Maria Alyokhina

            Riot Days (parts of Pussy Riot Church chapter &

                           Perm Experiment chapeter)

We, Pussy Riot, went out to the square because we dreamed of a different history. Because the one in which the president turned into an emperor was not the one we desired. We were sick of lies. Of the unchanging, dismal lies broadcast on TV, the endless, groundless promises of a happy life.

                                                   a long and happy life

Riot is always a thing of beauty. That is how I got interested. At school, I had this dream of becoming a graffiti artist, and I practised graffiti in my school notepad. If you start your school work on the first page and do your sketches in the back, sooner or later the two will meet in the middle.

And, next to your history notes, graffiti appears. Which turns history into a different story.


We rehearsed for a long time. Every day for about a month. At an art gallery surrounded by a large park with benches. It was cold, and I was wearing my grandma’s coat, which had huge shoulders. A badass military officer in a badass Cossack’s hat. I loved it! It wasn’t that I didn’t have regular clothes, I just liked dressing that way.

And so, Nadya Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, and undetermined other persons, at a place and time also undetermined by the investigation, but no later than 17 February 2012, in circumstances undetermined by the investigation, entered into a criminal conspiracy.

                                                     criminal conspiracy

The night before arrived. We agreed to meet the following morning, 21 February, 9 a.m., at Kropotinskaya station. I couldn’t sleep that night. I  was chatting with the Bass Player, who was coming, too. The closer Day  X came, the more I questioned my right to do what we planned to do. I tried to make sense of it from a religious perspective. I asked the Bass Player, do I have the right to do this? Maybe I’m just a barbarian? She persuaded me that I most likely did have the right to do it – after all, ‘you’re not going to murder an old woman.’ I definitely wasn’t going there to kill anyone. I was going to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

                                                    do I have the right?


‘You have the right to do this,’ the Bass Player said. And in the morning, she refused to go.

A February morning – gloomy, cloudy, cold. You don’t want to go outside. It’s not a winter’s day, with snow crunching under your feet, or a day of spring sun, with a fresh wind and rivulets of melting ice gleaming on the asphalt. February is weird. Neither fish, nor fowl. Impossible to tell when the days begin, and when they end.


Music – I decided – would help me wake up. An old CD player and several CDs in the kitchen. I put the coffee on, inserted a CD, plugged in the player. The outlet exploded.

Naturally. It had to happen on this, of all days.

                                                   music and electricity

The kitchen, the hallway, the street, one metro stop after the other – after the electric shock I’d had, I saw all this through blurred vision and white splotches. I thought maybe I could catch some sleep on the train. I had a long way to go and had to change train, though I suspected that at this time of the morning the metro would be packed with people on their way to work. And it was. Jam packed. I was only able to sit down before my last stop, for all of two minutes.

                                           transfer at lenin library station

Maybe I did sleep a bit. The dreams I had were also marked by white spots, like icy giraffes.


Serafima was the one I saw first. She was sitting on the ground, dozing by a huge column. Tiny Serafima next to an enormous column. Wearing headphones. Later, that’s how I remembered seeing her. Just then, Katya and Nadya jumped off another train, tons of stuff in their arms: backpacks, bags, parcels. We left the station. Kropotkinskaya station – named in honour of the anarchist Peter Kropotkin. We waited in a café for the latecomers. For some reason, we drank ice- cold Cola. For an hour and a half.

                                                             let’s go

The time came. The church was 200 metres away. Or 300. Me in my Cossack hat, the girls in Orthodox headscarves – we walked towards the church as if we were floating. The entrance loomed up ahead.

To secure unhindered entry into the place of worship, the accused wore clothes fully in keeping with the requirements of such places of worship; thus, under the guise of ordinary visitors, they entered the church.

An empty square in front of the church. There are no beggars. I don’t think the beggars were against sitting there, but the propriety of the church wouldn’t allow them.

                                                  church for the wealthy

Amid the clicks of cameras, tourists taking photos, we approached the iron gates of the metal detector.

‘Put your backpacks on the table and open them, girls.’ The morning faces of the guards are fatigued and lazy. I open my backpack.

  One by one.

