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She’s in Pussy Riot. He’s on the Far Right: How Maria Alyokhina and Dmitry Enteo Fell in Love
10.16.17 9:00 PM ET
We’re at La MaMa Theatre in New York’s East Village, where the famous Russian dissident and activist Maria Alyokhina is rehearsing for her performance in Burning Doors, a touring protest play with the underground Belarus Free Theatre.
It’s nearly 11 a.m. when we meet.
But Masha, as she is known, is bleary-eyed and unfocused. She’d just woke to a media firestorm in Russia over her romantic relationship with Dmitry Enteo, founder of a far-right activist movement called “God’s Will.”
The ultra-religious Orthodox group had recently expelled Enteo because of his relationship with Alyokhina. But few details had emerged until Alyokhina arrived in New York, when one independent Russian publication ran a bombshell feature detailing the unlikely love affair between a culture-policing Christian extremist and a blasphemous Pussy Rioter.
“He’s kind of a homophobe,” Alyokhina says of Enteo, smiling nervously and dragging on a cigarette outside the theater. Then she takes it back—“Actually he’s not a homophobe, he’s OK with LGBT people”—and looks for affirmation from another touring performer in Burning Doors who’s joined us.
“He’s against gay propaganda activists,” the friend tells me.
The smile falls from Alyokhina’s face.
“What does this mean, ‘propaganda activists?’” she asks.
“For example what he said about LGBT flags—” her friend starts to reply but Alyokhina interjects in Russian. They go back and forth for a minute or so.
“It’s complicated,” Alyokhina tells me, as if to translate, then heads inside for rehearsal.
I won’t realize just how complicated it is until late that night, when a Russian-speaking colleague sends me the article about Alyokhina’s controversial romance.
In 2012, 23-year-old Alyokhina and other members of feminist art collective Pussy Riot were arrested when they donned colorful balaclavas and shouted for the Virgin Mary to “drive away Putin!” inside Moscow’s biggest cathedral.
Their guerrilla Punk Prayer performance lasted roughly 40 seconds before security guards chased them from the church. Pussy Riot stressed that Punk Prayer was an anti-Kremlin political protest against the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the Russian Orthodox bishop campaigning for Putin in the presidential race.
But that didn’t stop a judge from convicting them of “hooliganism based on religious hatred,” arguing that they’d made “emphatically vulgar” gestures in the church and had “offended the feelings of religious believer[s].”
When Alyokhina and fellow Pussy Rioter Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova were released from jail in a flurry of media attention, Tolokonnikova was often described as the pretty one.
But with her intense blue eyes, impish smile, and wry sense of humor, Alyokhina is bewitching and seductive, even when (or perhaps because) she’s defiant and aloof. It’s hard not to be intimidated by her candor, which can come off as blunt and frosty. But she’s mostly warm and is a good listener who’s genuinely interested in what other people have to say.
After our morning interview was cut short, Alyokhina suggested we chat again later that night (“I’m not a morning person”) over dinner at a Japanese restaurant near her East Village hotel.
Alyokhina is dressed in all black, as she was that morning, her wavy blond hair tucked under a black beret. She is petite and muscular, with a raspy voice and elf-like features.
During dinner we talk mostly about Burning Doors, which tells the stories of three political prisoners: Alyokhina, who appears as herself; Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker who is serving a 20-year sentence in Russian prison, and Petr Pavlensky, whose 2015 protest performance—dousing the entrance to FSB headquarters in gasoline and setting it on fire—inspired the play’s title.
“All of our stories are about artistic resistance, but Oleg’s is hardest to watch because he was tortured during investigation,” Alyokhina tells me in her heavily-accented English. “It’s cruelty theater,” she adds, skeptically examining a few shriveled figs (“What is this?”) inside her seaweed-wrapped rice ball.
Alyokhina’s story draws on the two years she spent in a Russian penal colony, including five months in solitary confinement, and addresses the brutal realities of life in Russia’s modern gulag.
For Alyokhina, this included being routinely stripped naked and searched, forced to squat while guards in her all-women prison accused her of hiding something “up there.” She was also taunted by a cruel prison doctor during graphic gynecological exams.
“She was one of those people who think they have absolute power,” Alyokhina says of the doctor. “Fascism can have totally different forms. The problem is not that she or other prison workers are bad people, it’s that they’ve become a function of the system. When you delegate your right of choice to the system, you start to forget that you have freedom. Your only purpose for existing is to be a function.”
It’s a physically and psychologically exhausting performance for Alyokhina, but she is fearless—even when having her head repeatedly plunged under water as she recites poetry.
It’s hard not to feel anxious watching her be submerged for increasingly long periods: 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 45 seconds, and so on. I began wondering whether her head was fully under water. There had to be some sort of stage trickery that allowed her to breathe?
Alyokhina laughs when I mention this at dinner: There was no trickery. For her, this scene was one of the most important parts of her performance.
“We are showing freedom, and freedom does not exist if you’re not fighting for it,” she says. “But it’s not easy to show this fight, to show what freedom means. It’s not possible to dive into water in prison, because you are always in the ground.”
Much of the play’s Russian dialogue is subtitled in English and projected on stage, but this scene is an exception. “I’m talking about how hard it is for me to breathe,” Alyokhina explains.
