Friday, 19 December 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

Pussy Riot Is Free, Yay! Now What?

Saturday, 01 March 2014 09:04 By Susie Day, Truthout | Book Review

Members of Pussy Riot.Maria Alyokhina, left, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, from the Russian punk group Pussy Riot, in New York, February 5, 2014. (Photo: Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times)

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot Masha Gessen, (New York: Riverhead Books, January 2014)

Pussy Riot began as an anonymous Russian punk collective in the summer of 2011, when a few 20-something women wanted to add feminist panache to their antigovernment protest. More artists and social theorists than activists, they donned colorful balaclavas and staged illegal guerrilla performances in Moscow's subway and Red Square, posting videos of their actions on the web. But on February 21, 2012, Pussy Riot stepped into proverbial history when they went, as Russian grownups say, "too far."

Aware that Putin's iron-fisted administration had long since dumped godless communism in favor of Putin's iron-fisted suck-up to the Russian Orthodox Church, five Pussy Rioters sneaked into Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Intoning, "Shit, shit, holy shit," they performed a "punk prayer" to the Virgin Mary, dancing and genuflecting as they implored Mary to "become a feminist" and "chase Putin out." After about 45 seconds, guards stopped the show, and Pussy Riot fled the cathedral. As their web video went viral, Putin's government charged Pussy Riot with "felony hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." The Virgin Mary could not be reached for comment.

"Satire," author Gary Shteyngart said recently in a New York Times interview, "always benefits when evil and stupidity collide, and Russia's been a head-on collision for centuries." But no one in Pussy Riot could have guessed, in the aftermath of this brief, relatively innocuous satire, the random pileups of evil and stupidity that were to come.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yetkaterina Samutsevich -Nadya, Masha, and Kat - were captured, detained and put on trial. They sat for days inside a bulletproof Plexiglas case designed to protect the courtroom from their sinister influence. This "aquarium" often prevented the women from hearing the proceedings - probably just as well, since the interaction between the prosecution and the defense at times resembled what might transpire if a bunch of KGB guys were trapped inside a phone booth with the Marx Brothers.

With the contempt usually reserved for those who eat roadkill, prosecutors accused the women of "rudely disrupting the social order" and "wearing clothes that clearly contradicted church norms." A scandalized church lady who witnessed the performance testified that the women exhibited "devilish jerkings." A prosecutor donned a rubber glove, stuck his fist into an evidentiary balaclava, and held up, puppet-like, this head of terror to demonstrate that the mask had eye-slits. A journalist was removed from the courtroom for smiling.

Here the humor pretty much ends. Although ringed by worldwide support - including celebrities from Paul McCartney to Radiohead - Nadya, Masha and Kat were found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison labor camps.

All this is the barest outline of Masha Gessen's Words Will Break Cement. The title derives from a line by Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who, in the 1940s, spent eight years in gulags - labor camps which, according to Gessen, have changed little since.

Gessen describes Pussy Riot's beginnings amid the stunted, demoralized society that many Russians - notably, these days, queers - find hard to endure. But her book shares the problem inherent in Jehane Noujaim's The Square, a film about the Egyptian Revolution: In real life, the story blazes on, long after the work depicting it must end.

Only months ago, when Gessen's book contract mandated turning in a finished manuscript, Masha and Nadya were still surviving miserably in separate Russian prisons. (Kat managed to avoid jail time.) No one could have known that Putin, to pretty up his human-rights image in time for the Winter Olympics, would release the two women early - last December.

So, Words Will Break Cement - which ends with the women still incarcerated - hit the stores in January, a little dated, a little short on analysis. Too late to include Gessen's take on the vortex of Pussy Riot photo-ops, globe-hopping news stories, documentaries, interviews, public performances, private meetings and debate firestorms that have swallowed up Nadya and Masha since their release. They've toured the United States, been delectably interviewed by Stephen Colbert, embraced by Madonna. There's even been the predictable pushback by "real" Pussy Rioters in Moscow, who feel that the two, because they are now neither anonymous nor illegal, have lost their Pussy credentials.

Masha Gessen's book is essential for understanding Pussy Riot's backstory. Gessen has done an immense amount of work covering the combustible Pussy Riot trial, visiting and writing the women in prison, getting to know their husbands, partners, parents and children, integrating vast piles of legal data, personal information and news factoids. But there's a lack here, certainly not of information, but of time. It's simply too early for on-the-ground activists - and writers - to see what can actually be learned from Pussy Riot. Hardly Masha Gessen's fault.

