First off: we believe that Pussy Riot are on the side of good. It doesn’t matter if you like, or have even heard, the music. It doesn’t matter whether you entirely approve of them performing punk music in a church, to the outrage of the Russian authorities. If you follow the logic that the enemy of mine enemy is my friend, and that Russian premier Vladimir Putin is not the friend of Western democracy… well, then, Pussy Riot are our friend. A quick Google will show you that, since their inception in 2011, maybe a half dozen books have been written, some by former or possibly current members of the band, and some not. Maria Alyokhina was a member of the band – then she served time in a gulag and the band said she was no longer a member – but she has continued to play with them since her release (and suffer the occasionally violent results).
Obviously, we know that Pussy Riot have a position on the world’s stage but it is still surprising to read the likes of Patti Smith saying, “Their only crime was being young, arrogant and beautiful.” Not that Riot Days really functions as a manifesto, but Alyokhina peppers her own words with revolutionary talk from the likes of Guy Debord (“If the world is turned upside down, the truth will become a lie”) and Jean-Paul Sartre (“The world is unjust; if you accept it, you become an accomplice. If you want to change it, you become an executioner”), as well as reactions from the likes of, well, Vladimir Putin:
“They did the right thing to arrest them, 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?”
Written in fragmentary paragraphs with occasional rough diagrams, the book doesn’t really find its feet until it becomes a gulag memoir. It is here Alyokhina finds her voice:
“From the first moments in prison, it was clear to me that there was no mistake in the arrest, that it was the systematic destruction of a whole “social” group – all those who remembered what they were not supposed to remember from the past, from Russian history.”
Riot Days, then, is not so much the story of Pussy Riot as it is the story of Alyokhina’s time in a gulag. Think One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, albeit refracted through a bolshy feminist prism (and we don’t use the word bolshy there with any kind of agenda – if you want to rile your feminists, stick them in prison – you’ll justify whatever they have to say to a Westernised audience a dozen times over), and you won’t be far from the truth.
This is a world in which,
“The judge bars the witnesses for the defence from entering the courtroom and orders that those who are already present be removed by the Spetsnav team. Our witnesses are led out. One of them is shoved down the stairs, and they beat him around his kidneys.”
A world in which,
“I run to the gates and weep, and feel that I must do something about this fucking establishment, where a human being can be tossed into an autozak like a sack of shit and shipped off to Siberia, beaten to death in a Stolypin car, thrown off a car during transit.”
A world in which,
“If you were sitting alone in some bright room, you might sob and beat your head against the wall because you won’t see your son. But you can’t do that. Later, you’ll understand that, from now on, you can’t do that ever, anywhere.”
Alyokhina’s wisdom is hard-earned:
“Stopping is a victory. Not to turn my face to the wall, not to put my hands behind my back, not to spread my buttocks at their command – these are my great victories.”
She hunger strikes to drive positive changes for her and her fellow prisoners (“you go on hunger strikes to achieve results” but later “you realise that it’s not for the imagined outcome, but for the very right to protest”). She makes a royal pain in the arse of herself (and you can’t help but wonder if the authorities thought, she can’t make as much of a nuisance of herself free as she can here, in the gulag). The lessons she gathers are lessons for us all, living in the world that Putin and Trump and Johnson & Farage and Assange, among others, have bequeathed us:
“Power built on totalitarian principles cannot admit its mistakes. To admit a mistake is to show weakness, to back down. To lose. This power sees conspiracy everywhere behind its back, so it lives with its head turned backwards, checking that no one is following it.”
Yes Riot Days is bitty (we wonder how much of it was actually written on tiny bits of paper, hidden away from the authorities, secreted when cells were tossed in search of contraband), and the fragmentariness at times pushes the reader away (your sympathy for Alyokhina’s predicament sometimes means you have to forgive the book when it isn’t quite the book you really want) but it’s importance can’t be underestimated. This is what resistance looks like. And we need all of the resistance that we can get.
Any Cop?: It may be too soon to tell the story of Pussy Riot (but we’ll read it when it comes); until then, Alyokhina’s memoir will more than do. Urgent and necessary.