LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In 2012, three young women snuck into Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior to play a protest song. They became an international symbol of the opposition to Russia's President Vladimir Putin. In her new book "Riot Days," Masha Alyokhina from the band Pussy Riot writes, they did it because they dreamed of a different history. Instead, the group was charged with inciting religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison. In that time, Alyokhina kept detailed notes of her life in prison. Her book weaves that account with her sketches along with news reports, records from court proceedings and quotes from revolutionaries in Russia and other countries.
MASHA ALYOKHINA: It's collage, mosaic of situations where I made the choice to act, to not be silent.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write in your book, (reading) such moments of choice made in prison will stay with you for the rest of your life. These decisions become the most important ones you will 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.
Is that something that you've taken with you after your experience in prison?
ALYOKHINA: Yes. This understanding that freedom does not exist if you're not fight for that everyday - it's, I think, the main thing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the book, you talk about how dehumanizing the experience in prison was. They took away your belongings. They made you do squats to search your private parts while you were naked. And you write at the beginning that you didn't know that you could say no, that it took you a long time to understand that you still had a voice in prison. How did you keep that spirit of resistance alive?
ALYOKHINA: This is not kind of a miracle understanding. When they arrest you and put you to the cage, of course, you don't know that you have a right to refuse their orders because there are no instructions of what you can do.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you give me an example of how you continued to fight in prison? I mean, there are many different things that you did. You even brought a case against the guards?
ALYOKHINA: Yeah. This is my, let's say, favorite thing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's the first case against the guards in the history of that prison.
ALYOKHINA: Yeah. I was sent to serve my sentence to Biysk, which is a penal colony in Ural Mountains, 3,500 from Moscow.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were in solitary confinement for quite some time.
ALYOKHINA: Yeah, for five months. Very fast, I found that it's them who are breaking the law.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You started reading up on your rights.
ALYOKHINA: I read all the prison law and knew it almost by memory. But it was, like, a huge book.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did you accuse them of? What did you say specifically that they had?
ALYOKHINA: Russian prison system is quite different from, for example, United States or European. We have penal colonies where we don't have prison cells. We have barracks. So it's like 100 women living together in one bedroom having two or three toilets and working for 12 or 14 hours per day. And they almost don't pay. They pay about $2 or $3 per month. And these conditions are against the law. So after our court, everything started to change. I mean, eight prison guards were fired. And because of the scandal, I think they started to improve the conditions.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you about being a mom and having to go through this. You wrote in the book that the morning of your arrest, your son was watching cartoons. He was almost five years old, and you told them you'd be back soon. And instead, you, quote, "came back two years later." That must have been hard.
ALYOKHINA: It's hard. But all we've that done and all that we are still doing, it's for our children.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Masha Alyokhina is a founding member of Pussy Riot and the author of "Riot Days." Thank you so much for joining us.
ALYOKHINA: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD SONG, "ORPHEO LOOKS BACK")
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