How do you smuggle an electric guitar into a secured tourist site? We had tried out various methods over the course of the previous month. First, the guards had demanded that I leave the guitar – in the case or out – under the window by the entrance. Then we decided to try out an enormous hiking back- pack and a man who spoke perfect English, smuggling the guitar inside the church with the help of both.

Knives?’ ‘No.’ ‘Proceed.’

                                                 everything, but the knives

I close my backpack without glancing up and go in. The main thing is that they don’t find the guitar. Petya had the guitar.

‘Young man! Wait a moment.’

In our plan, Petya was the foreigner, the man who spoke perfect English. ‘What’s in your backpack?’

‘Nothing special,’ he answered in English.

Usually, Russian security guards get completely flustered by charming foreigners. It worked. The amp was also in that backpack.

                                                      nothing special

We left the cold weather outside the church. It was 11 a.m. The cathedral was nearly empty, except for people in green uniforms tending the devotional candles.

‘We have to act like ordinary girls in church.’ What do ordinary girls do in church? ‘No idea.’

We decided to go up to one of the women tending the candles and askwhere it would be best to light one. ‘Where can we place our candles?’

While she explained the procedure for lighting our candles, which we didn’t in fact have, I looked behind her and saw the low barrier surrounding the altar and the green carpet leading towards the altar gates.

The carpet is the same colour as her uniform, I thought. ‘Thank you,’ Nadya said.

                                                 green carpet to the altar

We walked around the edge of the church and reached a corner. The guards seemed alarmed. There was no time to lose.

We went up to the low barrier guarding the altar. Katya was the first to hop over. Because she’s Katya. She just hops over and she’s off. Nadya   hopped after her, and then everyone else followed. I thought, I’m wearing this uncomfortable coat that weighs a ton, I’m going to get stuck on something, I’ll fall and bring the whole barrier down – it’s an accident waiting to hap- pen. How am I going to jump around in this heavy thing?

  It is long, almost to my ankles. Why the hell did I wear this damn thing to an action? What was I thinking, – putting it on at a time like this?

  And then I hopped over, too. I was the last one to jump, just as the candle-tender was running up to me looking a bit freaked out.

The careful planning and coordinated actions of the performance allowed the group to carry out their criminal intentions in their entirety.

We needed to plug the guitar into the amp. Katya was respon- sible for that, for the guitar. She threw off her outer clothing and started taking the guitar out of the case. The security guards considered this to be particularly non-Orthodox.

                                       the guitar is an un-orthodox instrument

Ms Samutsevich, carrying out her criminal role, with the knowledge and assent of all the participants, took out an electric guitar.

The security guards grabbed Katya. She managed to distract them all, and this bought us 40 seconds to do our performance. 40 seconds of crime.

                                                           40 seconds

‘what was the music like?’ ‘goodness me, I don’t know how to describe it’ ‘was it church music?’ ‘no, certainly not!’ ‘you mean to say it was not church music?’ ‘absolutely not’ ‘what did the instrument sound like?’ ‘I don’t know what to compare it to, but it wasn’t at all Orthodox’

‘what are Orthodox sounds? ‘I can’t answer that!’ judge: ‘you are obliged to answer the question’

We scramble up the stairs towards the altar, dropping our back- packs by the Holy Gates. They symbolize the gates to heaven. Women are only allowed to stand on the green walkway before the gates – the soleas – if they are cleaning women. Or brides. In Russia, there are no women priests. In Russia, there is Pussy Riot.

 We shed our clothes. The outer layers. We put on our balaclavas.

‘Alyokhina was wearing a blue mask. She wore a dress that was somewhere between pink and red, green tights, and a bra that was  falling

from her shoulders.’

I remember: I open my mouth to sing and everything around me – the whole church – seems to freeze. It is motion- less. The sound dies away. There is only the echo of our uncoordinated screaming and shouting. Too many eyes on the icons.

                                                         time stood still

The security guards try to catch us.

‘Alyokhina’s dress was longer than the others’, and she had to kick her

legs higher.’

It looked like some bizarre folk dance: he runs up to you, you run backwards; he runs again, you run in a different direction.

‘Voice answered voice; word answered word,’ the candle-tender said during the trial.

Almost a compliment.

It was the most absurd prayer.

‘We tried to get them off the ambo. They wouldn’t leave, they resisted and ran back up again, then fell to their knees and started crossing themselves. This was humiliating and offensive to me.’

