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The Pussy Riot Olympics

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Pussy Riot’s punk prayer performance in Moscow caught the world’s attention. |  IGOR MUKHIN/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Pussy Riot’s punk prayer performance in Moscow caught the world’s attention. | IGOR MUKHIN/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

If activism were an Olympic sport, Pussy Riot would have taken the gold for their 2012 punk prayer performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Central Moscow, asking, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out, / Chase Putin out, chase Putin out...” They picked the perfect target, sent a clear message, and got so much global media attention, they deserved a perfect score.

Unfortunately, instead of standing atop a podium, three of the five landed in jail, tried and convicted for “hooliganism inspired by religious hatred.” Yekaterina Samutsevich was given a suspended sentence on appeal, but Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina served nearly their complete two-year sentences in penal colonies before they were released in the recent amnesty for prisoners — Putin’s gambit for improved PR just prior to the Sochi Olympics.

In her new book, “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot,” journalist Masha Gessen transforms their now familiar story into an important exploration of rebellion itself, especially the role played by protest art and direct action when language no longer serves.

Feminist rockers act in the face of a language of lies

Unlike many progressive activists who see history as an arc with a pot of gold at the end of it, Gessen refreshingly asserts that it’s a miracle Pussy Riot emerged at all. It’s not enough to be an outcast to make protest art, she writes, “One also has to possess a sense that one can do something about it, the sense of being entitled to speak and to be heard.” And the Russia that gave birth to Pussy Riot was placid with oil money, nearly mute in the face of an electoral system, judiciary, and media overwhelmingly controlled by Putin.

Trying to see what made them different, Gessen looked to their biographies and found the three jailed Pussy Riot members had quirky families and more than one winter of discontent. They were curious, rebellious, avid readers, and despite the anti-feminist culture surrounding them, mostly encouraged by their families to speak their minds.

Nadya aspired to be a journalist before she was admitted at 16 to the philosophy program at Moscow State University. She was disappointed by the other students, whom she quickly dismissed as mediocre and stupid, all except for Petya, a student a few years ahead who would become her boyfriend and collaborator.

Disgusted by Russian politics and society, the two didn’t write radical treatises or create new schools of philosophical thought, but joined another couple to form the art group Voina (War), which took over public spaces like the subway to hold performances.

RIVERHEAD TRADE
RIVERHEAD TRADE

Gessen finds this unexpected move into art and direct action nearly inevitable, considering the legacy of the Soviet era that still echoes through everything from the surreal justice system to the glut of ex-KGB officers in lofty places — from Putin to his pal Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the case of the two students, it was the Soviet impact on public rhetoric that made any other engagement impossible.

“Voina faced a challenge that perhaps exceeded challenges faced by any other artist in history: they wanted to confront a language of lies that had once been effectively confronted but had since been reconstructed and reinforced, discrediting the language of confrontation itself,” Gessen writes. “There were no words left.”

Gessen is onto something here, though it’s not just Russians who have turned to performance art and direct action when language fails — for whatever reason. Queer Nation and the Lesbian Avengers held actions in public spaces. ACT UP even disrupted a service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And as Gessen herself noted, art and activism were blended in the Riot Grrrls. They, in part, inspired Pussy Riot, when Nadya and other female members of Voina turned more and more toward feminism and LGBT issues.

The marginal always struggle to have a voice, find a mode of expression. It’s often a radical act for us just to plant our bodies in public. As a writer, I suspect even Gessen had to consider how best to communicate the Pussy Riot story to an Anglo-American audience not only unfamiliar with Russian life and Russian politics, but often dismissive and sneering when confronted by performance art or direct action.

Her effective solution was to rely on anecdotes and details, making this world familiar. The prologue, for instance, begins with the simple phrase, “Gera wanted to pee.” And Gessen describes what it’s like for a four-year old girl, Gera, her dad, and granddad to go visit her now infamous mother, Nadya, in a Russian work camp. We see the squabbling and irritation. The car of German journalists behind them. Then the penal colony with its endless rules for prisoners and the rare visitors.

Details work the same way bodies do. When Gessen starts to write about Maria and Nadya’s life in the penal colonies, details make their experience concrete and keep the two from blurring into a generalized image of human misery. With “Words Will Break Cement” Gessen furthers the trend of what I’ll call post-Soviet realists, like Yoani Sánchez in Cuba, who employ a similar strategy of understated description. Not only bearing witness to unforgivable conditions, the book also illuminates the tools of resistance and social change.

WORDS WILL BREAK CEMENT: THE PASSION OF PUSSY RIOT | By Masha Gessen | Riverhead Trade | $16 | 320 pages

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, which will be released by the University of Minnesota Press in March.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

ludwig123 says:
It looks like that there the dream of a true democratic Republic in Russia will not occur until all the old Soviet régime folks are dead and rotting in their graves. Russia has never known true democracy--it has always had tyrants and despots having major governmental powers --we can only at nearly everyone who has followed the Romanovs from their take over to modern times. Stalin and Ivan the terrible seemed to have had much in Common. According to some Business folks, who had or did have business interests in Russia say the the country is totally corrupt and run by Mafioso figures who are at the highest levels of the Russian Government. Putin is so loyal to Kirill because he regards the Russian Orthodox Church as the Savior of Russian of Traditional Values and culture much as the Roman Catholic Church Monasteries preserved Western Civilization in Ireland after the fall of Rome. The fact is that the Church is responsible for the fall of the Monarchy via the Monk Rasputin--who took advantage of the Czar's religious vulnerabilities and beliefs. Rasputin actually was the power that was running the Government . As far democracy, The theory is that like a woman raped---it is the people's fault that they love to be governed, suppressed and oppressed by tyrants et al. I have heard Putin basically say this in a film about his private life and his support of a Boys school. There is little freedom of Speech and Press in Russia just as there was before during the Soviet era and then before during the Bolshevik era going even further back to the Romanovs. IF you examine Russian History--you will see that many of Putin's strategies are the same as many of the Czars that proceeded the more recent Governments---IT was Nicolas II who called in Troops at the Winter Palace to put down protests by engaging in a massacre of unarmed innocents ---and this led to the fall of the Czar and his execution on orders of Lenin. Putin regards himself something of a Czar --and is in favor of the return of the Monarchy. He blames the Western Culture that Peter the Great to bring Russian out of its dark ages as the cause of all of Russia's ills and loves to play the paranoid blame game that all the criminal hooliganisms that went on from Perestroika on --on the United States and the West. Of course, that is not true---the criminals always existed before during Soviet times ---it was just now that they could be more open with their Mafioso intentions--either pay up for 'protection' or you could find yourself dead by morning.
Feb. 22, 2014, 4:10 pm

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