Russian dissident Masha Gessen on Pussy Riot, Putin and Sochi

How Pussy Riot’s arrest was a turning point, and why Putin will get worse after Sochi

Lee Towndrow

Masha Gessen, 47, was born in Moscow and came to the United States when she was 14. Ten years later, she returned to Russia, where she became a prominent journalist, as well as an outspoken advocate for sexual minorities and a critic of the country’s slide into authoritarian rule under Vladimir Putin. Last month, she and her spouse, Darya Oreshkina, moved their family to New York. Gessen is the author of the biography The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2012) and the just-released Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, about the balaclava-wearing art collective and punk musicians who have become, in their own masked way, the face of Russian protest.

Q: Why have you returned to America?

A: We moved because of the new anti-gay laws in Russia. Basically, we had reason to fear the legislation that may pass this year will cause social services to go after our three kids, that gay parents won’t be allowed to retain custody. That’s an unacceptable risk to us.

Q: Are you then part of the story you are reporting, in that Pussy Riot is an ally as well as a journalistic subject?

A: Yes, we’re on the same side of the barricades in what I think is most accurately described as a war, at this point.

Q: When you write of?? “an inspired work of art” in relation to Pussy Riot, do you mean the women as an entity, not any of their productions, such as Kill the Sexist or Kropotkin Vodka? They’re not very good musicians.

A: They are very much a creation. But I set out to write about the action in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, when they took over the altar area and sang
Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away. Not that I think it has the best lyrics or the best staging. What made it the apogee of their work as an art collective was the way it shook Russia, and the risks they took, as well. No, they’re not musicians, but a piece of performance art is best judged by its consequences and by the reception. You can’t look at it as a thing in itself and not look at the audience reaction.

Q: They certainly got a reaction. Their aim was to highlight what they saw as a repressive alliance between the Orthodox Church and Putin, and they inflamed not just the government but a lot of religious Russians. Going into the cathedral marked a sea change in the reactions they provoked. Was that a tactical error on their part, considering the two-year penal-colony sentences for “hooliganism”?

A: I would rephrase that a little bit, because I think the sea change was the arrest. If they hadn’t been arrested, if the official reaction hadn’t been so outsized, it probably would still be a very important piece of protest art, because it fingered an issue that no one had articulated before. But it’s not a watershed moment for Russian politics. What made it that was the arrest, which coincided with Putin’s so-called re-election. That’s hugely symbolic. This was the moment the new crackdown began. The first day of the contemporary era of Russian politics opened with the arrest of Pussy Riot and closed with Putin’s re-election. A tactical mistake? I haven’t questioned their artistic choices—I have described them—and I think it was an incredibly effective protest. Their personal choices are a different matter. They took a series of steps and missteps that landed them in jail.

Q: How aware of the risks were they?

A: I don’t think it’s even possible to have had full awareness, because the crackdown began with them. No one had yet been jailed for attacking the Church, so there was nothing surprising about Pussy Riot not being able to conceive of themselves going to prison for more than two weeks, and they were certainly willing to go to prison for two weeks, maybe as a rite of passage. When I talk about personal missteps, I mean more that they didn’t go straight to Kiev (you don’t need a visa for that), which scores of people have done. There’s a huge unsung population of Russian political refugees, young people who are not as prominent as Pussy Riot, but with a well-founded fear of arrest who have gone to the West by way of Ukraine.

Q: Instead, Pussy Riot got a trial that reads like a satire of a Soviet-era show trial. At one point, after the judge cited one defence lawyer for contempt, the women’s other lawyer yelled, “I want to be cited, too!”

A: The defence lawyers were just bizarre. I think they underwent their own evolution during the trial; their entire political experience had been getting a few kids out of administrative arrest. They had almost no courtroom experience, because there’s no courtroom experience to be had in Russia. The courts are so corrupt that nothing really goes on in them except rubber-stamping the prosecution’s claims and its sentencing requests. So it went to the lawyers’ heads, being in the media spotlight and having a chance to speak. It didn’t make them any better or smarter.

Q: One of the most compelling aspects of your book is where you describe their struggle to find a way of expressing their opposition to Putin.

A: Right, that’s really why the book was written: their incredibly active search for a way to verbally confront a culture in which the very language of protest had been hijacked. There was an old language of democracy that opposed the U.S.S.R., but it had been co-opted by the new state. Garry Kasparov, the chess champion, is one of the best thinkers about the state of Russia, and he’s been saying for years that Putin has been so dominant in Russia that the first thing that needs to happen is for his regime to be destroyed—not just because he’s so bad, but because of the consequences of his regime. He’s destroyed the electoral system. Russians cannot have any discussion of their issues, they have no common ground for a conversation.

Q: Scholars talk about “compressed modernity,” massive socio-economic change that the West digested over a century happening all at once. In Russia, there’s been no chance to absorb first-wave feminism over decades and so on, let alone the concept of gay equality.

A: In August of 2012, at the end of the trial, I was in New York, and I went to a reading at the Ace Hotel, where artists were reading Pussy Riot texts in translation, and I listened to the trial’s closing statement. It sounded much better in English than in Russian, because in Russian, it sounded like it had been translated from English—which it hadn’t been. It was the kind of thinking, the kind of language, the kind of logic, you would hear in a place like the Ace Hotel read out by contemporary artists. You could visualize an American twentysomething who had been hanging out at Occupy Wall Street, who had been raised with this thinking, saying this, and it was easy for the audience to understand. But Pussy Riot’s language is not easy for a Russian audience to understand, which is one reason they invoke hostility and why the experience of the performance and trial was so jarring for Russian culture. It’s also why the cathedral performance is a great work of art, because a great work of art should be jarring for its culture.

Q: The consensus is that the women were released early in hopes of better pre-Olympics PR. Will there be more of that?

A: Depends on how desperate Putin gets. Repression was getting worse before the Olympics, till, in mid-December, Putin seemed to realize that the bad publicity was really going to cost him. Various world leaders said they wouldn’t attend, and Obama’s delegation to the Olympics—which is absolutely brilliant—turned out to include not a single highly placed government official, but several openly gay athletes. For Putin, that looks like a disaster, because he won’t have anyone to take pictures with. It’s really important for him to be in the VIP box with the guys, and if “the guys” are only going to be the presidents of Ukraine and Belarus, that’s very embarrassing. So he scrambled and released Pussy Riot and Greenpeace and [businessman Mikhail] Khodorkovsky. If that kind of panic continues, he may even repeal the anti-gay laws and then return them, in harsher form, as soon as the Games are over. At this point, all bets are off. And now we know his planning horizon is six weeks. He’s more like a czar than a Communist dictator; consistency is not very important. Power’s an end in itself.

Q: What is your read on the future?

A: I have come pretty much full circle, from optimistic to despairing. I’ve sold my home and left the country, which is a clear indication. I expect things to go on as they are for a long time and, the longer they go on, the worse it will be when the Putin regime finally ends. This kind of crackdown—on politics, on expression—has specific consequences: People leave the country, sell out, or just give up, and the potential for anything constructive decreases with every passing day. I think there’s something that happens to people living in a country in a state of political crackdown. It’s like living with abuse for years. It will take a very long time to recover. The more we learn about what happens to people who have been abused shows how difficult it is to rebuild afterward. I think that goes for entire societies, as well. It’s like the country’s brain chemistry has changed—we’re very, very damaged.




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Russian dissident Masha Gessen on Pussy Riot, Putin and Sochi

  1. So much for the “dissident moves to Kiev” position now that protests are banned in Ukraine.

  2. “Their cathedral performance is a great work of art”…What? That was desecration. Nothing arty about it, just evil.

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