Review: Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina

riot daysI was never an activist, I just read about them.

The first few pages of Riot Days, by Maria Alyokina, a member of Pussy Riot, felt awfully young and green to me. But then her urgent impressionistic style caught me up in the excitement, idealism and even the affectations of youth, the contagious desire to attack the evil of the world with assertions of freedom. With art.

She and her friends spend a month at a time planning and rehearsing their theatrical “actions,” the guitar music, the costumes, the timing. One day she spends five hours making a “revolutionary t-shirt.” They know their country and its history, they understand the danger they are placing themselves in, of violence, jail, re-education. And they commit to it. They can’t accept the options of inaction, or exile.

After a few successful actions, they target a church, desecrated by its fealty to money and power.  “We scramble up the stairs towards the altar, dropping our backpacks by the Holy Gates. They symbolize the gates to heaven. Women are only allowed to stand on the green walkway before the gates–the soleas–if they are cleaning women. Or brides. In Russia, there are no women priests. In Russia, there is Pussy Riot.”

The police track them down after that. Alyokhina’s son was four years old when they first came to her door. She put them off, but the next day left him watching cartoons in their apartment. She told him she’d be back soon, and locked him in. “I came back two years later.”

It’s still the “fucking gulag” out there. I’ve read about the original gulag, as much as I could, grim as it was. This is a different story, though the conditions are much the same. Women prisoners sew military uniforms twelve hours a day in dangerous and filthy conditions for $3-$20 a month, if they’re paid at all. They are stripped naked and made to do squats, guards “search” their vaginas for documents. They are often drugged with antipsychotic. “Nothing has changed since the Soviet Era. If you hear someone talking about “humane” treatment in Russian prisons, block your ears and turn away. Even better, challenge it as the lie that it is.”  Alyokhina continues to protest, by hunger strikes, by talking to human rights advocates who visit her, and by writing articles smuggled out by her lawyers. Some of that leads to real improvements for all the women prisoners: more warm clothing, better sanitation, better food, more pay. But activism and life can never be about win or lose, only about persistence. They are in a constant battle with the guards, unpredictable day to day, with loved friends who support each other, and also make life harder as they suffer or are taken away.

But Alyokhina does not dwell on her own feelings, and she does not sentimentalize. This is an artist’s rendering of a prison experience, condensed, impressionistic, and slightly surreal, punctuated with quotations and illustrated with sketches that anyone could have drawn: the church, a giraffe, the inside of a prison door. She understands how the right details, simply stated and well timed, can create powerful dramatic effects. Dough balls that seal the cracks around the broken windows in winter.  A friend’s wave from the search room, just before she is transferred to Siberia.

Alyokhina is released, but the prison is still full. ¡No pasarán! she says. “Freedom doesn’t exist unless you fight for it every day.”

This book came out in September 2017, and is still available on NetGalley, where I found it. You could probably read it in one sitting.


“It is what it is.” Since before you were born.

I love it when a phrase that drives language prescriptionists crazy turns out to be older than their great-great-great-grandmas.

The oldest use of this one that William Safire could find, in a much-quoted 2006 column, was by J.E. Lawrence in the Nebraska State Journal in 1949 on frontier life: “It is what it is, without apology.”

But contributors on the board at the Straight Dope found it farther and farther back in time:

1873 (The Cornhill Magazine) “A paper is bought and read because it is what it is, and every contributor has a share in making it what it is.”

1836 (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke) “First, Essence may be taken of any thing, whereby it is what it is.”

1726 (Joseph Butler, 15 Sermons) “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.”

Established precedent may not make you like it, but it removes the blame from kids these days, who have enough inherited garbage to deal with.



Bill and Editta

“The lady has taste”

Shelf Awareness gave me Bill Cunningham’s memoir to review. I requested it because I’d seen the documentary on his later life as a cycling street fashion photographer for the Times. His book makes it clear that what drove everything he did, was the art. Taste, joy and creative expression were his guiding lights, and he railed against those who cultivate fashion only for status. “For me, the true creative road of design is one of continual struggle, both financially and morally…. Artists have tried desperately to blend creative life with modern comfortable living. I don’t think they go together.”

He wrote that in the early to mid 1960s. I think he’s still right.  The book world, the arts world, the fashion and music worlds all seem to be loaded heavily on the younger end. People hope to make middle class livings doing those things, and when they realize that’s not likely, they drop out.

I grew up around dedicated artists and musicians who were still at it over 40, all of them scraping by. I loved their self-created lives, aspired to be like them. Some had tried bigger cities for a while, then retreated to cheaper homes in smaller cities, towns or rural areas because their work mattered most. My oldest friend is another one. Organized, reliable, resourceful, charming, and winner of many grants, she has hustled for decades, and still sits on the poverty line, patching together a living from teaching, landladying, and the support of a community of friends who step up for each other, as needed.

