The Russian curator Marat Guelman once said, “Red Square is turning into the world’s biggest art space.” In recent years, Moscow’s historic centre has become an arena for political activists, like Pussy Riot, to charge into the nucleus of power and battle the state. A YouTube clip from 2012 shows the brightly-coloured troupe of punk feminists thrashing guitars and yelling “Putin pissed himself!” in sub-zero temperatures. Of course, it was a later performance that took place in the Church of Christ the Saviour – targeting the twin authorities of church and state – that led to a highly publicised trial and a controversial prison sentence for Masha Alyokhina and band mate, Nadya Tolokonnikova.

Five years on, the decision to stage a ‘punk prayer’ has unquestionably altered the course of Alyokhina’s life. However, she is not dispirited or disillusioned; on the contrary, the experience has only hardened her politics and her determination to speak out against injustice – in Russia and abroad.

Alyokhina and her collaborators, Alexandra Lukyanova (Sasha Bogino) and Alexander Cheparukhin, were recently in Tasmania for MONA’s winter solstice festival, Dark MOFO. Along with screening a new documentary titled “Act and Punishment,” Alyokhina performed a DJ set, spinning “songs to inspire revolution.” When I ask what these songs were, she replies: “mainly Russian punk-rock music from the ‘80s, which was the time of Perestroika. I was born in 1988 during the last years of the Soviet Union. So, these are songs from when I was growing up in Moscow. When I was 15 years I old, I would run out of my house and spend time with punks. The songs are more about the lyrics than musical style, so I’m not sure if everybody got the sense, but hopefully they got a bit of the spirit.”

Now back in Moscow, Alyokhina has recently launched her debut book Riot Days, which is part memoir, part homage to the early, underground years of the punk group. In keeping with Russia’s rebellious roots, the book was not published through mainstream channels. “We chose to use the samizdat method”, she says, referring to a clandestine system of self-publishing that was popular with dissidents during the most repressive years of the Soviet Union. “We have a huge tradition of underground literature and we wanted to continue this. I guess we can say we are traditionalist!” she laughs.

“Almost all the interesting literature in the Soviet Union was banned,” Alyokhina continues. “The main reason was that it was ‘anti-morality’. I think the main hypocrisy of these kinds of regimes is that they teach morality through the culture of saying ‘teenagers going to a protest are immoral’ or ‘to dance in the church is immoral.’ At the same time, the regime is killing journalists and political opposition.”

Of course, government censorship and repression has remained commonplace in Russia. Alyokhina used her book launch in St Petersburg to fundraise for Oleg Senstov, a Ukrainian filmmaker and activist, who is currently serving a twenty-year prison sentence in Yakutsk, over 8,000 kilometres from Kiev. “His mother is very old and living in Crimea, it’s a sad situation,” she says. “We wanted to help her to visit her son, but it’s very far and expensive.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that Alyokhina has thrown her weight into struggles for press freedom in Russia. Prior to joining Pussy Riot, she was an environmental activist and a literature student at Moscow State University. Now, in a sea of state-owned media, she has co-founded Media Zona, an alternative, independent platform that focuses on Russia’s system of law enforcement. Reflecting on a discussion about the project in Tasmania, she says “in moments like that I see that with issues like human rights, topics like freedom, we have no borders. It doesn’t matter which language you are speaking, people can share your ideas and stand together.”

Like other Pussy Riot alumni, Alyokhina still works within the nexus of art and politics. However, she has moved from gritty, guerrilla-style activities into a more conventional theatrical realm, collaborating with Belarus Free Theatre to produce the visceral 2016-17 performance Burning Doors. The play expresses solidarity with the plight of political prisoners, most notably the artist and activist Pyotr Pavlensky, who was imprisoned for setting the doors of the FSB ablaze, an act that equated the entrance to the former secret police headquarters to the gates of hell. “I think people in different countries who are standing for the same thing should collaborate,” says Alyokhina. “For me, it was the first theatre experience in my life. Well, of course, what I felt in the court was ‘theatre,’” she adds, referring to her 2012 court appearance that was likened to a Stalinist show trial.

In association with the publication of “Riot Days”, Alyokhina has been staging another performance of the same name. “It’s a combination of the manuscript and music,” she says and explains that the show is about giving Pussy Riot’s punk anthems a life outside YouTube. “We toured the United States in March and are going to Australia.” As a kind of updated version of the brash irreverence that propelled their early performances, the show will be staged in August as part of Melbourne’s Supersense Festival.

