Lacking nothing of courage and determination to fight for human rights, comes this book Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina a member of the collective Pussy Riot, a new generation of Russian dissidents who made world headlines when in 2012 they performed, a punk rock song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in support of feminist and LGBT issues and in protest against Putin whom Alyokhina describes as “the little grey KGB agent”.
After the Church episode, Alyokhina and another band member were arrested, granted no bail and held in prison for months until their trial whereupon they received two year sentences for ‘hooliganism and religious hatred’. Whilst in prison Alokyina kept a record of various trials and tribulations suffered by herself and fellow prisoners and worked to protect the prisoners rights.
‘Riot is always a thing of beauty. That is how I got interested,’ writes Alyokhina. Certainly she must have needed every ounce of that vision to survive what was to come. Following on in the footsteps of Varlam Shalamov, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Osip Mandelstam (not in literary achievement but definitely in courage) this energetic and thought provoking diary deals briefly with the events themselves which led to her arrest, and more fully with her time in prison. Described variously by critics as the ‘literary equivalent of guerrilla street art’ and ‘a punk call to arms’, what came across most for me was the writer’s refusal to lie down and accept the lethal logic of an oppressive system even when it would have been easier for her to do so. At the end of the day how many people have the courage to go to prison for their beliefs – especially a prison in Russia! Only a handful of human beings.
Activism is always the hardest choice. Who wouldn’t rather be at home – Aloykhina is the mother of a child – than freezing on a pavement somewhere or in prison? But the point of activism is that those who undertake it, feel they have no choice. And Russia has a long history of people who felt they had no choice.
Anna Akhmatova was able to document the suffering of her country in sublime poetry. Although she herself was not imprisoned – they took away her son Lev and banned her from the Writers Union and from selling her poems so that she almost starved to death. She wrote:
Our separation is imaginary:
We are inseparable,
My shadow is on your walls,
My reflection in your canals,
The sound of my footsteps in the Hermitage halls
Where my friend walked with me
And in the ancient Volkov Field
Where I can freely weep
Over the silence of common graves.
‘Poem without a Hero’. The Collected Poems of Anna Akhmatova.
Trans. Judith Hemschemeyer
Osip Mandelstam I have read although of course only in translation and the two volumes Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned written by Mandelstam’s widow Nadezhda about their life together under Stalin’s murderous regime, trailing from place to place, exile to exile, trying to keep body, soul and papers together. Mandelstam died in a transit camp, awaiting deportation to the gulag. He had signed his own death warrant writing a 13 line poem calling Stalin a murderer and peasant slayer.
What a tormented relationship Russia has with its literati. The poet Irina Ratushinskaya wrote two books Grey is the Colour of Hope in which she describes the punishing conditions of women prisoners in a labour camp where she was sent in 1983, aged only 28, for writing poems about freedom and in which she endured four years of brutality and extreme deprivation.
After the success of this book, Ratushinskaya wrote a prequel In the Beginning in which she wrote of her formative years and childhood in Odessa, meeting her future husband Igor Geraschenko, her growing awareness of human rights abuses and the desire to do something about it and how the two of them worked together to circulate samizdat literature (illegal books like the works of Solzhenitsyn). Although Ratushinskaya survived her time in the camp – eventually leaving Russia and going to live in the US, there is no doubt that the privations, hunger and illness she suffered during her time in prison shortened her life.