Behind Pussy Riots Paper Plane Protest, a Long History Opposing Vladimir Putin

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MOSCOW— More than a dozen arrests, two years in Russian prison camps, Cossack whips and hunger strikes did not scare Maria Alyokhina of the punk band Pussy Riot. At 29 she is a poet, artist, political activist, always fiery, always ready for action, full of ideas—and this week Alyokhina spent another 48 hours under arrest.

Shortly after her release, sipping coffee at a café, Alyokhina picked up a paper plane resting on the table—evidence of her latest crime. “This is not a missile system … This is just a paper plane, a symbol,” she explained. It represents “the Telegram messenger banned by the FSB,” she said. The logo for Telegram’s encrypted communications app is a classic origami glider.

On Monday evening Maria and several dozen other political activists appeared outside the building of the Federal Security Service, the FSB, on Lubyanka Square. They folded colorful paper airplanes and threw them at the massive facade of the infamous building that housed the KGB in Soviet times. Many Russians prefer to pass by it as quickly as possible, but they stood their ground.

The performance did not last longer than 15 minutes. Police arrested the authors of the art protest, Alyokhina and Dmitry Tsorionov, also known as Enteo, along with 10 more women activists. One of the detainees, a 23-year-old woman who suffers from diabetes,  fainted and had to have an emergency shot of insulin in jail.

“Russia is an unpredictable country, where Putin’s officers now, by law, can break into your house or even shoot you in the street,” Alyokhina told The Daily Beast, her voice full of emotion. “One moment you are kidding with friends about paper planes, the next moment you are inside a cage, banging on the bars, calling for a prison guard to let you use the bathroom.”

The performance in support of internet freedom took place on the day the country’s internet censor, Roskomnadzor, began to try to block the hugely popular encrypted Telegram messenger app. The effort was so clumsy it affected more than 16 million IP addresses and knocked many small businesses off line.

“One moment you are kidding with friends about paper planes, the next moment you are inside a cage, banging on the bars, calling for a prison guard to let you use the bathroom.”
— Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot

The FSB had demanded that Telegram’s developer and owner, Pavel Durov, give it encryption keys so it could monitor communications on an app that was developed, precisely, to make that impossible. Durov refused, so the censors cracked down on users.

“More than 60 people of various fields and backgrounds joined our art protest against the FSB brutally violating our right for private information,” said Alyokhina. She is the mother of an 11-year-old boy, but she told The Daily Beast that she is not afraid of any pressure from the state system, and the last few years make that clear.

Pussy Riot was formed in 2011 by a group of women looking for creative ways, through music and performance, to draw attention to political repression. It became world famous in 2012 when it staged a performance inside a Moscow cathedral to protest the support the Orthodox Church gave to the election campaign of President Vladimir Putin. Three members of the group, including Alyokhina, were arrested, jailed, and convicted of “hooliganism.” Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova served 21 months in prison.

Four years ago, when the feminist artists were released, they immediately dove back into passionate human rights activity. The duo founded Zona of Law, a prison reform NGO, and a news website Media Zona. They invested their honorariums for participation in international events in covering news of Russian prisons, courts and law enforcement agencies, providing legal aid for political prisoners.

In 2014 during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Pussy Riot feminists in bright masks staged a protest in support of Russian political prisoners. Authorities responded to the girls’ song with detentions, interrogations, whipping and pepper gas.

And as Alyokhina told The Daily Beast, once the games were over Russia’s domestic and foreign policy underwent dramatic changes. “Just a few months after the Olympics, Putin annexed a piece of foreign territory, Crimea, and started a war in Donbas [eastern Ukraine],” Alyokhina said. “That pain and blood will traumatize Ukraine for generations.”

In the past few months Alyokhina’s colorful balaclava could be seen in the far north, in Yakutsk, and in annexed Crimea, where she staged a protest in support of a Russian prisoner, the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.  

Every time, the police detain the activist—sometimes as soon as she arrives at the airport. She calls FSB officers, the successors of the KGB, “terrorists” and “executioners”: “Lenin founded their organization, he called it Red Terror, so who are they but terrorists?” she says, and for a century the spies and the secret police, the Chekists, as they are called, have been a destructive force in Russia’s intellectual and cultural life.

At the hearing earlier this week the judge said that Alyokhina and her friends were accused of “making and launching paper products” and “interfering with the free passage of citizens.” The verdict amused Maria. "Even the judge herself was laughing to the absurdity of her own verdict." The members of Pussy Riot are strong believers in humor as the best weapon against repression.

Alyokhina studied journalism and literature in Moscow, where she wrote some powerful poems and took part in various theatrical projects. Her book “Riot Days,” published in English, German and several other languages, tells the story of her 2012 for performing a “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

“I have never followed any political parties or leaders,” says Alyokhina. “I am a strong believer that Russian democracy deserves our defense, as so many people have devoted their lives to achieve it.”

But now that Putin has won yet another term as president, the omens are not auspicious.

Earlier this week the Youth Guards of his United Russia party announced the creation of special units to fight the opposition in all big cities, which is where opposition leader Aleksey Navalny has his strongest support. The news did not surprise Alyokhina: “When the regime crumbles, it tightens the bolts, and puts more pressure on civil liberties.”  

Last year on December 20, the national Day of the Chekist—yes, a day honoring Russia’s spies, President Putin, a former KGB officer,  congratulated the Russian intelligence services with on their 110th anniversary. “We’re honoring courageous people of strong spirit,” Putin said.

On that day Alyokhina and her friends came out to Lubyanka carrying a bedsheet with words on it written in red: “Happy Birthday, butchers!” In less than two minutes, Alyokhina was grabbed and dragged inside. “That was the first and only time I visited Lubyanka,” she said.

One of the officers asked Alyokhina if any of her relatives had suffered from Josef Stalin’s repressions. “I explained that I myself was a victim of repressions, imprisoned for singing a song in the church, and the FSB officer immediately noted: ‘I see, this is your role for life.’”

By now Russian authorities know only too well that the Pussy Riot girls are unstoppable, their punk spirits unbreakable.

“If you believe the idea that artists flourish under political repression, our country should be full of artists,” Alyokhina joked, her open smile illuminating her pretty face, framed in long golden curls that one fan on Twitter likened to a figure from Botticelli.

Earlier this week, Alyokhina had that same quiet smile on her face, when two security officers with gloomy faces dragged her away from Lubyanka Square, away from the FSB headquarters. She still had a paper plane in her hands.

Read more: www.thedailybeast.com

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