Two men take my hands and lead me to the exit. The balaclava slips sideways and restricts my breathing. It’s unclear who is leading whom. The church is still frozen, until one small figure, an old woman, starts to move. She screams, ‘Girls! Girls! What are you doing? You’re ruining yourselves!’ We kept walking, and I thought, What, am I now ruining myself?

They took us to the exit and let us go. We stood there, looking at the street.

  Not a single police car. Katya was waiting for us by the entrance.

 We started to run. And I thought, Where are we running to? Why are we running, if there’s no one after us?

 Who are we running from?

Why can’t we just walk to wherever we’re going?

The security guards stayed on the job. There were no cops in sight.

                                                  why are we running?

Why are we running, then?


                                                        it’s our country

I can’t say how long we thought we could keep running and how we thought it would all end. People offered to help us leave the country – we refused. There were various options: to go deep into Russia, far from the capital. Good people invited us to stay with them in secluded places. But that would be volun- tary exile. Why would we agree to that? (No doubt some people would. Not us.) We didn’t start this whole thing just to disappear.

                                                   we won’t disappear

Revolution is a story. If we fell out of it, disappeared, it would be their story, not ours. Their country, not ours. We never took off our masks. We had never left the church. My T-shirt: ‘To back down an inch is to give up a mile.’ No sense in wearing those words if you don’t live up to them.

Here was Putin running for a third term, and many people, in despair, left the country. But we didn’t want to emigrate. In our story, personal choices are political.

                                     they’re the ones who should disappear


   Do you know what happens in the first hours in prison? A search.

They take you out of the dark autozak in handcuffs and bring you to a room. Two bright fluorescent lights hang from the ceiling. The paint is peeling from the walls, and in the corner there is a small cage. This is where they do the search. Two women in uniform take away all your things: phone, watch, books. These things are prohibited. Then they tell you to get into the cage.

‘Take off your clothes. All of them!’

                                                       get into the cage

I took off my skirt, which was patterned with loud blue checks, my T-shirt, and my underwear. I stood there naked. In a cage. On the cold stone floor.

‘Now do ten squats.’ I squatted. Ten times.

  ‘Now bend over.’ ‘What?’ ‘Too many questions.’

Just imagine. ‘Why?’

‘So we can make sure you don’t have anything hidden there.’


You think it’s nice to stand naked in front of cops? I think any- one would have the same reaction in this situation. But once I gave an interview to

someone who insisted that, for most people, it’s no big deal. That people are not as sensitive to humiliation as I think. That once a person is in jail, nothing surprises you. Well, that’s simply not true.

If you stop being surprised by such things, you’ll be turning your backside to them and bending over for the rest of your life.

                            turn your backside and bend over for the rest of your life?

We have the right to refuse. This is our right, yours and mine. You can’t know all the laws by heart, you don’t know what will happen if you refuse. But you have to try.

I asked a lot of questions. They don’t like questions. They answer: ‘These are our orders.’ You learn the particulars of those orders as you go along. You learn it on your own skin. The law can be bent, and the degree of flexibility is something you can only test in practice.

                                              its flexibility depends on you

Every time you refuse, it causes an uproar. You wouldn’t want to undress in front of them, would you? I didn’t. Why should I? So we have to say no. And see what happens.

                                                           saying no

Half a year went by before I realized I could say no when the guards said ‘Bend over.’ A whole year passed before I could justify my ‘no’ by citing Russian law and forcing a gasp from each person at a search who told me to take off my underwear or to squat naked. But on that first morning of captivity, in the holding cell at Petrovka, shaking from cold and lack of sleep, wanting to fall asleep right there in the cage, in the same room with women dressed in uniforms with epaulettes, I didn’t think that I could make a choice.


There is no certainty or predictability. There is no fate. There is a choice. My choice and yours, in each moment that demands it.


I arrive at the penal colony after a month. November in the Urals is cold and wild. The women in the prison transport who had already done time gave me this advice: Don’t talk to anyone; first, take a good look around; and, please, don’t talk politics.

