Riot Days, by Maria Alyokhina

Riot Days is the story and memoirs of Pussy Riot’s ‘Masha’ Alyokhina. Pussy Riot is a (now internationally famous) Russian all-girl punk protest and performance band, and Masha tells her tale in a gritty, dreamy, lyrical, Russian beat-poet way, with facts, politics, realism and charm, from the band’s inception to the incarceration of two of its members, Alyokhina herself and band mate Tolokonnikova.

Masha is an ordinary, everyday girl (well, now a woman of almost thirty) who was willing to go to jail for what she believes in – which is equality and fairness, and idealism.

During the Snow Revolution, when many in Russia protested against claims of election fraud and other corruptions, Masha did what any politically-minded young woman might do – she formed a band and staged some guerrilla protest gigs – whipping out her guitar in a public place and belting out a few verses of their latest protest song. One day, she and her band mates sang a song, uninvited, in a cathedral. In the UK, they would have got a stern talking to and a suspended sentence, and some eye-rolling from a probation officer. In Russia, they got 2 years in a penal colony, the conditions of which have parallels to the gulags – which, in a particularly nice touch, Masha, from her prison cell, protested against, and won some desperately needed human rights for herself and her fellow inmates.

Without the arrests and subsequent prison sentences, the story of Pussy Riot could be the story of pretty much every other band that’s ever put plectrum to string: countless hours spent practising in crumbling, freezing cold rehearsal spaces, usually an old warehouse with smashed-out windows, that smells of cats’ wee; dreaming of changing the world and making a difference; and living hand-to-mouth.

The difference with Pussy Riot, of course, is that they live in Russia, where patriarchal attitudes still hold sway, and the Church is still in bed with the state, so the band’s ill-thought-out 40-second guerrilla gig in that cathedral led not to the 15 days’ in the cells they were expecting, but to two years locked up in appallingly harsh and freezing conditions.

Halfway through the book, Alyokhina is transferred from the remand prison in Moscow, where she was held whilst waiting to go to trial, to the penal colony in Perm. The journey was made by train, under guard, with other prisoners, and during the journey Alyokhina read Russian poets aloud to stay sane. The weight of her situation becomes very heavy and real to both her and the reader of this book on that train journey: there will be no state mercy, no last minute reprieve, though she is a young mother of a young child, and she is heading to one of the grimmest, coldest places on earth.

The book is written in a lyrical way, almost stream-of-consciousness, with repeating phrases that underline moments and events of absurdity and the brick wall of authoritarian deliberate misunderstanding. But there’s a foundation seam of dark humour and humanity that keeps the book light and afloat. Alyhokhina’s writing is generous and hopeful – she wants a better world, perhaps idealistically, and she is willing to keep protesting and fighting against all the odds until she gets it.

Alyokhina writes that the ‘Snow Revolution’ – a series of protests in Russia in 2011-2013 over the possibly flawed and potentially fraudulent electoral process in Russia, and Pussy Riot itself was motivated by immature and idealistic notions – but Alyokhina nonetheless stands by these notions of a better world – a world with fairness, equality, and respect.

Even after serving her sentence Alyokhina is unrepentantly idealistic, and staunch in her belief that protest and acts of protest can help turn the tide in Russia, and maybe the rest of the world: spotlighting corruption and routing it out, dispelling lack of equality and promoting respect for women and marginalised sectors of society – in fact, for everyone. And not just in Russia. She writes inclusively – her actions and the fight is for us all, she asserts, not just in Russia, but anywhere: anyone, she says, can be Pussy Riot – and should be.

I was provided with a review copy of this book by the publisher, via NetGalley.

Riot Days is published by Penguin Books Allen Lane. Pub. date 14th September 2017

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