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Punk's holy fools still putting it to Putin

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

Cover of Masha Gessen's Words Will Break Cement features members of Pussy Riot in balaclavas dancing Barry:

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 families. Words is also influenced if not rigidly constrained by her own mission of protest (Gessen's body of work includes a highly-rated biography/expose, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin).

As a lover of advocacy journalism, however, I don't see that level of subjective engagement on her part as a bad thing; what do you think, Jen?


On 3 March 2012, Pussy Riot members Nadezhda 'Nadya' Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were arrested for 'hooligan' behaviour in a Russian Orthodox Church. A third member, Yekaterina 'Kat' Samutsevich, was arrested soon after. It wasn't just any old church, but Moscow's main cathedral. And their 'punk prayer' — with its refrain 'Mother of God, get rid of Putin' — wasn't just a rebel yell, but a call for civil liberty.

Few parishioners were in the church on that bitter Russian winter's day, but that was of little consequence during the trial, which lurched from tragic to comic and back again. Ludicrous testimonies, a clearly biased judge and general hysteria were the order — or disorder — of proceedings. There were days when the trio, who occasionally interjected behind custom-made Perspex, was literally starved of food and water.

Enter activist, journalist and Vladimir Putin's worst nightmare, Masha Gessen. (Gessen has found herself on the wrong side of the Russian president on numerous occasions.) In short, perhaps the perfect memoirist for the plucky if unruly Pussy Riot. With fire in her veins and, occasionally, stars in her eyes, it's to Gessen's credit that her loyalty to Pussy Riot doesn't get in the way of her journalism. (Or, not too often, anyway, hey Barry?)

Writing in The Guardian in the wake of the women's arrest in early 2012, Gessen pointed out that 'in some ways' the women were 'Putin's ideal enemies'. Even 'opposition commentators ... assumed a condescending attitude toward them, saying (literally) they should be spanked'.

But they found themselves unlikely allies, too: Western musicians, pop stars and, most importantly, Russians who, like Pussy Riot, were growing ever more distrustful of their leader. While many undoubtedly failed to grasp the women's theatrics (let alone their screeching), they understood — like few of us living in the West ever could — the political significance of planting seeds of dissatisfaction.

Following their release earlier this year (after serving almost two years in prison) Pussy Riot members remain defined by their balaclava-wearing, scissor-kicking antics. And they continue to pay for it. While in Sochi during the Winter Olympics, Pussy Riot was whipped and attacked with pepper spray by security staff. Last month, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina suffered serious burns and head injuries inside a fast food outlet.

In the past few months, their nemesis has hosted the Olympic Games, taken control of Crimea and clamped down on media. For a group born out of 'the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights', Pussy Riot still has much to roar about, even if its signature 'punk prayer' sounds more than ever like a plea.

Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, Pussy Riot, Russia



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