The women of Pussy Riot made meaning out of a horrific experience in prison. Now, they’re launching another protest movement in Russia.
MOSCOW—Maria (Masha) Alyokhina squints and holds her new iPhone close to her face; she is very nearsighted. Out of prison for less than two weeks, she is wearing clothes chosen for her by someone else and working out of the backroom of a friend’s gallery. She dials the number of a women’s penal colony in Mordovia, a Russian region whose correctional institutions are one of its biggest industries. She looks momentarily lost when someone answers, but recovers quickly and assumes a businesslike tone.
“We would like information on the situation with Victoria Dubrovina, who is currently in punitive solitary,” she says.
“We can’t give out information over the phone,” answers the woman from Mordovia. “And who are you?”
“We are from the media,” Alyokhina lies and stumbles.
Who is she? She is one of Russia’s most famous political prisoners, famously released in advance of the Olympic Games in Sochi. With Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, her collaborator in the balaclava-clad art group Pussy Riot and co-defendant in the trial that captured the world’s attention in the summer of 2012, Alyokhina is now refashioning herself as a prisoners’ rights activist. When the two women were arrested, just under two years ago, they were college students who had come up with a prank. It was a prank that changed the way much of the world viewed Russia—and changed their own lives profoundly—but it was still a prank. They emerged from prison on Dec. 23 as political activists seasoned by time behind bars, surrounded by public and media attention in Russia and abroad, and motivated by a need to address the pain and abuse they have experienced and witnessed in prison.