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Author explores how Pussy Riot arrest marked new phase in Russian politics

January 27, 2014 at 6:39 PM EST
For punk band Pussy Riot, a prank in a Moscow cathedral led to nearly two years in prison for two of the young women. Journalist Masha Gessen corresponded with the art activists and chronicled their rise as human rights figures in her new book, "Words That Will Break Cement." Gessen joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the crackdown.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The jailing of the women stemmed from what they termed a punk prayer they performed in 2012 at a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow. They were charged with hooliganism and two of the five women involved served time in prison camps, where they went on hunger strikes to protest conditions.

Their story is told in the new book “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot” by Russian-American author and journalist Masha Gessen. Her previous book is “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”

Welcome to you.

MASHA GESSEN, Author, “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion Of Pussy Riot”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: We referred to Pussy Riot as a punk band or art collective, political activism — how should we think of them? What are they?

MASHA GESSEN: They are a protest art collective who created a character called Pussy Riot, which is a punk band.

JEFFREY BROWN: A character, yes.

MASHA GESSEN: So they performed as this character. And they staged a series of guerrilla performances in Moscow and a variety of locations to protest various expressions of the Putin regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: In your book, you go through how they all came at this from different ways. But is there a common thread or something that led to this collective action?

MASHA GESSEN: They’re young. They’re very young.

The two who ended up serving time were both in college. One was 22, one was 23 at the time that they were jailed. They’re very, very smart. And, you know, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who is sort of the mastermind behind this, is very unusual.

I mean, I couldn’t find an explanation, which is part of what I tried to do. I didn’t find an explanation for how a person like that comes to be in a place like that. But she is absolutely brilliant, as all of them are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because she is coming out of a culture that doesn’t make a lot of space for such things?

MASHA GESSEN: She’s coming out of a culture that has no space for feminism.

She is also coming out of a town that has no place for education. She comes from this very small, very, very dark town in every way town in the Arctic Circle. She is very much an autodidact. And yet somehow she is steeped in the Western tradition of protest, which I think has in some ways made things very difficult for Pussy Riot in Russia, but also contributed to making them a worldwide celebrity.

JEFFREY BROWN: You chronicle their founding as in a former group and then this group. And then they start taking these actions, and then, of course, the catalytic event at the cathedral.

How did they see that performance? How did you come to see the way they looked at what they were doing?

MASHA GESSEN: Well, they saw it as a prank.

JEFFREY BROWN: A prank first and foremost?

MASHA GESSEN: It was an art prank. I think that they were hoping it was a brilliant prank. I think they were hoping for a lot of attention.

I think they feared that they were risking something, like maybe 15 days administrative arrest. They never thought they were going to jail.

JEFFREY BROWN: They had no idea what this might lead to?

MASHA GESSEN: No, no.

And, in fact, you know, their arrest was the beginning of the crackdown. People didn’t actually go to jail for peaceful protest in Russia at the time for more than 15 days administrative arrest.

They are the first in a long line of people who have gone to jail since. But, really, it is highly symbolic that they were arrested on the day that Vladimir Putin claimed to be reelected to a third term as president. And it was really the beginning of a new era in Russian politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: They were stepping into not only politics, but religion, tradition, culture. How does — how are they seen by the rest of the country or by the majority of the country, if one can ask that?

MASHA GESSEN: Right. Well, right.

The refrain of the punk prayer was, mother of God, chase Putin out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. So, you have got both. You have religion and you have Putin. right

MASHA GESSEN: Well, which was exactly the point. They were protesting the symbiosis of church and state.

They were protesting the fact that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church was actively campaigning for Putin and against the protesters. So I think that it is very difficult to answer the question how does Russia see them, because Russia is not a whole country. Russia is a country that is extremely polarized and ripped apart by the last 14 years of dictatorship.

So there is the Russia that watches television that sees them as women who went in and behaved abominably in a church. And then there’s the much smaller rush that doesn’t watch television and that is somehow involved in the protest culture or in the opposition.

And I think they are the ones who very much the target audience of this. They — I think some of them were taken aback by the protests, but it came around to think that it really identified its targets brilliants

And that I think is what makes it a great work of art. It made people think.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think the women see a continuing role for themselves now? Is there a space for them to fit in the kind of work they want to do?

MASHA GESSEN: Well, they have been profoundly changed by the two years that they — nearly two years they have spent in prison.

Vladimir Putin magnanimously knocked two months off of their sentences, so they were released a little bit early. But they spent two years in abominable conditions that often could only be described as torture. And they have come out as — they went in college dropouts — college students, actually, who had staged a prank, and they came out political activists, seasoned political activists.

They have declared their intention to found a broad-ranging prisoners rights movement. And they have been working on that very, very hard, day and night. They have always done quite a lot to publicize the conditions in prisons in Russia. So that is their place now. They see Pussy Riot, I think, with a little bit of wistful nostalgia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you finally about yourself. You have written much about — and this goes to the other — one of the other issues with Russia now and some recent laws about homosexuality.

You have written about being a lesbian, and a parent and watching what has happened there, and your own decision to leave the country. Do you see the country — where do you see things headed?

MASHA GESSEN: Oh.

Well, first of all, the irony of my situation is that I didn’t have to leave the country over writing a highly critical biography of Putin. And I ended up leaving the country over the anti-gay laws, because there was a direct threat to my family. And I feared that my children would be taken away.

I think the crackdown is extremely damaging for the country and the people. I think that it’s good for Putin. He has chosen the most effective way to confront the mass protest movement that he faced two years ago. It will keep him in power longer than any other tactic that he could have appointed — that he could have chosen.

But it will do extreme damage to the country. And the longer it goes on, the worst things will be after it’s over.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

The new book is “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot”

Masha Gessen, thanks so much.

MASHA GESSEN: Thank you.