15 December, Friday


Russia is not Putin's says Pussy Riot's Alekhina

Interviews

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Ask Pussy Riot's Maria Alekhina what life is like in Vladimir Putin's Russia and you get a rapid-fire response.
 
"It is not Putin's Russia," she declared. "It's my Russia."
 
Twenty-one months in a penal colony in the Urals has not taken the rebellious edge off the performer and activist who was convicted for "hooliganism and religious hatred" in 2012 for performing inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
 
She and two other members of the feminist punk band had chanted an "anti-Putin prayer" in front of the altar and denounced the church's close links with the Kremlin.
 
Her new book, "Riot Days", partially written in prison, is an indictment of the conditions she endured inside Russian jails, which she claims are little different from the old Soviet gulags.
 
"If anyone tells you that people are treated humanely in Russian women's prisons, it's a lie," Alekhina told AFP on a visit to Paris this week as jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny planned protests Saturday to mark Putin's 65th birthday.
 
Her book — which is only available in two small underground bookshops in Russia — recounts a penal regime where solitary confinement, strip searches and other humiliations are routinely used to try to break prisoners.
 
A vegan, she collapsed from hunger at her trial because she had reportedly been deprived of food she could eat.
 
"Some say that once you are in prison nothing can surprise you. Well that is simply false," said the 29-year-old, who has a son aged nine.
 
"Russian prisons today are just like the gulags, which is not surprising since the regime is using the same methods as the Soviet Union. Prison is just a reflection of that Soviet heritage."
 
Rather than being silenced, Alekhina set up an independent media outlet, MediaZona, with other members of Pussy Riot after leaving prison.
 
The feminist collective is no longer a "small group but a movement which fights for the rights of prisoners, men and women, for political theatre and an independent media," she added.
 
"When you see an injustice you cannot allow yourself to shut up, no matter the context," said the young woman, who is popularly known as Masha.
 
Alekhina said that to start with no one cared about what was going on in jails. "People would say, 'We know that it's hell in there but we have other things to worry about.'"
 
MediaZona is now among the top 10 most shared news sites in Russia, she said, concentrating on "abuses by the police and penal system, as well as on casting light on (questionable) trials — often political — which are taking place in Russia.
 
"We are going to continue fighting against the penal system. We want to destroy it because that is the only way our society and country is going to survive," she insisted.
 
With former Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova she also set up a human rights group called "Zone of Law" to give legal help to "all prisoners", but particularly political ones and those suffering from serious illnesses.
 
"In Russia today, like during Soviet times, the individual does not exist. They have no need for the individual," she told AFP. "They just want the obedient masses."
 
However Alekhina, who took the unpopular stance of condemning Russia's annexation of Crimea, said she was a realist and was not trying to "establish a paradise on Earth".
 
"We saw where that took us," she said with a bitter smile referring to the early idealism of Soviet Communism.
 
"You have to be yourself and live without lying to yourself," she added.
 
In prison, she came across many women who had been given very long sentences for killing their husbands or partners. Almost all had been beaten by their men.
 
"Domestic violence is everywhere in Russia," she said. "Women are programmed from birth to submit to it."

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