My own arty mother qualified for food stamps when I was in high school and she was in grad school. As I headed off to get an expensive drama degree from NYU, my goals were to always know where my food and housing money were coming from each month, and if necessary, to own a reliable used car.

Part of that degree was an Introduction to the Profession course, featuring guest speakers who were all theater professionals in one way or another. I still have the notebook. Liz Swados, Ruth Malaczech, Philip Glass, Hal Prince, Spalding Gray.  But one of my most distinct memories from that class, was the internationally acclaimed experimental theater artist who said she had no idea when she started out that she would end up raising her kids on welfare.

I used to think that most people who went for careers in the arts grew up solidly middle class, at minimum, and had the comfort of a safety net behind them. Of course that isn’t always true. Bill Cunningham had a net. His friend and favorite model Editta Sherman absolutely did not. She was so poor, she had to send her five children to live in an orphanage for a while (they came home on weekends) so she could handle her photography business and dying husband. In time she photographed Henry Fonda and Leonard Bernstein, and hung out with Andy Warhol. And made this absolutely wonderful and not at all lucrative book with Bill Cunningham.

It’s a crazy arty project of Sherman modeling Cunningham’s antique clothing collection in front of appropriate old buildings in Manhattan, covering the colonial period to the 1970s. It’s called Facades, just the kind of title he would pick. I got my copy pretty recently online, and it seemed as if Sherman’s descendants have a stack they’re selling off.

The whole thing looks like so much fun, a crazy historic fashion nerd project by two friends who adored each other and made each other laugh.  A joint instagram account from the 1970s. The captions are so serious, in a voice that would suit 1950s Vogue, identifying the date, the address, and the garments, including invisible details. The photos themselves are sometimes dignified, but often not. Editta strikes pinup poses, takes a dance step, is caught mid-laugh, or flips her hoop skirt at the camera to show the bloomers underneath.

Here they are, still at it, decades later. When you get old, they say, you become a more extreme version of who you’ve been all along. Aren’t they lovely.


Keats, hanging out.

I read Keats’ letters every once in a while.

Here he is, writing to his brothers. I was startled because I didn’t think this slang was used before the 20th C.

I am… getting initiated into a little band. They call drinking deep dyin’ scarlet. They call good wine a pretty tipple, and call getting a child knocking out an apple; stopping at a tavern they call hanging out. Where do you sup? Where do you hang out?

They’ve been going in and out of style

I was born in September, 1967, right after the Summer of Love. When I was a kid, I figured that made me an actual child of the 60s.

My parents were not hippies, but they met in the midst of the Minneapolis folk blues scene, and they certainly had a lot of interesting friends.

In 1967, they were living in Ankara. They only got new records when friends and co-workers brought them back from the USA and UK. Whenever those records arrived, they  had a party.

When Sgt. Pepper arrived, the party went over 24 hours. They just kept turning it over. Mom was past 8 months pregnant with me, and along with everyone else she danced all night to that one record. She got broken glass in her foot and didn’t notice. She had a good time.

After I was born, she says when I got fussy, if she put that record on I would quiet down and listen. If I was tired, it would put me to sleep–I would go out with that final chord.

I still have no objectivity about this record, or not much. I go years without listening to it, but it’s part of my brain, I still have it memorized in detail, in depth.

She always said that her original copy, printed in the UK, had the sound of a cocktail party on whatever you call the final groove that winds toward the center label, and is usually blank. Some later party guest walked off with that copy, and her replacement didn’t feature that extra. After she died, I found a copy that does. It’s not a cocktail party. But it makes all the sense in the world that she remembered it that way.

None of you will sleep here.

It’s been a dark week. Today I realized I’d been hearing this song in my head for hours.

I started listening to my mother’s collection of musicals, mostly from her brief frightening time in 1950s NYC, when I was about twelve or thirteen. I liked the dark ones best, a taste that would only intensify over the next few years. I especially remember being deeply in love with Lotte Lenya in the 1950s NYC production of The Threepenny Opera, and her “Pirate Jenny.”

I identified with this song to a degree that gives me a different set of chills, listening to it now. But I know I was far from the only adolescent girl to be enraptured by that fantasy of total revenge. Things had been going very badly for me for a few years, and people were always telling me to smile, because I was so pretty when I smiled…and damn the rest of me.

I don’t recall that anyone commented on my attraction to stories of horror and destruction.

I knew life would be better when I grew up, and I was right. But the attraction is still there. And now I have an adolescent girl who loves them too.

There’s a few videos of this song online, not to mention all the covers. Back in the 80s I was in love with the English language recording, made when Lenya was over 50, with an expressive acting style, and a lower vocal register. Here’s one TV performance.

But looking it up, I ran across this German version from the 1931 film and was even more struck by it. Her piercing girl’s voice, her frozen face and posture. Mac the Knife sliding in to watch.