While Alyokhina is able to travel with relative ease across the world – her busy schedule is packed with various performances and speaking engagements – Riot Days has been staged a mere two times in Russia. On first attempt, the show was shut down after an hour. “The main problem is that people are afraid,” explains Alyokhina. “This sounds very strange but people are afraid to let us into their venues, even just to tell the story of 2012. They think if they let us in, the government will close them – it’s like we’re a red flag.”

When I ask about her influences across feminism and politics, Alyokhina’s pedagogical philosophy is slightly unorthodox. She is remarkably level-headed, reflecting on the arc of her prison term as a productive experience, without a shred of resentment. “I believe every person you meet is a teacher,” she says. “You can learn a lot of things. This is how I learn politics, art and even life. I learn from people I met in penal colonies, from our judges, from our prison guards. It’s necessary to speak with people. This is the only way to know something.”

During her time in prison, when Alyokhina wasn’t negotiating with guards or attempting to unionize fellow inmates in defence of their rights, she buried herself in books. “I feel them like people,” she says. “It’s always a dialogue between you and the author or the protagonist. For example, in prison, you will never feel alone if the heroes from your books are with you.” This conjures a slightly romantic image of nineteenth and early twentieth century revolutionaries, like Nikolay Chernyshevsky, toiling away over manuscripts in their cells.

It’s on this note that our conversation turns toward the centenary of the Russian revolution. It has been one hundred years since the storming of the Winter Palace, marking a radical break from Tsarism and the birth of the Soviet Union. But how does this history sit within Russia today? “I don’t think Putin and his team like the word ‘revolution’ – they’re afraid of it,” says Alyokhina. “Every other person who is building their power, they’re afraid of any change. This is why these people love borders and prisons. You can own all the media channels, but you cannot cut out the eyes of the people. They see what is going on and they understand everything. It just takes time to find a way to speak out.”

In a globalised world, the concept of ‘revolution’ as an event unfolding at a particular time in a particular place has been questioned. In the midst of rapid new cycles and social media storms, the frontiers of political struggle can seem slippery, receding as quickly as they arise. So, how do we reconceptualise revolution in the twenty first century? “I believe revolution is not about finding a new Lenin who will change everything,” says Alyokhina. “Revolution is about each of us and the choices we make every day. The choice is very simple: to act, to speak, to do, or to stay silent. I believe that every action is firstly part of your story and secondly your country and the world.”

The Russian revolution also represented a powerful moment for feminism, featuring radically forward-thinking women, such as Alexandra Kollantai and Emma Goldman. The scene is quite different in today’s Russia. Compounded by the conservatism of the Orthodox Church, chauvinistic attitudes toward women are increasingly prevalent. The Duma’s recent moves to decriminalise domestic violence can be seen as a case in point.

“It’s true that the Soviet Union was one of the first countries to give rights to women,” says Alyokhina. “But the experience of the Soviet Union is actually very dark, especially during the Stalinist period. And if you look to Russia today, for example, it was once banned to speak about Putin’s wife and it’s still a hidden topic. I think this fear of women’s sexuality, which of course exists in our country, is the basis of lots of problems in politics. I believe if we learn history more through women, rather than the men who were officially ruling the country, we will understand more.”

Perhaps it’s her anarchist streak, but Alyokhina refuses to speculate on the internal politics of the Kremlin and who will take over from Vladimir Putin. “I do not think this way,” she insists. “I do not support the concept of a strong leader, which will come and change Putin to himself. No government can give you freedom like a birthday cake. I mean, if you do not feel it and you do not fight for it, then it does not exist.” She does, however, comment on Alexei Navalny, the embattled anti-corruption lawyer who has been pushing for greater government transparency. “Year after year, there are criminal cases against him and he does not leave Russia. He is doing important work,” she says.

Putin is often portrayed as the immovable object of Russian politics: a masterful military tactician, moving geopolitical chess pieces across Ukraine, Crimea and even into the United States. However, this perception doesn’t really gel with outspoken journalists, such as Masha Gessen and Mikhail Zygar, who have argued that Putin’s aptitude is wildly overstated in the West. When I ask Alyokhina about the future of Russia, how she imagines the country without Putin, she replies: “Like Russia, but without Putin. It’s very simple. I don’t think we would lose something important.”