THE ALLUSION in the title of Masha Gessen’s latest indictment of Vladimir Putin’s Russia may not be immediately familiar to many reading the book. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova quotes the line in her final statement before the court that will convict her of hooliganism in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ Our Savior in Moscow on February 21, 2012. She cites an essay by the grandfather of Soviet dissidents, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, “The Word Will Smash Concrete,” (slovo raszrushit beton) from his 1968 collection The First Circle:
So the word is more sincere than concrete? So the word is not a trifle? Then may noble people begin to grow, and their words will break cement.
It is little coincidence that Tolokonnikova cited Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago. Her friends and co-defendants, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, also leaned heavily on the dissident legacy of Soviet prison survivors like Anatoly Marchenko. The three women were prosecuted in the most unambiguously political show trial in Russia since the collapse of Communism, effectively proving the point of their actions against the regime. The insight of their final court statements had no effect, of course. They were all convicted.
Being a journalist or a political activist is a hazardous occupation in Russia. Dozens, if not hundreds, of organizers were arrested and tried for similar offenses against the public order following the Pussy Riot trial. Gessen herself left with her partner when new legislation threatened the child they adopted as a gay couple. Human rights advocates and non-governmental organizations were harassed by tax liens and property seizures. Individuals famous in other realms, like the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and the blogger Alexei Navalny, were easily outmaneuvered by the regime once they took their opposition public. But Pussy Riot was unique: once doffed of their anonymizing balaclavas, they were revealed to be very young women. Not one of the three was over 30, and two had very small children.
More precisely, wherever you look, men still dominate political expression, dissent, and collaboration. In Russia, that gender gap is even more pronounced. Yelena Bonner, wife of Alexei Sakharov, was an outspoken dissident. The journalist Anne Applebaum documented the prison survivors Anna Akhmatova and Nadezdha Mandelstam in her seminal Gulag. But they are exceptions. Gessen argues that Communism did little more for women than force them into the double shift in the factory and at home. Indeed, anyone who has read Slavenska Draculic’s How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed begins to grasp the humiliating and devastating effect Communism had on tens of millions of ordinary women for nearly eight decades.
In the political vacuum of Russia, the young idealists of Pussy Riot looked to Western theory to help guide their actions. They quickly discovered, however, that they were very effectively quarantined from advances in progressive and radical Western thinking. The bane of conservatives and the often cloistered domain of American campus intellectuals, feminist, queer, and critical theory gained very little purchase in Russia even after the fall of Communism. But for Russia’s percolating opposition, these Western theoretical tools were an X-ray machine that provided the only means to penetrate and articulate the absurd reality that engulfed them.
Indeed, Vladimir Putin — the spy hack suddenly hoisted to the presidency, as Gessen documented in The Man Without a Face — meticulously constructed a country that looks like a normal, functioning, liberal society but conceals his grim determination for total control. On the surface, the Kremlin sports all the elements of a well-ordered state: a market economy, a clockwork judiciary, a boisterous media, and periodic elections. Never mind that presidential candidates were straw men put up by the regime to split the opposition, and that the political parties in the Duma were all nationalist-Communist knock-offs under Putin’s thumb. Gessen reports that some of Pussy Riot’s earliest actions, before they were known by the name, documented gross election fraud — closed polling stations, phantom stations erected to tally votes cast by the dead, official intimidation of voters, and so on.
Corruption of that kind is well-known and understood in the West, but a more petty venality plagues average Russians. Pussy Riot began to video record their impersonation of family members of cops shaking down citizens. This is a great joke in Russia, where everyone has been hassled by police officers asking for a little extra something, complaining that their salary can’t support their families. Pussy Riot took this one further by crashing an extortion in progress and pretending to be a nagging wife, baby in hand, arguing with her “husband” that he wasn’t haggling for nearly enough until the embarrassed cop released the bewildered victim.
The underlying notion of these actions was to expose the regime’s big lie. In Gessen’s formulation, this is Orwell’s trick of naming things their opposite. In Putin’s Russia, the big lie was most often articulated as “stability” — which for the average Russian meant official corruption masquerading as barely suppressed chaos.
But without the means to mobilize a mass movement, the group was limited to releasing online videos of a small number of highly public actions. This was particularly difficult for the small, fluid band of women who would call themselves Pussy Riot (in English), evolving first from Voina (“war”) and then Pisya Riot, an all-purpose Russian children’s word for genitals. Except for the women arrested, the group has always been anonymous for aesthetic reasons, but also to guard against a paranoid police state.
With no Russian feminist tradition, few female dissident role models in their own country, and the introduction of foreign theory in translation, Gessen argues that these women were sui generis. This is harder to imagine in the West, where women’s empowerment is better understood. But in Russia, they were doing, thinking, and saying things that virtually no one in Russia had ever encountered before. They were creating a Russian activist feminism where none before existed, and doing it in the most vibrant, public, and confrontational way imaginable.
Donning bright dresses and colored balaclavas — the latter appropriated from the black versions worn by Russian special forces and terrorists alike — and finding a few members who could play music, they wrote unmistakably political lyrics sung to ripped Western punk music tracks. They performed these songs in public, usually at different locations, shooting video at each and then editing them together for the web. As a result, their actions had the feeling of a flash mob or prank, political but light-hearted and spontaneous despite being planned, practiced, and drilled in advance. At their apogee, Pussy Riot performed on top of a giant luxury car display case in Moscow, and from the Lobnoye Mesto in the middle of Red Square — a giant platform that dates to Ivan the Terrible in the 16th Century.
