tortured mouths: thoughts on maria alyokhina

Pussy Riot by Igor Murkhin

In The Guardian, actor Romola Garai writes about Maria Alyokhina’s hunger strike in a Ural Mountains prison and Pussy Riot‘s continued defiance–from behind bars and through supporters–against Russia’s corrupt regime.

Alyokhina is a 24-year-old poet, mother, and student. After Pussy Riot, feminist performance artists, performed “Punk Prayer” in a Russian Orthodox cathedral to protest the church’s increasingly close relationship with Putin’s government, she became the de facto spokesperson of the three arrestees with zingers like: “I thought the church loved all its children, but it seems the church loves only those children who believe in Putin.”

Her fervent arguments didn’t stop the court from sentencing the women to two years in a rural prison camp, but Pussy Riot won’t stop fighting. In a recent interview, fellow Pussy Riot member and prisoner Nadezhda Tolokonnikova vowed to continue her political art once she is released, and now Alyokhina has endured an eleven-day hunger strike after authorities prevented her from attending her parole hearing.

Hunger strikes always make me think of Alice Paul and remind me to be grateful. In her fight for US women’s suffrage, Paul endured taunts, violence, imprisonment, and psychiatric evaluations in a sanitarium. In response to Paul’s hunger strike in Occuquan Workhouse, authorities strapped her down and force-fed her raw eggs by shoving a tube down her throat until she vomited blood.

It’s easy to forget that much of what we have comes from the struggles of other people.

Interestingly, the suffragist motto was “deeds, not words.” But sometimes words are deeds, no? Isn’t that what Pussy Riot’s trial was about?

Alyokhina’s strike may have just ended, but Guantánamo Bay detainees are more than 100 days into a hunger strike and force-feeding has reared its ugly head. Many detainees have been confined for more than a decade without charges, and they are protesting President Obama’s failure to close the prison as he promised in his campaign.

In 2007, detainee Adnan Lanif participated in a six-month hunger strike. Originally from Yemen, he had suffered a brain injury as a result of a car accident and traveled to Afghanistan to obtain medical treatment from a charity, but the US believed that he was headed for a training camp. He was held in Guantánamo for ten years, seven months, and 25 days until he died.

Fortunately, we have his words. Here’s an excerpt from Lanif’s “Hunger Strike Poem” from Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak.:

They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults and humiliation.

Where is the world to save us from torture?
Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?

But I circle back to Russia, thinking of how writing and revolution have always gone hand in hand in that vast landscape. I’m reminded of Anna Akhmatova, the censored Russian poet who once wrote of her “tortured mouth, / through which a hundred million people shout.” When Akhmatova had the chance to leave her country for a refuge, she refused and spent the rest of her life under surveillance, losing loved ones to gulags. Yet in her lonely, restricted existence under Stalin, she managed to chronicle the Terror through verse.

Like Stalin, Putin seems to think he can silence anyone by making them suffer. And so does the US–not just with Guantánamo, but with our entire prison industrial complex, which spreads far and wide. Alyokhina’s loud voice has already made her a political prisoner. What will she sound like when she is freed? A tortured mouth? Thunder and rain?

By the time Akhmatova wrote “You Will Hear Thunder,” sorrow surrounded her, staining cobblestones and crowding empty rooms, but her pen still ran across the page:

You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.