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‘We have a new Hitler in Russia’: Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina on Putin’s crimes and her years of resistance

Wednesday 13 July 2022, by siawi3


‘We have a new Hitler in Russia’: Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina on Putin’s crimes and her years of resistance

‘They are speaking about nuclear bombs almost every day’ … Maria Alyokhina. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The musician and activist has escaped her homeland – but its repression still torments her. She talks about being beaten and jailed, nuclear threats and the dangerous power of women

Zoe Williams

Mon 11 Jul 2022 06.00 BST

When Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina left Russia in April this year, she went to Iceland, essentially a political refugee. She had been repeatedly arrested since early 2021, on specious charges – “violation of sanitary and epidemiological rules”, social media activity, attending a demonstration in support of the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

She is no longer in Iceland, and speaks to me, as her fellow Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova did earlier this year, from an unnamed location. But she resists any phrases that dramatise her situation – persecution, flight, exile, escape – preferring a hard-boiled statement of the facts. “I was arrested, many times – and not just arrests. I was under a travel ban, I had a red flag on the border for two years, I had to find a way to tour. The heads of the political Moscow police were quite often trying to go to my house, speak with my mother, catch me there.” She describes the trigger event for her departure: the news that she was about to be moved from house arrest to a prison.

So she hasn’t fled; she has found a way to go on tour, living in a van, raising money any which way, through spoken word, performance art, merchandise, NFTs. “I understand there was a big noise about my so-called escape, but I don’t have any plans for emigration. I just want to help Ukraine and that’s it.” She made €10,000 selling T-shirts and sent the money to a Ukrainian children’s hospital. Alyokhina and her girlfriend, Lucy Shtein, also from Pussy Riot, have made an NFT using the ankle tags from their house arrest, melted and turned into digital art: “They’re our trophies from the fight with the Russian government. We believe those fetters will be gone.”

Photo: Maria Alyokhina being escorted to court in 2012
‘I was arrested 100 times’ … Alyokhina was given a two-year prison sentence in 2012. Photograph: Ivan Sekretarev/AP

The proceeds from that – whether you understand NFTs or not, they can raise vast amounts of money – will be split between Ukrainian charities and Russian political prisoners. “We cannot balance the nightmare which the Russian army and Vladimir Putin have created. But I believe, as Russians, we can do something good. As a human, and especially as an artist, it’s very important to raise up our solidarity with Ukraine and our call to stop this war.”

There is something instructive and depressing about the story of Pussy Riot and the world’s reaction. When they started in 2011, they were a loose collection of female artists, writers, activists and anarchists. Alyokhina was a student at the Institute of Journalism and Creative Writing in Moscow. As well as writing protest songs, the band wore neon balaclavas and taped their mouths closed. Alyokhina’s targets are wide-ranging – the oppression of women, the savage homophobia of the Russian state, the climate crisis, Putin’s kleptocracy – but boil down to one cause: anti-authoritarianism. To the global media, they were just fun, racy rebels.

In Russian activist circles, there are jokes about the west being ‘deeply concerned’: it means they are not going to do anything

So, when three of them, including Alyokhina, were arrested for hooliganism in 2012 and sentenced to two years in jail, it didn’t leave much of a mark on Putin’s reputation, even though human rights organisations such as Amnesty International designated them political prisoners. The protest was deadly serious: it was against Orthodox Church leaders’ support for Putin and the blind eye they were turning to his corruption and creeping totalitarianism. Yet the substance of that, and the harsh consequences it had, was ignored in the service of everyone playing nice at international summits.

Alyokhina rolls her eyes, as if to say that is not the half of it: “We were released on 23 December 2013. A month after our release, we made an action [demonstrated]: ‘Putin will teach you how to love the motherland.’ That was at Sochi, the Olympic Games, and that was the first time we were beaten physically. That was the first moment that I understood: Russia was already worse than when we were imprisoned.”

Two weeks later, Putin annexed Crimea – “the first point of no way back”, she says. “Especially shocking was the very weak reaction of the west. There were slight sanctions, but nations continued to deal with Russian businesses. Germany was selling weapons to Putin’s regime, evading the weapon embargo. A lot of capital from oligarchs went to Britain, especially to London. I spoke at the European parliament, in your parliament, in the US Senate. Everyone was ‘deeply concerned’, but nothing happened. In Russian activist circles, there are a lot of jokes about the west being deeply concerned: it means they are not going to do anything.”

Photo: Pussy Riot are attacked by a Cossack militiaman in Sochi in 2014
‘That was the first time we were beaten physically’ … Pussy Riot under attack from a Cossack militiaman in Sochi in 2014. Photograph: Morry Gash/AP

If there had been the sanctions there are now after Crimea and the subsequent invasion of the Donbas, Alyokhina is certain that we would not be in this mess today. “We were calling for a full embargo in 2014 and again in 2015. We were doing street actions. I was arrested 100 times. I hear a lot of discussion in the west that it’s very hard and painful to stop buying oil and gas – well, you guys had eight years. In eight years, it would have been possible. In one month, it’s hard. Maybe politicians were afraid of their voters protesting that their houses were cold. Now Ukrainians don’t have houses at all.”

She lays out in brutal terms what this combination of inertia and self-interest has created. “Money from the west is the basis of our imprisonment, of our poisoning, of political murders and, now, of the war in Ukraine. I really want people to understand this and stop it.”

