Monday 20 November 2017

A white-hot issue told with chilly reserve

Memoir: Riot Days, Maria Alyokhina, Allen Lane Press, ­Hardback, 195 pages, €18.99

Masked: members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (left) and Maria Alyokhina (right) after release from questioning in February 2014.
Masked: members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (left) and Maria Alyokhina (right) after release from questioning in February 2014.
Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina
Maria Alyokhina

Tanya Sweeney

The story of an imprisoned Pussy Riot member has all the ingredients of a great political thriller but is erratic and unfulfilling.

No less a luminary than I Love Dick author Chris Krause has provided an effusive blurb for Maria Alyokhina's memoir: "One of the most brilliant and inspiring things I've read in years. Couldn't put it down. This book is freedom." And given Alyokhina's extraordinary tale, hopes are high that her account of events will be every bit as impassioned and raw as her politics.

Founded in 2011, Pussy Riot was a collective of 11 feminists - designers, thinkers, journalists, mothers, artists - famous for staging provocative performances in Russian spaces. Of these performances, most were potshots at president Vladimir Putin, and his links to the Russian Orthodox Church. On one occasion, they were caught by police, but evaded punishment by telling officials they were drama students.

So far, so okay, but in 2012, the outfit provoked in the wrong place at the wrong time. They staged a riotous performance inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, enraging the clergy and its officials. Three members of Pussy Riot were arrested for hooliganism, subjected to a much-publicised trial, and eventually imprisoned for two years. The case was adopted by human rights bodies like Amnesty International, and performers like Madonna, making it one of he most infamous Russian trials in recent memory.

Maria Alyokhina
Maria Alyokhina

Alyokhina's retelling of events, from the arrest, trial and time spent in the Gulag-like Urals penal camp, is certainly vivid. Alyokhina, and her fellow prisoner Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova (a third member of Pussy Riot, Yekaterina Samutsevich, had her sentence suspended) endured freezing temperatures, the whims of unforgiving guards and torturous conditions. Alyokhina learns the ways of her new surroundings quickly. In a men's colony, there's a strict hierarchy. Your status is your criminal past. In a woman's colony, meanwhile, there is none.

Yet on occasion, the events are written almost at an emotional remove. "I am a prisoner and I am going for a stroll," she writes. "The light in the security camera blinks. My hands are behind my back. The guard walks behind me. He tells me where to stop. The door closes behind me for an hour. I stare at the gap between the mesh ceiling and the roof above it, stare right at the sky".

Alyokhina's is an uncompromising, singular writing style; one that is very much an acquired taste.

Rather than being a straight read-through, Riot Days is made up of a string of vignettes headed by non-sequiturs like 'An Outstanding Conviction' and 'Belt of the Virgin Mary', 'Milk in the Urals'. It's a disjointing experience initially, this reading of staccato, fragmented passages, some of which are no more than a few lines long. All told, Riot Days makes for an unsettling and erratic read. But perhaps, given the sheer claustrophobia of Alyokhina's story, this is exactly the point.

The great tragedy is that Alyokhina's is an enthralling tale, with all the ingredients of a great and fresh political thriller: art, feminism, a corrupt government, an intellectual, feisty and self-aware group of rebels, a heady judicial system, and a penal system that borders on the tortuous. There are female prisoners shipped to Siberia; teenage murderers (Anya, a prisoner in for murder, killed someone in an argument over football teams); hunger strikes, incendiary articles written and shipped to Moscow newspapers in secret.

And Pussy Riot's entire tale is cloaked in notoriety, passion and high drama; little of which, curiously, ends up on the page here.

There are smatterings of suspense, and plenty of jaw-dropping details from life in what is essentially a modern-day Gulag. On visitors' day, Alyokhina writes, the women get ready like it's their wedding day. "Husbands and children come for extended visits - the husbands that haven't walked out, that is," writes Alyokhina. "You can make lunch together. You can play with your child. You can sit and look at one another."

But Riot Days is a book not without its stylistic shortcomings. Those looking for the inside story as to how, or why, Pussy Riot executed their original protests will be left wanting. Similarly, the reader is afforded little real insight into either Tolokonnikova or Alyokhina as women.

Plenty of bold political polemic has been sewn in throughout: "Such moments of choice, made in prison, will stay with you for the rest of your life," Alyokhina writes. "The decisions become the most important ones you ever make. Because you can't forget anything you do here within the prison walls. Once you betray yourself, even a single time, you can't stop. You become another person, a stranger to yourself. You become a prisoner. And that means you have been defeated. They will have truly deprived you of your freedom."

There's no doubting that the Pussy Riot story is ripe for retelling. To be afforded an insider's account of events, so much the better. Yet it's hard not to wonder how this book might have ended up, had it gone through the hands of a more seasoned storyteller.

A tale like this should invite the reader to punch the air in white-hot frustration. Instead, Alyokhina's account suffers from a strain of chilly reserve, not to mention self-conscious, occasionally sophomoric writing.

"Freedom doesn't exist unless you fight for it every day," Alyokhina concludes. "And I'm riding in a car that's picking up speed."

There's tug-of-war between brutally brisk style and substance happening all the while here. Alas, the former wins, if only by a hair.

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