The Woman Who Lost Her Fear

Do you remember Pussy Riot? A decade ago, a news story shocked the world. A group of 20-year-old girls entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow to deliver a punk concert. It was on February 21, 2012 when those young women in colorful dresses were imploring the Mother of God to rid the world of Putin. The police soon cracked down on the performance. Over the following months, the group’s leaders Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova were arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to a remote prison colony. Their images went viral, as much for the brutal repression as for the artistic content of the event: in a universe plagued by lies like the Russian one, a new way of telling the truth had emerged.

I enter the Barcelona Center of Contemporary Culture to attend a discussion with Alyokhina. The debate accompanies the exhibition “The Mask Never Lies”, which can be seen there until May. The first question for Masha, as Maria is called by her fans and friends, is about the mask: the Pussy Riot were notorious for their multicolored balaclavas. “Our clothing has acquired symbolic meaning of protest against the regime,” Masha explains. “Today, Russians wearing balaclavas identify themselves as dissidents of the Kremlin.”

Alyokhina was unable to travel to Barcelona because she is banned from traveling. After the trial that followed Pussy Riot’s performance in the Moscow cathedral, and in which the artist had to answer from a cage, she was sent to what she defines as post-gulag: a labor camp less harsh than the Stalinist ones: “Instead of fourteen hours a day they made us work twelve.” Now Masha is on probation: she is forced to return home at nine o’clock at night and must wear an electronic bracelet through which the police can constantly track her. “I’m not complaining,” she says. “Compared to those dissidents who have been killed or are in the gulag, like Navalny, I’m not doing too bad.”

Alyokhina participates in the discussion from a friends’ kitchen: since Soviet times, the kitchen has been a haven where sensitive things are discussed: it is where the secret police do not usually install listening devices.

At the end of last summer, some members of Pussy Riot fled to Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. But Masha is staying: “The Russian authorities would love to see me out of the country, but I’m not going to make it easy for them!” She adds that the Russian state is eliminating Navalny’s organization, historians and the Memorial: “And they destroy even those who post a critical tweet; those who do so should know that at night a stranger can beat them up or the authorities can turn them into a foreign agent. Many artists, writers and journalists flee Russia.”

During the question session, an assistant wants to know if the Russian troops set up on the Ukrainian border have taken her by surprise. “Surprise?” laughs Masha bitterly. “Not at all! We already know that the Kremlin guys are aiming for a permanent war to boost their self-importance. This is the secret of their provocations.”

It is almost nine o’clock in Moscow and Masha must return home; but I dare to address one last question to her: in what way has captivity changed her? Masha pauses and then says firmly: “I came out of the gulag transformed: now I know what I want to do in life: to seek the truth. I have lost my fear. Before any challenging decision I ask myself: what will my son think of me when he grows up? This is my compass.”

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)