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Punk's holy fools still putting it to Putin

  • 11 April 2014

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, by Masha Gessen. Granta Books, February 2014


Bleak Russian winters of oppression and abused power have historically been lightened by the tradition of the holy fool — the barefoot, soulful wanderers who serve as signposts to injustice, as well as reminders that we all pursue grace while enduring village idiocies that reek of human cruelty.

From that same soil, Russian journalist Masha Gessen plants the salutary tale of Nadya, Kat and Maria; the three Pussy Riot members imprisoned for their involvement in a political protest against Russian president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, held in the Russian Orthodox Church's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Words Will Break Cement (the title is taken from a Russian writer who inspired the Pussy Rioters) traverses a vast canvas; too vast, perhaps, for we non-Slavs to absorb on an initial reading.

Gessen walks stridently through the origins of the punk protestors. She shows how her heroines were brought up in a sexist culture where feminism was a risible and almost non-existent academic discipline, hope was strained through the miserly clutches of state apparatchiks, and the much vaunted notion of 'freedom of speech' merely translated as the freedom to be arrested and whisked off by anonymous security officials.

Great, daunting amounts of room are given to the miscarriage of justice the women suffered through the inherent 'nobbling' of post-Soviet jurisprudence: the ineptitude and malpractice of the girls' lawyers; the accused collusion of government, church and courts; the misrepresentation of a civic protest as a matter of blasphemy and religious vilification; and the identification the women felt with their political and spiritual heroes (Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn are named among Pussy Riot's Tsarist and Communist era forbears).

For me, however, it is the post-trial experiences that connect most strongly. The level of sadism and punishment to which the women are subjected in penal (read: slave labour) gulags make the strongest impression, and the authorial finger of blame and causality is pointed squarely at Putin and his alleged fellow ex-KGB denizen, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I.

Extensive accounts of hunger strikes, bullying, illegally-lengthened working hours, psychological punishment, beatings and sexually-demeaning treatment experienced by the protagonists or fellow inmates stay with me.

The reader will do well to apply the psychologists' cartographical adage: the map is indeed not the territory. Gessen's account is limited, as she acknowledges, by restricted access to members of the band, their partners and