                                                      don’t talk politics

I have no desire to talk politics. I want to sleep. Shuddering at dawn, 6 a.m. wake-up, I jump off my bed and run to wash my face in icy-cold water. I run so that I can find a free washbasin, but I see there’s already a queue. I run in the other direction, to the storage room, where my huge checked bag with all my belongings is stowed, which is only open for half an hour. We aren’t allowed to keep our things with us; they must be stored in this special room. I rush there to put away my pyjamas. But I see that a queue has already formed there, too.

                                                     shuddering at dawn

In the 1990s, when I was a little girl, there were queues in every

store. People stood in queues to buy clothes, food, tickets. I’m twenty-five now. I’ve grown up. I was told that the coun- try had changed, although, here, I find the same queues. The irony is that, this time, you don’t get anything in return. Noth- ing; no food. No tickets to freedom in the next couple of years. I can’t sleep while I queue. But I’d like to. Lean into the wall like a giraffe, cover myself with the spots of solitude and go to sleep.

‘Attention, women!’ shouts a prisoner attendant, as the head guards turn to inspect the quarantine barracks.

                                                    a woman’s attention

Whenever we hear ‘Attention!’, we have to stand up and say, ‘Good day!’ in chorus. These are the rules. It is the first lesson in politeness, which I must master, because to reform is to know and fulfil the orders. Politely.

So we stand up. Forty women run to their assigned spots.

‘Who was sleeping during the recitation of regulations?’ the guard shouts, entering the barracks.

We remain silent. The day before, we had been herded like cattle into one room and forced to sit there for three hours, reading and repeating the prison regulations in unison.

‘I said, Who the fuck was sleeping?!’ the second guard bellows from behind the first guard’s back. They never make their rounds alone.

                                                  a sisterhood of jailbirds

In the corner of the room there is a surveillance camera. This is how they were able to see that one of us sitting on the wooden benches had  discreetly rested her head on her palm and dozed off. We all wear identical checked uniforms. We look so much alike it must be hard to distinguish whose head had dipped down. We stand in our places, not budging, and look at each other. Someone smiles, another whispers, and a third sighs wearily. Someone else stares at the others’ faces with interest. I am not interested, and I don’t think this is funny. Because I know who was caught on camera sleeping for ten minutes. It was me.

                                                              it’s me

You have to think up things to do to stay awake: tie cigarettes together (the packs themselves are forbidden; they throw them away during searches  and the cigarettes are dumped into a big bag). Put matches back in a box.

Sew name tags into your uni- form. Make a list of your belongings. All so you won’t fall asleep. Sleeping is a violation of the rules. A missing or poorly attached name tag is a violation. A coat unbuttoned during inspection is a violation.

                                              violation. violation. violation

‘This is not a holiday resort!’ the head guard roars. ‘This is not a health spa!’ the second screams.

‘Out of the room, everyone! It’s time for a search,’ the first one says, and it becomes suddenly clear to everyone why the guards are here. It is not  about who was sleeping. It’s the search.


The first rule of every search is that it’s unexpected. Russia has known this since the 1930s, when the ‘Black Raven’ vans would round up sleepy, terrified people for interrogation in the middle of the night. Now they prefer mornings. This is so that they can take you by surprise, disarm you. Then they can take whatever they want from you with no resistance. So they drop into our quarantine barracks, somewhere in Russia in the middle of nowhere, to check whether we’re hiding an extra sweater or a T-shirt or a dress that ‘doesn’t meet the standards’.

                                                     russian standards

We wrap ourselves in green coats like sacks with name tags on our chests, tie thin shawls around our heads, crawl out of the barracks and assemble in the prison yard. It’s not even dawn yet. There is snow on the ground, and the wind blows up our clothes. no matter how much we wear – and we don’t get to wear much – and we wait. We wait outside for the search to end, about forty minutes. After the guards emerge from the barracks we   are allowed to go back inside. They come out hold- ing small black   rubbish bags. The bags are stuffed with the things they’ve confiscated, things that are prohibited. They are stored in a locked room and returned to us at the end of our terms, when we are released.

‘Masha,’ one of the women says to me in a whisper, while we are warming tea in the kitchen. ‘If someone comes to visit you – you know, from Moscow – tell them. Don’t be silent. Tell them how we live here. You’re a political. We have rights. We may be prisoners, but we’re still people. Tell them.’

                                                           don’t be silent