In the seven weeks since their release from prison, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokina of the feminist punk protest group Pussy Riot have remained active in voicing their opposition to Putin and the Russian government. We caught up with Russian-American journalist Gessen, author of the new book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, to get the latest news about world’s most renowned “hooligans.”
Can you explain the experience of watching the Pussy Riot case unfold from a writer’s perspective? Did you know right away that this would be a topic for a book.
I wasn’t sure it was going to be a topic for a book. I knew that it was one of the most important things going on, well then. I was on tour with the Putin book when they were arrested and I kind of saw the whole thing unfolding. It’s mind-boggling to think now two years later that they were the first people really arrested for peaceful protest and given real jail time. In two years we’ve gotten used to Russia having political prisoners--defined in the most narrow sense--people who are in prison for peace and political activity. But they were the first. I didn’t realize that it was going to become a thing but I remember thinking that that was a momentous arrest when it actually happened on the day of the election. I also remember thinking that the protest was brilliant. So I was one of the few people on the liberal intelligence side of the equation who was on their side. There was a much larger group of people who were extremely taken aback by the confrontational nature of the protest itself, who sort of came around as they saw the persecution unfold, as they saw the trial unfold, and as they saw the way they conducted themselves at the trial.
What was it like producing the book so quickly and trying to keep up with changing events?
It was absolutely fun. It’s the most journalistic book I’ve ever done. In that sense, in the speed with which it was produced. A lot of it was reported and immediately written like prison visits. It was actually incredibly easy and gratifying. Probably the easiest book I’ve ever done.
What really struck me when reading the book was their optimism. These were extremely young women who had real faith in their abilities to influence the system and create change.
Yes and in that sense, the outside’s reaction certainly only helped to affirm their belief in their individual agencies. Which I think is wonderful. I think they’re the most articulate and brilliant activists that have ever marched in a generation.
Could you see their influence in other activists in Russia or is it too soon to tell?
It’s a little too soon to tell but there is also this problem of scale when we talk about this. On the one hand there’s the unquestionable moral authority that they have acquired, through their conduct in court, through their conduct in jail, through the fact that they were a part of a wave of high profile political prisoners released before the Olympics. They’re the only ones of that wave who have gone on to fight and who came out of jail swinging basically. They're making use of the experience and access to media and to international celebrities that being in prison has given them. At the same time, the crackdown has raised the stakes of protest so high that I don’t have much faith in the movement that they’re trying to launch can get a lot of people to participate in. You can’t ask people to be that kind of hero. Some of them are but most people aren’t. People have families and children. Look, I’ve left the country because I have a family and children.
Your book is presented very objectively. I’m curious about your personal opinion of Pussy Riot’s actions. We talked a little bit about what their legacy might be. What does it all mean to you?
It’s funny because some reviewers say I adore my subject while others say I shine to harsh a light on them. But I think tried to be balanced. I do adore them. I have great admiration for them, or at least for two of them. I have great compassion for Katya, for whom I don’t have a lot of admiration. That was the part of the story that probably gave the most trouble when writing the book is her breaking ranks and how much of a fine point I should put on it and I’m not sure that part of the book is particularly successful. I think Nadya and Maria are the best things to come out of Russia in a generation. They give me hope, not for the future of Russia, but at least for the idea that brilliant young people can still break through what is very much sort of a totalitarian and slipping into the dark ages sort of cement.
I saw something online that said there’s some in-fighting between Nadya and Maria and the rest of Pussy Riot.
That’s what I’m referring to when I say I have a lot of compassion but not a lot of admiration for Katya. My analysis of what has happened is she was the least resilient of the three and the most open to influence. She’s someone who functions best when she is next to a leader. Her tandem with Nadya was brilliant. They reinforced each other in very important ways. When she was separated from Nadya, she lost her bearings. She also took a huge blow while she was in jail which neither of the other two had to go through, which was that she discovered that her father testified against her. So she was horribly demoralized. I don’t want to judge her in any way. She panicked after the sentencing. She clearly was willing to do just about anything to avoid going to the jail colony. Her cellmates had convinced her that she might not survive the transport. People tried to convince all three, but Katya, who was the most vulnerable and in the worst state of all three of them, bought it.
Once she was out of jail, she felt compelled to defend her position. She couldn’t speak out publicly as Pussy Riot because she was on parole and afraid of going back to jail. And she had every reason to be, to be fair. She decided to direct all her efforts towards fighting the lawyers who had represented them so poorly. When Nadya and Maria got out of jail, she was hoping to re-erect Pussy Riot as she remembered it. They wanted to defend prisoners’ rights, which was the farthest thing from her agenda. She wanted them to join in her fight against their ex-lawyers. The other two have no affection for their ex-lawyers but they also have no desire to pursue a vendetta against them. So they had a pretty painful falling out. Where I think Kat has done completely wrong and I think it’s disgraceful is by writing what amounts to an open letter saying that they are now on opposite sides of the barricade. They served time for being Pussy Riot. They can lay claim to all the Pussy Riot in the world.
Have there been any changes to the penal colonies that you’re aware of after the accounts of the conditions were made public by Nadya and Maria?
Well, it's also only been six weeks. But what they have succeeded in doing already is documenting individual cases of abuse in prisons and drawing enough attention to force the prison’s administrations to straighten out their acts. That’s not a small thing to do. It’s very much in the traditional dissent movement which in the ‘70s focused precisely on individual basis, on shining the spotlight and improving people’s conditions in that sense. And then the other thing they’re doing is drawing attention to is less high profile political cases, which is exactly what they should be using their own high profile to do. They are focusing on two cases that are particularly outrageous right now.
There is the case of Yevgeny Vitishko, an environmental activist who has worked near Sochi documenting a lot of the environmental abuse that have been a part of the construction there. He was sentenced to three years in a settlement colony, which is slightly lighter than a penal colony. He was sentenced on December 21, which was the same day that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released, and his sentence was just upheld in the middle of the Sochi Olympics. The other case they are focusing on is the May 6th protesters. Eight people are facing sentencing on February 21, the second anniversary of Pussy Riot actually, and they’re facing sentences of five years and up and no one is paying much attention to it. They were jailed soon after Pussy Riot was jailed. So they have all been in jail for more than a year, and now they’re going to get more time for it. These are basically rank-and-file protesters who went to a peaceful march on May 6. The official march was squeezed by the police, which essentially attacked the protesters. And then a random sampling of participants were arrested and charged with attacking the police.
So you’re something of an expert on activism in Russia as well as the Putin administration which you literally wrote the book on. How did your previous work prepare you for the project?
Well the Putin book was a much more far ranging book and a lot of it involved describing the structural changes that he has brought in Russian society. Which is pretty much exactly what Pussy Riot was protesting. Originally when I finished the Putin book, I was hoping to write a sequel that would be sort of the decline and fall, but then I realized the decline and fall would stretch out for quite a long time, but the natural sequel to it is the story on Pussy Riot because not only is their personal story very compelling but it’s also the best example of the crackdown in Russia. It’s so heavily symbolic of fallacy. Everything from the fact that they were arrested on the day that he was reelected to be president, to the actual trial. Everything about it is the best illustration of the latest stage of Putin’s rule, which is the crackdown stage.