have power?
Art has power. That is why it was created. To change people and the world around them, their preconceptions, to break down barriers, showing that they don’t really exist. I believe in community. I am convinced that a community is stronger than any state. You are untouchable when you feel that you are standing up for kindness and truth.

What is the best form of protest?
Desperate, sudden and joyous.

Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina is out now (Allen Lane, £16.99)