Pussy Riot gang leader escapes Russia with the help of her friends

Alyokhina’s shoes. Like many other inmates in prison, where shoelaces are confiscated, she used baby wipes to fasten her shoes. (Emile Ducke/The New York Times)

After more than a decade of activism, Maria Alyokhina disguised herself as a food delivery woman to elude the police and the growing repression of the Kremlin.

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Maria Alyokhina first came to the attention of Russian authorities — and the world — when Pussy Riot, her punk band and performance art group, staged a protest against President Vladimir Putin at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.

For that act of rebellion in 2012, she was sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism.” She maintained her determination to stand up to Putin’s system of repression, even after being imprisoned six more times since last summer, each time for 15 days, each time on trumped-up charges with the idea of ​​curbing her political activism.

But in April, as Putin began to crack down more harshly on any criticism of his war in Ukraine, authorities announced that his house arrest would be turned into a penal colony in 21 days. He then decided it was time to leave Russia — at least temporarily — and disguised himself as a food delivery girl to evade Moscow police, who had been staking out her friend’s apartment where he was staying. She left her cell phone as a decoy and to avoid being tracked.

A friend took her to the border with Belarus, from where it took her a week to cross into Lithuania. At a studio in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, she agreed to give an interview to describe a dissident’s harrowing escape from Putin’s Russia.

“I was glad I did it, because it was a big, unpredictable” farewell to Russian authorities, said Alyokhina, who used a less kind term. “I still don’t fully understand what I did,” she admitted, dressed entirely in black except for a fanny pack with a rainbow-colored belt.

Alyokhina, 33, has spent her entire adult life working for her country to respect its Constitution and the most basic human rights, such as freedom of expression. After being preliminarily released from prison in December 2013, she and another member of the Pussy Riot founded Mediazona, an independent news outlet focused on crime and punishment in Russia.

Maria V. Alyokhina at the National Theater of Iceland in Reykjavik. “I still don’t fully understand what I did,” she said. (Misha Friedman/The New York Times)

He also wrote a memoir, Riot Days, and traveled the world to perform a show based on the book. Although she wanted to tour Russia, only three venues agreed to host the show and all faced repercussions.

Alyokhina was committed to staying in Russia despite the usual surveillance and pressure from the authorities to which she was subjected. But she has now joined the tens of thousands of Russians who have fled her country since the invasion of Ukraine began.

Alyokhina, known to her friends as Masha, had her nails bitten and smoked a vape or Marlboro Lights almost nonstop. She made the trip wearing several-inch-high, slip-on black platform boots, a nod to her various stints in jail, where she confiscated her shoelaces.

In prison, she and others threaded wet wipes through the eyelets of their shoes so they wouldn’t slip off. As a declaration of principles, she and other members of Pussy Riot will use them in their performances on their new tour, which begins on May 12 in Berlin, to raise funds for Ukraine.

More than a decade ago, when Pussy Riot started, the group seemed as much a publicity stunt as political activism. But if at the time their protest at the Moscow cathedral — where they performed a “Punk Prayer,” which ridicules the symbiosis between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin — seemed exaggerated, today it seems prophetic.

Church leader Patriarch Kirill blessed the Russian troops going to Ukraine, and the European Union added his name to its sanctions list.

Exactly ten years after the cathedral protest, Putin delivered a furious speech calling Ukraine a country “created by Russia,” laying the groundwork for his invasion.

Alyokhina listened to the speech on the radio from a jail cell. The invasion, she said, had changed everything, not just for her, but for her country.

“I no longer believe that Russia has the right to exist,” he said. “Even before, questions lingered about how she holds herself together, what values ​​held her together, and where she’s headed. But now I don’t think it’s an issue anymore.”

During the interview she was surrounded by other people who are part of the group, now a collective with around a dozen members. Most had also recently fled Russia, including her girlfriend, Lucy Shtein.

Shtein had decided to leave Russia a month earlier, and also evaded movement restrictions by sneaking out wearing the uniform of a food delivery service. He made the decision after someone hung a sign on the door of the apartment he shared with Alyokhina accusing them of being traitors.

Alyokhina and Shtein were once jailed for posting a petition on Instagram for the release of political prisoners in Russia. In February, Alyokhina was sentenced to 15 days for “propaganda of Nazi symbolism” for another Instagram post, this one from 2015, which criticized Aleksandr Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator and Putin ally. Shtein was arrested at the same time on similar charges.

“They are afraid because they cannot control us,” said Alyokhina.

When he arrived at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, he had a Lithuanian visa which he tried to use with his Russian national ID, as Russia had confiscated his passport. By this time, Ella Alyokhina had been placed on Russia’s “wanted persons” list.

On her first attempt to cross, Alyokhina was held by Belarusian border guards for six hours before being turned back. On her second attempt, the incredulous officer that she was on her shift simply asked her to leave her.

But on his third try, he succeeded. Alyokhina had allies outside the country who were working to find her a path to freedom. One of them was a friend of hers, Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who convinced a European country to issue Alyokhina a travel document, which essentially gave her the same status as a citizen of the European Union. Officials from that country asked that she not name him for fear of causing diplomatic repercussions.

The document used by Alyokhina was smuggled into Belarus. While she was there, she avoided hotels or any place where she might be asked for identification, which could have tipped off people looking for her.

In the end, Alyokhina boarded a bus to Lithuania with the document in hand. She laughed as she recounted how better the border guards treated her when they thought she was a “European” and not a Russian.

“A lot of magic happened last week,” he said. “Sounds like a spy novel.”

Being able to leave Russia and Belarus was a reflection, he said, of Russia’s chaotic law enforcement.

“From here it looks like a huge demon, but it is very disorganized if you look from the inside,” he warned. “The right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.”

Alyokhina says that she hopes to return to Russia. But no one knows how she could do it, now even the most dedicated activists are jailed or forced into exile.

Every day new members of the group fleeing from Russia arrive in Vilnius and gather for rehearsals for the European tour.

After a few days, Alyokhina traveled to Iceland with other members of the group to visit Kjartansson, who organized a rehearsal for them in the building that was once the seat of the country’s Supreme Court.

Alyokhina asked Kjartansson and Bjork, a relative of his, to perform at events organized by pro-Ukrainian activists when Pussy Riot performs in Iceland. The answer, Kartjansson said, was a resounding “Yes!”

In Vilnius, Alyokhina’s cell phone vibrated with messages of support and relief that she was “safe” after the week-long journey. Alyokhina was exasperated by these well-intentioned expressions, which she, she assured her, were out of place.

“If your heart is free,” he said, “it doesn’t matter where you are.”

Valerie Hopkins reported from Vilnius and Misha Friedman from Reykjavik, Iceland.

Valerie Hopkins is a correspondent in Moscow. She previously covered Central and South Eastern Europe for a decade, most recently for the Financial Times. @VALERIEinNYT

Valerie Hopkins reported from Vilnius and Misha Friedman from Reykjavik, Iceland.

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