Maria Alyokhina to The New Times: “Our protest has raised the issue of the fusion of the Russian Orthodox Church and the security services”
The three defendants in the Pussy Riot case have been held more than five months at Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6, near Pechatniki metro station. The prison is dubbed the “Yellow House” [in Russian, a synonym for an insane asylum] because of the color of the towers in which it is situated. This past weekend, a New Times correspondent was able to talk with [three of] its prisoners—Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.
24-year-old Masha Alyokhina sits on an iron bunk dressed in the same brown polka-dot dress in which she goes to court. On her feet are flip-flops that are clearly too large. She is preparing for an hour-long walk: the guards have promised to take her outside, as they are supposed to after lunch. She answers our questions in detail and good-naturedly. She chooses her words carefully so that she is properly understood.
During the trial, you filed an appeal over the torturous conditions of your transportation to court. What did you mean?
We have been taken to court every day since July 20. We are given no breakfast. We drink tea while waiting for the paddy wagon. We are returned to the jail very late and managed to sleep four hours or so, no more. I am horribly exhausted. Before we’re put in the paddy wagon, our blood pressure is measured. The last few days my blood pressure has been ninety over sixty, while it is usually one twenty over eighty. As a rule, the trip to the Khamovnichesky District Court takes thirty minutes to an hour, depending on the traffic jams. We’re transported differently every time—now in big vans, now in little ones. We are taken to the court building, where we spend twelve hours a day. The judge orders a lunch break—half an hour. Two times a day we’re taken to the toilet for five minutes. We have no complaints with the jail, only with the judge. Judge Syrova doesn’t give us a normal break either for lunch or dinner. I demand that the break last an hour. According to the Criminal Procedural Code, a court hearing cannot last more than eight hours [a day], but in our case all the norms in the code are being violated. I don’t even have time to eat the dry cereal that I pour boiling water over in the escort guards’ room. We spend all day in court, and I don’t have the chance to take a shower, although I’ve paid for the paid shower. The bursar has the receipts, but he is incapable of sending them to the prison’s administrative office. It is very hot in the paddy wagon, like in a microwave. It can take us several hours to drive from the courthouse to the jail. We don’t drive directly to our prison, but stop by Moscow City Court and Matrosskaya Tishina prison, where we drop off prisoners, and we arrive in Pechatniki quite late. So sometimes we’re riding around for three or four hours.
A Rottweiler accompanies you everywhere. It is even present during the court hearings. Aren’t you afraid of it?
I am afraid. The dogs are constantly changed. On Friday, a very nasty, aggressive dog, a mentally unbalanced dog, guarded us. The dog is also with us in the guards’ room at the courthouse. For example, I ask to be taken from the cell to the toilet: the dog almost jumps its leash, and the dog handler has to make a huge effort to restraint it. You can imagine that if the dog handler didn’t restrain it, it could easily rip me to shreds. The guards explained to us that the dog can tell from the color of our clothes and our scent that we’re prisoners, and so it is particularly aggressive towards us.
How do you feel about what is happening in the trial?
The judge tosses out all our appeals and ignores our requests. She allows herself gibes that demean our honor and dignity. We are not given confidential meetings with our lawyers. This is done to prevent us from working out a joint defense. On the morning of July 27 we were brought to the Khamovnichesky District Court, [where] we signed a document: Judge Marina Syrova had permitted us to meet with our lawyers. But instead of taking us back to the jail to meet with our lawyers, we were first held in the guards’ room at the courthouse, and then for some reason taken to Moscow City Court. We ended up at Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6 only at 4:30 p.m. This was a Friday, and so there short visiting hours at the jail. Lawyer Mark Feygin was there and was able to talk with Nadya Tolokonnikova for literally twenty minutes. But neither Katya Samutsevich nor I was able to meet with our lawyers.
Maria Alyokhina on trial, August 6, Moscow. Drawing by Victoria Lomasko
During the trial you asked the injured parties whether they forgive you. Why is this so important to you?
A few months ago I wrote a conciliatory letter, in which I stated that I wanted a dialogue. I wrote that our performance was not directed against the Christian faith. Through our lawyers I asked that a priest come visit me in prison. I would really like to talk with Archdeacon Andrei Kuraev, who, for example, in an interview with Novaya Gazeta said some people from the Kremlin had commissioned our action. This really got to me. I would like to explain to him that we are not people who have been “commissioned.” This is an action that comes from the grassroots.
Is your punk prayer, which lasted a little longer than five minutes, worth five months of imprisonment in jail and separation from loved ones?
Yes, I think it’s worth it. It seems to me that the power vertical system in each institution has to be disclosed and have light shed on it publicly. And it’s very important that each stage of our case is analyzed in detail, because it gives people an idea of how the prisons, the courts and transparency [glasnost] work. It becomes clear whether civil society can influence the authorities.
The situation we created with our protest action helps people understand more precisely for themselves the fusion of the institution of the [Russian Orthodox] Church and the security services, of the Church and the authorities, of the Church and Putin. It has all come to the surface.
Can civil society influence the verdict?
I don’t know.
Is this a political trial, in your view?
Yes, but the political aspect is deliberately hushed up at the trial. The judge and the prosecutor have a very violent reaction any time the surname “Putin” is uttered. Although questions about Putin have a direct bearing on the case, because all our group’s actions were political.
A witness named Motilda Ivashchenko was supposed to testify during the trial. At the last minute, before she was summoned into the courtroom, she got frightened and ran way. Do you know her?
I don’t know her very well. We have two mutual acquaintances. I was really offended that she told the investigation that, allegedly, I don’t take care of my son Filipp. In the case files there is testimony by kindergarten workers that I pick[ed] up my son every evening myself.
What do you think the verdict will be?
I am counting on the reasonableness of the authorities, the court and the Russian Orthodox Church, which is obliged to react to our criminal prosecution. The fact that the Russian Orthodox Church is silent [on this point] is a blow to its authority. Christ’s first commandment, after all, is to love your neighbor as yourself. If the priests who signed letters in our defense would testify at the trial, that would be very important.
What message would you like to send to your supporters?
Thank you for your support. Mutual understanding is quite important: one needs to pursue constructive things. Cooperation is vitally important. Look at our example: it shows that a few people can raise an issue that is then widely discussed in society. And this discussion is much more important than the tons of filth that have been poured on us. We are accused of misleading people. But the people who accuse of this are themselves involved in misleading people. The Russian Orthodox Church has a monopoly on talking about God and any dissent is criminalized.
What will you do when you get out of prison?
When I get out, I’ll have a story to tell. And if I’m sent to prison for a long time, I’ll also have a story to tell. It’s very important to tell this whole story.