A Few Thoughts on Masha Gessen and Pussy Riot (10 cents)

Masha Gessen is a Russian journalist and prolific writer, who is either one of more courageous journalists in the world, or one of the most foolheardy, or both.  Born in Russia in 1967, she moved to the United States when she was 14, lived here for a decade, returned to Moscow until very recently, when she returned to the United States.  She has been a progressive, liberal activist, and a spokesperson for the Russian LGBT community.  And, in Russia, you certainly don’t want to be known as a progressive, a liberal, or a homosexual.  And she is known as both.

After she wrote “The Man Without a Face:  the Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” (which has not been translated into Russian or published in Russia), it was clear that she was persona non grata in Russia, but she was also very visible and decided that her fame in the western world would help keep her safe.  Only in the light of the recent anti-gay legislation in Russia, did she decide to return to New York worrying perhaps as much, or more, about the safety of the children she has adopted and is raising with her partner, as about her own safety.  Yet she recognizes that the danger to her person has increased, the concern that someone would decide it their patriotic duty to get rid of her.

She has just published a new book, “Words Will Break Cement: the Passion of Pussy Riot”.  I heard her speak last night at Politics and Prose.

You have probably heard of Pussy Riot, young women staging anti-government protests, popping up here and there, singing outlandish songs, wearing bright colored balaclavas .  They way Gessen describes it is basically as follows:  There is no group called Pussy Riot.  It only exists when it is staging its protest feminist performance art.  No one belongs to Pussy Riot.  Even if you participate in Pussy Riot activities, you don’t call yourself a member of Pussy Riot, and you don’t refer to Pussy Riot as “we”.  You speak of Pussy Riot in the third person. An unusual construct to be sure – but everything about Pussy Riot is unusual.

Pussy Riot appearances, for the most part, are somewhat (purposely?) amateurish, not for live audiences, but are made as videos.  There have only been a few exceptions, the most important being a performance staged on the roof of a building across the road from a Moscow holding jail.

The decision to stage a performance in Moscow’s largest church, the Cathedral of the Christ the Savior, with a performance of a newly written punk song “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Chase Putin Away” may not have been a good idea, considering the Russian establishment’s determination to protect its political positions, and the Russian people’s devotion to the orthodox church.  In fact, there were many involved with Pussy Riot who argued against it. Less than a minute into the performance, arrests were made (as expected), but rather than receiving a slap on the back, three of the performers were given felony hooligan charges (not expected), tried in a bizarre show trial and (after appeals) two of the three (both young women, one with a young child)  sentenced to multi-year prison terms in a distant prison. Their sentences were commuted only in deference to the Sochi olympics.

Gessen’s book is based in large part on interviews with participants in Pussy Riot events, with the documented history of the phenomenon, and with the transcript of the trial.  It sounds like interesting reading.

When her book on Putin was written just two years ago, the progressive protest movement was in full swing.  Gessen’s final chapter in her book expressed optimism about how this movement would grow and grow.  She now regrets that chapter, because in the last year so much has happened.  Her optimism is entirely gone. The movement has been put down.  Protests that formerly were ignored now tend to result in lengthy prison sentences. The problems in the Ukraine are obvious to all of us, including the Russian parliament (an undemocratically elected organ) which has authorized Russian military force at any level Putin determines necessary.  The Russians have adopted anti-gay legislation, which raises any number of questions as to the rights of gays and their children.  There have been incidences such as the seizure of Greenpeace activists that put Russia outside of global norms.

We were in St. Petersberg several years ago when optimism was high.  No one we met was pro-Putin, but people seemed to think that things were on a positive track, and the one thing everyone agreed to was that, for the first time, every one had free speech – they could say whatever they wanted without fear.  Is this still the case?

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