It’s been a year since the Belarus Free Theatre company staged their first performance of Burning Doors in London. They’ve since taken the show to Germany, Australia, Finland, and now New York.
“I wanted to convey things to the audience about my experience that hadn’t been revealed in public before,” says Alyokhina. “But it’s not just about showing that experience. It’s about repeating it again and again, except I’m not reliving it on my own this time. I’m sharing it. This is the whole point of the show.”
“I learned in prison that a lot of people don’t believe in words. They only believe in the power of example.”
Alyokhina declines to talk much about her "friendship" with Enteo, as she prefers to call it, which hadn’t been revealed in English media at this point. She shakes her head emphatically.
“No, thank god! This will be…” she trails off, then mimics the sound of an exploding bomb. She promises to email me a link to the article and says good night.
Alyokhina never sent me the story. But when I tell her the next day that I’ve read it, she asks to meet in person again, after the New York premiere of Burning Doors that night.
I remind her of what she’d said the night before about believing in the power of example. What are we to make of her relationship with Enteo, then, given his strong ties to an activist group known for beating up gay people during Pride rallies?
“He hasn’t been doing [homophobic] actions with that movement for a year now,” Alyokhina says. “I think he has problem with Gay Pride parades,” she allows, “but not with gays and lesbians.”
This reporter replied, “The first day we met you said he was a homophobe.”
“He’s not a homophobe,” says Alyokhina. “Ask Olga, who is quoted in the article. She has spent nine months together with us. He’s not about protecting the patriarchy at all. Totally not, and I’m sure of this.”
Alyokhina didn’t know about Enteo’s background when she first met him, briefly, at a party in October 2016, though her friend told her about his movement before introducing them.
“I shook his hand and that was it,” she says. Afterward, he began sending her messages on Twitter and asking her to hang out. Finally, in December 2016, she agreed to meet again and invited him to her apartment.
“I wanted to understand the leader of a movement that wanted to put us in jail,” she says.
Indeed, when Pussy Riot was on trial in 2013, Enteo and other members of “God’s Will” gathered outside Russia’s Ministry of Justice and called for Pussy Riot to be imprisoned. “God’s Will” was a little-known movement before 2013, when they campaigned to criminalize “offending religious feelings” in response to Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer.
They successfully convinced Putin to sign their legislation into a law that carries up to a year in prison, though it doesn’t clearly specify what qualifies as offense.
The night Enteo went to Alyokhina’s, they spent five hours talking and watching videos of the activist work that he’d done.
“He was quite happy to talk about himself,” she says with a grin, admitting that she thought he was “quite funny.”
“There were some hard moments for me, because if someone is showing such videos with pride, well…”
She stubs her cigarette and goes on: “I believe that there is a reason for hatred, and if we want to push away hatred we should understand the reason why it’s happening and show that there’s another side. I’m from the other side, and I’ve showed the reality that things can be different.”
When he asked her to celebrate New Year’s Eve with him, she suggested they go to a bridge, steps from the Kremlin, where opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot to death in 2015.
Enteo accompanied her and brought flowers to leave on the bridge that night. Later in January, Alyokhina invited Enteo to an annual anti-fascist rally that he and other “God’s Will” members tried to break up in previous years. But with Alyokhina, he came as a protester himself. He also came to a presentation of her new book, Riot Days, and to see her perform in Burning Doors.
But Alyokhina rolls her eyes when asked about when they started dating and whether she was attracted to him from the beginning.
“I’m not going to talk about the first time we had sex,” she says firmly, trying not to smile. “Pure. No.”
She declines to answer if she’s in love with him (“I do not use this word because if you use it so much it becomes empty.”) Asked if she tells him that she loves him, she laughs: “I mean I’m speaking about him, so this means something.
“But it’s more interesting than that, the whole relationship—” she winces. “I hate that word ‘relationship.’ I don’t understand this need to mark and define everything.”
Whatever they are, how does she reconcile with the fact that Enteo is ideologically opposed to everything she’s fought for in the last five years? How does she expect Pussy Riot fans to reconcile with her lover’s opposition to feminism?
And even if Enteo is no longer destroying art that his movement deems Satanic or culturally deviant, does she really think he’s changed much in the nine months since they first connected?
“I’m not interested in forcing him to change,” Alyokhina says. “Inviting someone to an anti-fascist rally isn’t telling them to change how they think. It’s introducing them to another perspective. For me, it’s important to show, not tell. And then the person can choose.
“Because often people just don’t understand the mechanism of this revolution that the opposition wants, because they don’t know how to change. It’s important that I show how it’s possible. After that, everything else is his choice, not mine.”
She cares that fans of Pussy Riot know she's fighting for freedom of artistic expression. Her relationship with Enteo does not mitigate the years she's devoted to political activism and affecting change in Russia.
Does she see herself having children with Enteo? Does she envision a future together?
For the first time, Alyokhina looks incredulous, even horrified—and understandably so.
“What future can we talk about? What future? We are living in a country where one of our friends was just beaten in the head with a metal stick. There’s not a complicated construction of the future in my life. Pussy Riot exists when it’s doing protest art. You do, and you exist. That’s it.”
Burning Doors is at La MaMa, 66 East 4th Street, NYC, until Oct. 22. Book tickets here.
Additional Reporting by Katie Zavadski
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