Their provocative appearance, lyrics, and music may explain the regime’s extreme reaction when the group demonstrated in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, the preeminent outpost and symbol of the Russian Orthodox Church. The group intended to draw attention to the cozy relationship between the two. Putin used the church’s legitimacy, congregation, and nationalist bona fides as a political base, and the church gained protection from too much scrutiny. (Infamously, a photo circulated of the Patriarch — a Putin crony and apologist — with a $30,000 Breguet watch airbrushed from his arm, but not from the reflection on the polished wood table beneath).
Several members of the group seemed to recognize that performing in the cathedral would cross some unknowable cultural Rubicon. A pious member refused to join in. Another also backed out, feeling it was an attack on the Orthodox Church itself, rather than a comment on its politics. Those remaining weren’t able to prepare well or shoot at other locations. They also suspected someone had tipped off the security services. They were right. (Ironically, this turned out to be the only fact critical to the outcome of the criminal case.) Before they even started to perform inside the cathedral, Samutsevich was snatched by federal agents. Barely 30 seconds into their performance, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were arrested. Their detention made worldwide headlines.
As a trial, neither Kafka nor Nabokov could have rendered this farce in more comically malignant hues. While the proceedings were broadcast and open to the public, that fact does not make the case any less a propaganda vehicle or a show trial. The three women were put on display first in cages infamous from similar prosecutions of the Russian oligarchs, and then in a stifling bulletproof box. The defendants had little time to prepare for the trial, or to recover from its proceedings during transit to and from the holding jail; not that preparation and a competent defense could have done anything for them, except cast the state’s persecution in starker relief. The judge herself fed leading questioning to prosecution witnesses — hapless Orthodox supplicants now overwhelmed in the bright lights of the courtroom — while repeatedly quashing defense motions. The three women were convicted after a week’s trial. Only on appeal was Samutsevich released for time served — four months in jail pending trial — because she had been snatched before the performance began and had not, technically, participated in the outrage. But Gessen is sensitive enough to note her post-trial plight. Separated from Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, who were immediately shipped to remote prison colonies, she was now a public figure linked to her friends. She was paroled and required to submit to humiliating checks with the local police, while under constant surveillance but ostensibly “free” to continue Pussy Riot’s agenda.
Gessen has rendered a tremendous service by recording the final court statements as delivered by Samutsevich, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova. They are astonishing to read — clear and cutting indictments of Putin’s regime and the state of affairs in Russia — and should be included in the annals of great works of dissident and political speech. It is somehow comforting to find such keen political analysis from anyone so young, in such immediately trying circumstances, and with the full weight of the Russian regime bearing down on them. They belong to posterity.
At this point, the experience of Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova leaves the sham trial and becomes something far more threatening and ominous as they enter Russian penal colonies. While Gessen does not make the direct connection between this system of correctional labor and its Soviet predecessor, the book’s allusion to Solzhenitsyn is again appropriate. It is no coincidence that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova went to penal colonies in Perm, at the base of the Ural mountains, and Mordavia, more than 500 km outside Moscow. Both are sites of Soviet-era labor camps. Visiting a women’s prison in Arkhangelsk, in northwestern Russia, in 1998, Anne Applebaum asserts that these facilities have not changed in any fundamental way since the 1930s. It is impossible to read about the penal colonies’ 16-hour work days, humiliating living conditions, and unattainable “quotas,” and not think of the Gulag’s work battalions, prison culture, and killing production “norms.”
Gessen reports that Alyokhina worked diligently to document and complain about prison conditions. Tolokonnikova initially tried to blend in as just another inmate, not just to survive but to immerse herself in the totality of the experience. This led, however, to one of the most extraordinary events in the book: Tolokonnikova’s hunger strike to protest prison and working conditions, during which she immediately became ill and virtually disappeared within the prison system. This was followed by a searing open letter she smuggled out of prison describing the appalling conditions and working environment inside.
If the arrest and conviction of Pussy Riot constitute the first real crime documented by this book, then the prison conditions the women detail as relayed by Gessen constitute a crime of equal or greater magnitude. Both describe humiliating routines, unsanitary living standards, dangerous working conditions, harassment, and injuries. As harrowing as this is to read, it’s important to recognize that conditions are even worse elsewhere in the Russian prison system and for other prisoners. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were high-profile inmates and they were treated differently for the attention they attracted from the media — both state-controlled and independent. Tolokonnikova’s open letter almost single-handedly directed national attention to prison conditions. Gessen herself visited Tolokonnikova and attended all the proceedings for both that she could. She noticed how prisons, cells, jails, visiting rooms, courthouses, and trial chambers all mysteriously got fresh makeovers in anticipation of an appeal, an arrival, or a hearing for these two women. All the focus, attention, and fresh paint is not the same thing as real change, and many, many others do not benefit from this spotlight. Tolokonnikova herself recognized that she probably survived because of the infamy of her case, and after her amnesty dedicated herself to prison reform.
It’s difficult to gauge Pussy Riot’s political impact in Russia from Gessen’s narrative. Although their trial and courtroom speeches were, by her account, rapturously received, there is simply no way to tell whether their words reached the larger public. Their thinking is now a matter of public record, but the country is approaching a peculiar place in its post-Soviet evolution. Putin, under the illusion that Russia’s zenith was during its Soviet aegis, has driven his country back to the future. At the same time, the nascent peoples’ movement against him has not yet built enough mass to counter the control of the state. Movements in neighboring Belarus and Ukraine confront similar challenges.
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were recently released, two months before their full terms were up, and just before the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. This cynical amnesty removed political irritants for Putin, but again demonstrated the control he continues to wield. It is hard to imagine what the three women can do under such close scrutiny, but perhaps it’s not up to them anymore. Their heroes, after all, didn’t bring down the walls of Jericho. Others — many, many others — did that. But before they did, somebody had to tell them they could.
James Thomas Snyder is a former member of the NATO International Staff in Brussels.