At the end of her earnest new prison memoir, “Riot Days,” the Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina announces, “I want to write a book.” A young Roma woman, separated from her child by a long prison sentence, asks if she will be in it; Alyokhina promises her she will. Like many Russian writers and advocates before her, Alyokhina feels a responsibility to bear witness to the suffering of Russians who do not have the power or the privilege to describe their predicaments to the world.
“Riot Days,” which is written in diarylike fragments, begins in 2011, not long before Pussy Riot’s famous protest performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, when four Pussy Rioters in bright balaclavas rushed the altar and performed a “punk prayer” with the refrain “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin!” After a period as fugitives, moving from one safe house to another and giving interviews on laptops in cafe bathrooms, Alyokhina and her fellow Pussy Rioters Nadya Tolokonnikova and Katya Samutsevich were arrested. They had chosen not to flee the country or hide in the provinces; they wanted to stay and fight. Alyokhina’s next battles would take place in prison, where she spent 18 months.