You can trace Putin’s growing sense of impunity through the totalitarian acts he got away with. And it does bear reflection: how did he manage it with so little censure? The marked, even absolute, absence of women in Russian political life has tended to pass without comment, as a historical or cultural quirk. “All this Russian criminal culture, which dates from the Soviet Union, is very misogynistic,” says Alyokhina. “There is no place for women at the decision-making table. No first ladies, no role for women. Even western journalists trying to write about Russian feminism – who do they name? Alexandra Kollontai. She was living in the 1920s.” Feminist anti-war resistance is stifled within Russia and unobserved outside it. “Propaganda is working like in the Third Reich,” Alyokhina says.

Photo: A protester against the invasion of Ukraine is seized by police
‘Money from the west is the basis of our imprisonment’ … the Russian regime has clamped down on protests against the invasion of Ukraine. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Most chillingly, the persecution of LGBTQ+ people has moved at speed, from intimidatory arrests – you can be prosecuted for holding a rainbow flag – to the creation of what the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta in 2017 referred to as “concentration camps” for gay men in Chechnya. “Russia was protesting all these years – there were streets, squares, full of people, beaten, arrested, imprisoned for five, six, seven years – and nobody cared because it was within her borders,” says Alyokhina. “It has always been this way.”

Even if the west has now woken up, or rather been awakened, have we fully grasped the seriousness of the situation? There is an overwhelming consensus about Putin – that he is a warmonger and tyrant – but still, Alyokhina feels, there remains a reluctance to take his utterances seriously. “He gave interviews 10 years ago and started to talk about his role models. One is Joseph Stalin. The biggest tyrant, who repressed, raped our people, killed our culture, killed all my favourite artists, some of them personally. This is a grave warning. If you listen carefully, you can understand where it will go.”

It’s very dangerous to totalitarianism if the women rise up. That’s another revolution

Commentators desperately cling to the hope that Putin is just one wild man, that around him are people who will eventually find the spine to overthrow him. Remarks were made recently by a representative of Rosneft, Russia’s largest state oil company. “You must have heard it,” Alyokhina says, with frustration, but no, I have not. “He promoted Adolf Hitler. He said that, of all the decisions in the west, the Anglo-Saxons are the most guilty people. The first nuclear bomb must be dropped on Great Britain. This is what we have, in our so-called news. They are speaking about nuclear bombs almost every day.”

The news that does percolate from inside Russia is that the state propaganda machine is extremely effective on the older generation, who take its news as truth, and that this has created irrevocable social and family rifts. Alyokhina describes one member of her collective whose father called her a Nazi for supporting Ukraine. “There are examples of parents reporting it to the police when their twentysomething children go on demonstrations. This is very Soviet Union, teaching people to call the police or the KGB if there is a political difference of opinion. Now, it’s again rising up.”

Alyokhina’s mother, a programmer who raised her alone (she didn’t meet her father until she was 21), isn’t like that at all. “My mum is amazing. She understands that we have a new Hitler in Russia.” The central propaganda line is “to provide the message that everything is complicated” for long enough that the war slips out of the western media “and then they will attack more”. But there is another strand to the state media’s message – that Putin is fighting nazism in Ukraine. This is “very hard for old people, whose parents fought the Nazis. There is almost no family in Russia who didn’t lose their relatives in the second world war. But my mother is very clear, and very sad, about what’s happening.”
‘I’m in a panic, I’m crying every day’ … Nadya Tolokonnikova at a concert in Tennessee earlier this month.

Read more: Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova: ‘You cannot play nice with Putin. He is insane. He might open fire on his own people’

She is absolutely trenchant on one point, which she returns to often and has said on stage, in interviews, online: Putin must be tried as a war criminal. “Without an international trial for Putin, it is just unfair to pretend that Russia can exist like before. There has to be an international judgment for this. Without the understanding that Putin is a terrorist and a criminal, it will just be more blood. More dead bodies. More raped women.”

Alyokhina starts rolling a cigarette, underscoring her nervous intensity. She lights up. The image recalls the smoke-hazed faces of resistance fighters since nazism began. She has never lost faith in resistance movements within Russia, especially from Russian women – “a great power, probably the biggest power in the country”. Totalitarianism – probably all of it, not just Putin’s – thrives on “this concept of women sitting at home, feeding the children and going to church. It’s very dangerous if the women rise up. That’s another revolution.”

Nor has she ever wavered in her belief that activism counts. “I really believe that each gesture, each word, each action is important. All these small impacts are the basis for building something different.” International fellowship is powerful, even when it is expressing itself in despair. “Sometimes, there is huge hope. For example, we were performing in Hamburg and there were two Ukrainian artists singing a hymn after us. We stood on the stage, hugging each other. For several seconds, everyone was crying. I was so shocked that this fellow feeling can exist after all this tragedy.”

I wonder, then, at the immense sadness of being exiled from your country, yet feeling its acts so keenly as your responsibility; of watching brutality unfold when you have warned of it for a decade and paid for those warnings time and again with your freedom.

“I will not talk about my sadness when, even today, there have been two bomb attacks against Ukraine,” she says. “Emotions are not important. We should continue, all of us, because it’s a war.”