I've long respected Masha Gessen and deeply admired her work. Her writing is ethical and unadorned; her sense of justice drives a scalpel-like intellect through densely complicated history and ponderous political realities. Over the last 20 years, Gessen has also provided a journalistic bridge between Russian and American queers - especially now that she's moved from Moscow to New York City, to prevent Putin's antigay policies from taking her and her partner's three children. Not accidentally, Gessen also shares Pussy Riot's feelings about Russia's maximum leader, and her book on Putin, Man Without a Face, should be required reading for anyone wanting to comprehend Russian life since the fall of the USSR.

But it's hard for a journalist to convey the realities behind activists, politics, and the felt need to create change that go into protest movements. It's harder still to convey the lives of human beings in prison. There will always, always be a divide between life inside a movement and out; between life inside prison and out. When you add social media that tweet and text all the latest - THEN add corporate news media that create, every second, Instant History - people like the women of Pussy Riot are in danger of becoming famous simply for being famous.

Gessen's book rescues these women from this obliteration-by-fame. Gessen does this by treating them as distinct individuals and by making us aware of the abiding courage it takes for anyone inside Russia to go against Putin. But, for all her deft advocacy journalism, Gessen at times disappears into a conventional reportorial distance when there isn't enough time to address complexities and contradictions.

Nadya and Masha, for instance, appear to be smart, brave, eloquent, compassionate people. (I also profoundly respect their decision, since their release, to become prison activists.) Yet both, in their closing statements to the court - Gessen provides these, almost unedited - defend their punk prayer with allusions to exalted thinkers like Dostoyevsky and Socrates, while likening their detractors to "the Jews," who supposedly killed Jesus. "I hope," Nadya says, "that you all remember well how the Jews answered Christ: 'It is not for good works that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy.' "

I am fervently punk-praying that these tiny excerpts, buried inside paragraphs of more enlightened prose, say less about these individuals than they do about Russian culture. But Gessen, who so righteously nails anti-Semitism in books like Two Babushkas: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace, remains queasily silent here.

I also argue with Gessen's tendency to assign roles to various members of Pussy Riot, naming Nadya "the mastermind," and Kat the follower, a "Sancho Panzo to Nadya's Don Quixote."

For one thing, this doesn't respect the activists who truly and consistently work for equality and against hierarchies. For another - admitting that hierarchies are probably inevitable - it's simply too early to tell who's who in Pussy Riot. It was Kat, after all, who went against everyone's advice and broke with the attorneys who had done a ridiculously bad job defending the three. Unlike Nadya and Masha, Kat hired a new lawyer who was able to get her sentence suspended.

Thankfully, in publications like Slate.com and the UK's Guardian, Gessen has gone on to provide some of the best journalism on Pussy Riot since Nadya's and Masha's release. She also gave a wonderful interview to Terry Gross on National Public Radio. So please read Words Will Break Cement, follow Masha Gessen's journalism - and see what kind of questions about your own political work this story brings up.

How, for example, has cultural theory, such as the Moscow Conceptualism that influenced Pussy Riot, shaped current activism? More importantly, when the United States still leads the world in incarceration rates (Russia comes in eighth), what can US activists learn from Pussy Riot about prisons?

Most compelling for me is what Pussy Riot might show us about the workings of fame within political movements. Remember - speaking of cathedrals - when ACT UP took over St. Patrick's in 1989 to draw attention to AIDS? Think of Gandhi's Salt March in 1930. The Soweto uprising. The lunch counter sit-ins for Black civil rights. Progress could not have been made; lives could not have been saved, without these actions, their movements and leaders becoming famous.

But fame is also an uncontrollable force that usually grows out of the corrupt systems activists work to change. And what is really up when Madonna speaks of herself as a "freedom fighter" at an Amnesty International gala, then introduces Pussy Riot, saying, "I do not take this freedom for granted, and neither should you, OK? The two members of Pussy Riot . . . do not share this freedom with me, so they must be commended for their courage . . . Yay!"

OK, Yay. But here in the USSA, it's almost too easy for liberals to embrace Pussy Riot's anti-Putin, pro-gay message. Lest we forget: It's usually educated white people who enjoy this yay-freedom, not the communities from which most US prisoners come. Has anybody told Madonna about the 80,000 people enduring years of solitary confinement inside US maximum-security prisons? About the scores of Muslims in federally designed "communication management units" that cut off virtually all contact with the outside world?

There is always more to know, more work to be done, in every country. What Masha Gessen teaches us is that, like Pussy Riot, we can't let fame - or anonymity - stop us.

© Susie Day 2014

Susie Day

Susie Day is a writer who specializes in prison issues and political satire. A collection of her work will be published late in 2014 by Abington Square Publishing.


