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Pussy Riot Member Details Horrific Abuse in Russian Women's Prison

Activist Masha Alyokhina was jailed for 21 months in a remote prison colony in the Urals Mountains. She explains why her book "Riot Days," which details her experience there, is a vital act of truth telling.

Grace Banks

Pussy Riot's Maria "Masha" Alyokhina and her new book "Riot Days." Photos courtesy of Penguin Randomhouse

"If you hear someone talking about the humane treatment of women in Russian prisons, it is a total lie," says Maria Alyokhina, a.k.a. Masha, one of the three members of Russian art collective Pussy Riot. Masha never thought she'd be delivering sound bites on the Russian penal system, but one two-year prison sentence later and here she is, about to rewrite our understanding of Putin's prisons with the eye-opening book Riot Days.

On 21 February 2012, Pussy Riot performed the protest song "Punk Prayer" they'd been practicing for months inside the tourist trap The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The song called on "Virgin Mary, Mother of God" to "become a feminist." Within moments they were shooed away by a security guard. Returning home deflated, they had no idea anyone would even care about the 40-second video they uploaded to social media of the performance.

Then the calls started coming from friends and fellow activists. "You should keep a low profile," one said. Another urged, "You need to go into hiding." Eventually, the group went on the run, with Masha saying goodbye to her two-year-old son at the school gates and taking up temporary residency in a succession of apartments located further and further out of the capital as the days passed, flushing her sim card down the toilet every two days and doing a Skype interview with Al Jazeera in a Starbucks bathroom.

On March 3, 2012, she was arrested and then convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" and taken to an all-women high-security prison in the northern Russian city of Berezniki in the Ural Mountains, where she served 21 months of her two-year sentence. Her book Riot Days, partly written in prison, is marketed as an autobiography, but it's actually the first extensive documentation of the abuse women face in Russian prisons, with none of today's hackneyed memoir tropes.

"The book is a feminist act," Masha tells me between countless cigarette breaks when we meet in a London cafe by the Thames. "I knew that I had the strength to fight the abuse I suffered, but that other women couldn't, through no fault of their own. This book is to say, 'You might not have weapons or money, but whoever you are, you have a voice.' It's a book without borders, for any woman who has found herself stuck in an underclass and abused because of it."


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The list of human rights violations she experienced in prison is endless. "At first I was sent to live in solitary confinement. I had one book—it was on penal colony law, I read it chapter by chapter, because all of the guards and bosses said I was breaking the law. And as I read the book I realized that they were breaking the law, that I had a lot of rights. And bloody hell, I should try to fight for them."

She started writing about the abuse of women in prison for the Russian newspaper Trud and for Chechnya's Committee for the Prevention Against Torture to include in their research. After making it clear that she was happy to put up a fight, prison guards made her life hell. "It began with naked searches. It happens at maybe 6 AM, and it's humiliating. They do it to let you know you're a nobody, a cog in the system." The forced gynecological exams were worse. "They said they thought I was carrying heretical articles up my ass and vagina, and I had to squat naked. I mean, really?"

Her isolation from other female prisoners—encouraged by the authorities—constituted some of the hardest psychological trials. "They spread rumors about you so other women don't like you. They abuse other women, deny them access to visits, calls and letters, all legal rights, and say, 'This is because of Masha's bad behavior,' so other women don't talk to you for fear of their own safety."

Masha's abuse continued to spiral. "I told human rights advocates about the women having no warm shawls. After that the guards watched and controlled everything I did, filming my every move. No one else was filmed. It's the Machiavelli principle, to separate and create power from that. But I wasn't going to back down. Now I just really want to see those films!"

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Confidence like hers is often labeled under cutesy tropes like the female punk or rebel, but Masha is also a human rights activist with the winning ability to weigh up her pragmatism with activism. A few months into her sentence, she took the abusive guards to court and won the first case against prison guards in the history of her penal colony.

"That was a very satisfying moment. I wanted to show my other inmates that they had a right to challenge the shit that was being thrown at them. One third of the whole of the female population in prison are there because of domestic violence," she says. "There are no charities in Russia to help with this problem, no support network. So after so much abuse it's common for women to kill their husband. Then their whole family dump them, they lose their house and everything."

By the time these women get to prison, she says, they barely have any fighting spirit left. "I just wanted to show them that they shouldn't give up the fight." Her fellow inmates knew they'd be punished if they thanked her, but she got a lot of friendly smiles and extra cigarettes after the court case.

According to Pavel Chikov, head of the Moscow-based Agora International Human Rights Group, Masha's time in prison isn't unusual. In fact, it was a relatively gilded one. "Maria faced a regular women's life in Russian prisons. Moreover, she was lucky enough to be a VIP prisoner with visits and wide public interest to her case and personality," Chikov said.

Photo © Albert Wiking, We Have A Dream Foundation, courtesy of Penguin Randomhouse

"She was very tough to the prison administration, showing no fear and full readiness to fight for her rights," he added. "Most Russian prisons have seen minimal changes from 1930s gulag times; the vast majority of women have no visits, no lawyers, no bravery, and clearly no public attention. They work for 12 hours per day, have no access to hot water and basic hygienic and medical needs."

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Masha sees the treatment of female prisoners as a reflection of Russian women's status in society: "Putin recently said a woman's place is in the kitchen cooking fucking borscht." After she left prison she launched MediaZona, a news agency spotlighting and campaigning against human rights injustices, such as the case of two female convicts with cancer―represented by prisoner rights organization Zona Prava―who have been denied release despite being in critical condition.

She won't stop until conversations about incarcerated women's abuse are brought into the mainstream. "We know much less about women in the prison system than men," Masha says, "and I want to change that."

Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina is out on 14 September with Allen Lane.