Book Review – Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina

By Lovis Lindquist

On the 21st of February 2012 some members of the feminist punk rock and performance art group, Pussy Riot, performed a protest song inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. The protest was aimed at the Orthodox Church and its support for Putin. Despite only being able to perform one verse before being stopped by security guards, the performance and its consequences attracted global attention. A few months later, the members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to prison for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. This event happens to be one of my first clear news memories, so when a friend asked me to join her for a Pussy Riot concert in Uppsala in 2019, I said yes in the blink of an eye, even if I had never actually listened to their music.

At the concert in Uppsala only one of Pussy Riot’s original members was on stage, Maria Alyokhina; the other members had left the band. Despite this I wasn’t disappointed at all, on the contrary, I was starstrucked for the first time in my life. It felt surreal being in the same room as one of the protagonists of a worldwide news story, who I also admired. I didn’t quite know what to expect from a Pussy Riot concert but I haven’t experienced anything like it since.  The concert was more than just music, it was an homage to all political prisoners in the world. It made me feel incredibly lucky to be living in Sweden.

During the concert, Alyokhina brought up her experience as a political prisoner, experiences she also has written a book about. After the concert I had the opportunity to buy this book, Riot Days, and get it signed by Maria Alyokhina herself, something I of course did (and got even more starstrucked). In Riot Days, Alyokhina doesn’t just write about her experiences in prison, but also about how Pussy Riot was formed, the planning of the protest in the Cathedral and the so-called trial that followed. The book is quite short, roughly 200 pages and at first glance it might seem hard to cover all of the above in that space. However, I think Alyokhina made it work very well. I finished the book in just one sitting, even though I usually don’t enjoy reading memoirs.

The book has a clear chronology and the chapters are divided into even smaller ones, some not longer than one sentence. The length and structure depend on what Alyokhina wants to tell. At times, Alyokhina simply tells a story by describing events, but often she also includes dialogues, song lyrics, a poem and excerpts from her diary. Moreover, the book is made more interesting by the inclusion of drawings by both Alyokhina herself and her son Filip, who was no more than five years old at the time of her imprisonment. This variety doesn’t just give the reader a deeper insight into the mind and life of Maria Alyokhina, but also makes her book more fun to read. Since I don’t understand Russian I really appreciated that the book included translated song lyrics, so that I could understand what their protest was really about.

Maria Alyokhina’s personality permeates the writing, or at least that’s what it feels like when reading it. Her writing style and my impression of her at the concert match perfectly. Instead of writing long descriptions of people and surroundings, Alyokhina goes straight to the point, the sentences are often short and she never shies away from using obscene language, which is exactly how I imagine she is in real life. Not shying away from anything makes both the book and Maria Alyokhina feel more real. I guess she felt more like a real person when I read the book partly because I had met her but both her good and bad sides are reflected in the book. That makes the reader able to relate to her. Another thing that I really enjoyed is that she goes from being merely an activist to actually become aware of her rights. It highlights that she, seen as a hero by some, is just like the rest of us. 

Just like Maria Alyokhina, Riot Days isn’t perfect. Sometimes I felt as if some details were missing and that some elements weren’t given enough space. I simply wanted to know more. However, explaining things deeper might have taken away the charm of the book, the fact that it’s a bit rough around the edges is one of my favourite things about it. In conclusion, Riot Days is a book worth your time and I dare promise you that it’s good even without Maria Alyokhina’s autograph.

Cover photo: Lovis Lindquist

Lovis Lindquist is currently doing her second year at the Bachelor’s Programme in Peace and Development Studies. She is always on the hunt for fun facts and can often be found with her nose in a book, fiction as well as nonfiction. When it comes to foreign affairs she is particularly interested in the Arctic region, security issues and geopolitics

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