Hide Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus
GET DAILY TRUTHOUT UPDATES

FOLLOW togtorsstottofb


Pussy Riot Is Free, Yay! Now What?

Saturday, 01 March 2014 09:04 By Susie Day, Truthout | Book Review

Members of Pussy Riot.Maria Alyokhina, left, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, from the Russian punk group Pussy Riot, in New York, February 5, 2014. (Photo: Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times)

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot Masha Gessen, (New York: Riverhead Books, January 2014)

Pussy Riot began as an anonymous Russian punk collective in the summer of 2011, when a few 20-something women wanted to add feminist panache to their antigovernment protest. More artists and social theorists than activists, they donned colorful balaclavas and staged illegal guerrilla performances in Moscow's subway and Red Square, posting videos of their actions on the web. But on February 21, 2012, Pussy Riot stepped into proverbial history when they went, as Russian grownups say, "too far."

Aware that Putin's iron-fisted administration had long since dumped godless communism in favor of Putin's iron-fisted suck-up to the Russian Orthodox Church, five Pussy Rioters sneaked into Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Intoning, "Shit, shit, holy shit," they performed a "punk prayer" to the Virgin Mary, dancing and genuflecting as they implored Mary to "become a feminist" and "chase Putin out." After about 45 seconds, guards stopped the show, and Pussy Riot fled the cathedral. As their web video went viral, Putin's government charged Pussy Riot with "felony hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." The Virgin Mary could not be reached for comment.

"Satire," author Gary Shteyngart said recently in a New York Times interview, "always benefits when evil and stupidity collide, and Russia's been a head-on collision for centuries." But no one in Pussy Riot could have guessed, in the aftermath of this brief, relatively innocuous satire, the random pileups of evil and stupidity that were to come.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yetkaterina Samutsevich -Nadya, Masha, and Kat - were captured, detained and put on trial. They sat for days inside a bulletproof Plexiglas case designed to protect the courtroom from their sinister influence. This "aquarium" often prevented the women from hearing the proceedings - probably just as well, since the interaction between the prosecution and the defense at times resembled what might transpire if a bunch of KGB guys were trapped inside a phone booth with the Marx Brothers.

With the contempt usually reserved for those who eat roadkill, prosecutors accused the women of "rudely disrupting the social order" and "wearing clothes that clearly contradicted church norms." A scandalized church lady who witnessed the performance testified that the women exhibited "devilish jerkings." A prosecutor donned a rubber glove, stuck his fist into an evidentiary balaclava, and held up, puppet-like, this head of terror to demonstrate that the mask had eye-slits. A journalist was removed from the courtroom for smiling.

Here the humor pretty much ends. Although ringed by worldwide support - including celebrities from Paul McCartney to Radiohead - Nadya, Masha and Kat were found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison labor camps.

All this is the barest outline of Masha Gessen's Words Will Break Cement. The title derives from a line by Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who, in the 1940s, spent eight years in gulags - labor camps which, according to Gessen, have changed little since.

Gessen describes Pussy Riot's beginnings amid the stunted, demoralized society that many Russians - notably, these days, queers - find hard to endure. But her book shares the problem inherent in Jehane Noujaim's The Square, a film about the Egyptian Revolution: In real life, the story blazes on, long after the work depicting it must end.

Only months ago, when Gessen's book contract mandated turning in a finished manuscript, Masha and Nadya were still surviving miserably in separate Russian prisons. (Kat managed to avoid jail time.) No one could have known that Putin, to pretty up his human-rights image in time for the Winter Olympics, would release the two women early - last December.

So, Words Will Break Cement - which ends with the women still incarcerated - hit the stores in January, a little dated, a little short on analysis. Too late to include Gessen's take on the vortex of Pussy Riot photo-ops, globe-hopping news stories, documentaries, interviews, public performances, private meetings and debate firestorms that have swallowed up Nadya and Masha since their release. They've toured the United States, been delectably interviewed by Stephen Colbert, embraced by Madonna. There's even been the predictable pushback by "real" Pussy Rioters in Moscow, who feel that the two, because they are now neither anonymous nor illegal, have lost their Pussy credentials.

Masha Gessen's book is essential for understanding Pussy Riot's backstory. Gessen has done an immense amount of work covering the combustible Pussy Riot trial, visiting and writing the women in prison, getting to know their husbands, partners, parents and children, integrating vast piles of legal data, personal information and news factoids. But there's a lack here, certainly not of information, but of time. It's simply too early for on-the-ground activists - and writers - to see what can actually be learned from Pussy Riot. Hardly Masha Gessen's fault.

