Masha Alyokhina spent two years in a Siberian prison for protesting Vladimir Putin. (Albert Wiking)

A member of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot, Maria “Masha” Alyokhina spent nearly two years in a Siberian prison camp for singing a song in a Russian Orthodox Church that accused religious authorities of collaborating with the KGB and asked the Virgin Mary to drive away Vladimir Putin. She continued her protests while imprisoned, though the price was forced gynecological examinations, sleep deprivation and other human rights violations, she has said. Since her release, Alyokhina has continued to be a thorn in Putin’s side, staging protests at the Sochi Olympics and fighting for the release of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. Most recently, she’s written a book about her experiences, “Riot Days,” which she’ll talk about Tuesday at Politics and Prose. While in the area, Alyokhina will also appear in a play, “Burning Doors,” that interweaves scenes from political prisoners’ lives with quotes from Fyodor Dostoevsky and Michel Foucault. Performed in Russian and Belarusian with English subtitles, the play includes actual physical violence and meta-commentary — including a mid-play Q&A with Alyokhina. We had our own questions for her.


The physical violence in the play, is it real? Do you and the other actors actually get hurt?
This play is not conventional theater. It’s very physical theater, and it’s actually torture itself on the stage. We are showing torture to give a feeling of how it is to be inside this system, and how to overcome this system as well — the prison system in particular, but unfreedom in general.

That must be very uncomfortable for the actors and the audience. 
Yes, torture is uncomfortable. This is reality. This is the only way to show truth.

Pussy Riot members attend a 2012 hearing. (Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images)

How do you escape totalitarian systems?
I think freedom does not exist if you are not fighting for it every day. I think in the United States what you have now regarding Trump and the whole conservative factor is, it’s not the face of the U.S., actually. It’s just the result of apathy and indifference, which are my personal enemies. Because sometimes people think that democracy will stay with them forever and humanity and human rights — all the things which were achieved in 20th century — will stay with us, and it’s kind of done. But it’s not done. If you do not fight for it, it will disappear. And here [at] our performance, our play, we will show the example of what will happen if you lose it.

Why do you make political art instead of engaging in straight-up activism?
Political movements and political activism usually say how you should do things, but political art is not about saying, “This is the one way of solving problems.” It’s about asking uncomfortable questions, and these questions are actually the only way to go forward and to make progress.

What do you hope people get out of reading your book?
I want to show people how to fight via my example. I want to see more actions in the world, especially now. 

How do you fight for freedom when imprisoned in actual prison or in a totalitarian regime?
I said “no” to those who thought that they have an absolute power to judge people, to violate people. When you find your internal power, internal freedom to make a different choice, I think this is important.

In prison, don’t you end up forced to do what the guards want, regardless of how much you fight?
I think it’s a question of being prisoner or not being prisoner. Of having freedom of choice or not having it. I think the decisions which are made there are the most important decisions, because if you lose yourself there, you will never forget it and you will always be a prisoner.

You’re still living in Moscow and protesting the Russian government. Are you subject to harassment or surveillance?
If you are doing activism in Russia, of course you will be followed and they will read all your mails and messages and so on.

Have you considered moving?
No, I don’t want to move. It’s my country. It’s they who should move.

“Riot Days” talk: Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Tue., 7 p.m., free.
“Burning Doors”: The Clarice, 8270 Alumni Drive, College Park, Md.; Oct. 26 & 27, 8 p.m., $22-$27.