I've long respected Masha Gessen and deeply admired her work. Her writing is ethical and unadorned; her sense of justice drives a scalpel-like intellect through densely complicated history and ponderous political realities. Over the last 20 years, Gessen has also provided a journalistic bridge between Russian and American queers - especially now that she's moved from Moscow to New York City, to prevent Putin's antigay policies from taking her and her partner's three children. Not accidentally, Gessen also shares Pussy Riot's feelings about Russia's maximum leader, and her book on Putin, Man Without a Face, should be required reading for anyone wanting to comprehend Russian life since the fall of the USSR.

But it's hard for a journalist to convey the realities behind activists, politics, and the felt need to create change that go into protest movements. It's harder still to convey the lives of human beings in prison. There will always, always be a divide between life inside a movement and out; between life inside prison and out. When you add social media that tweet and text all the latest - THEN add corporate news media that create, every second, Instant History - people like the women of Pussy Riot are in danger of becoming famous simply for being famous.

Gessen's book rescues these women from this obliteration-by-fame. Gessen does this by treating them as distinct individuals and by making us aware of the abiding courage it takes for anyone inside Russia to go against Putin. But, for all her deft advocacy journalism, Gessen at times disappears into a conventional reportorial distance when there isn't enough time to address complexities and contradictions.

Nadya and Masha, for instance, appear to be smart, brave, eloquent, compassionate people. (I also profoundly respect their decision, since their release, to become prison activists.) Yet both, in their closing statements to the court - Gessen provides these, almost unedited - defend their punk prayer with allusions to exalted thinkers like Dostoyevsky and Socrates, while likening their detractors to "the Jews," who supposedly killed Jesus. "I hope," Nadya says, "that you all remember well how the Jews answered Christ: 'It is not for good works that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy.' "

I am fervently punk-praying that these tiny excerpts, buried inside paragraphs of more enlightened prose, say less about these individuals than they do about Russian culture. But Gessen, who so righteously nails anti-Semitism in books like Two Babushkas: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace, remains queasily silent here.

I also argue with Gessen's tendency to assign roles to various members of Pussy Riot, naming Nadya "the mastermind," and Kat the follower, a "Sancho Panzo to Nadya's Don Quixote."

For one thing, this doesn't respect the activists who truly and consistently work for equality and against hierarchies. For another - admitting that hierarchies are probably inevitable - it's simply too early to tell who's who in Pussy Riot. It was Kat, after all, who went against everyone's advice and broke with the attorneys who had done a ridiculously bad job defending the three. Unlike Nadya and Masha, Kat hired a new lawyer who was able to get her sentence suspended.

Thankfully, in publications like Slate.com and the UK's Guardian, Gessen has gone on to provide some of the best journalism on Pussy Riot since Nadya's and Masha's release. She also gave a wonderful interview to Terry Gross on National Public Radio. So please read Words Will Break Cement, follow Masha Gessen's journalism - and see what kind of questions about your own political work this story brings up.

How, for example, has cultural theory, such as the Moscow Conceptualism that influenced Pussy Riot, shaped current activism? More importantly, when the United States still leads the world in incarceration rates (Russia comes in eighth), what can US activists learn from Pussy Riot about prisons?

Most compelling for me is what Pussy Riot might show us about the workings of fame within political movements. Remember - speaking of cathedrals - when ACT UP took over St. Patrick's in 1989 to draw attention to AIDS? Think of Gandhi's Salt March in 1930. The Soweto uprising. The lunch counter sit-ins for Black civil rights. Progress could not have been made; lives could not have been saved, without these actions, their movements and leaders becoming famous.

But fame is also an uncontrollable force that usually grows out of the corrupt systems activists work to change. And what is really up when Madonna speaks of herself as a "freedom fighter" at an Amnesty International gala, then introduces Pussy Riot, saying, "I do not take this freedom for granted, and neither should you, OK? The two members of Pussy Riot . . . do not share this freedom with me, so they must be commended for their courage . . . Yay!"

OK, Yay. But here in the USSA, it's almost too easy for liberals to embrace Pussy Riot's anti-Putin, pro-gay message. Lest we forget: It's usually educated white people who enjoy this yay-freedom, not the communities from which most US prisoners come. Has anybody told Madonna about the 80,000 people enduring years of solitary confinement inside US maximum-security prisons? About the scores of Muslims in federally designed "communication management units" that cut off virtually all contact with the outside world?

There is always more to know, more work to be done, in every country. What Masha Gessen teaches us is that, like Pussy Riot, we can't let fame - or anonymity - stop us.

© Susie Day 2014

Susie Day

Susie Day is a writer who specializes in prison issues and political satire. A collection of her work will be published late in 2014 by Abington Square Publishing.


Hide Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus