Women had a rotten time in the Soviet Union. Communist notions of sexual equality forced them into hard manual labour. Homemaking was both disregarded and hugely burdensome, with primitive appliances and endless queues. Western-style feminism has made little headway in Russia, in practice or in theory. University syllabuses still ignore feminist perspectives on culture or philosophy.
It is against this scenery that Masha Gessen tells the story of Pussy Riot, three of whose young women became famous when they were jailed after putting on a brief sacrilegious performance two years ago in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.
Pussy Riot is normally described as a “feminist punk protest group”, but the shorthand term is misleading. They are not musicians, not punks and not really a group. They dislike Vladimir Putin’s regime but they have many other targets too, including academic orthodoxy, patriarchy and consumerism. Their bravery is more impressive than their organisation.
Ms Gessen is a journalist and author with dual Russian and American nationality. She is in a same-sex marriage and has three children. In the current homophobic climate in Russia, she risks losing them, which is why she has recently moved her family to New York. Ms Gessen is well placed to explain the intricacies of Pussy Riot, understanding both the political and the cultural significance of its birth and rise. Her 2012 book, “The Man Without a Face”, is the most scalding account so far of Mr Putin’s seamy past and brutish present. She is familiar with the exotic fringes of Western literary and feminist theory, and their echoes and outcrops in the unfriendly world of modern Russia.
Finding a way of expressing protest in a culturally exhausted society is hugely challenging, Ms Gessen argues in her new book, “Words Will Break Cement”. Post-Soviet Russia is in no state to deal with the subtler authoritarianism of Mr Putin’s crony capitalism. Pussy Riot and its forerunner, Voina (Russian for “war”), she writes, “wanted to confront a language of lies” but there were “no words left”.
The two groups tried teach-ins on feminist art, and stunts such as mock hangings of effigies in a supermarket, or forcing kisses on policewomen (the group’s male supporters balked at doing the same with male officers). But these have not worked well either. Their political message is easily lost amid hostile media coverage. Most Russians seem to regard the women in the group as blasphemous hussies or nitwits.
The book is valuable for its insights into the modern cultural history of Russia, with all its idealistic muddles, dead-ends and false starts. It is also a biography of the group’s leading members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (pictured), Maria Alyokhina and “Kat” (Yekaterina) Samutsevich. Ms Gessen’s sharp pen draws a caustic picture of their show trials in the summer of 2012, and provides full transcripts of their speeches.
Like the Soviet dissidents of old, she notes, they had little expectation of justice, but they seized their chance in the dock. They played games with procedure, trying to summon the patriarch as a witness, and spoke to a wider audience. “Passion, openness and naïveté exist on a higher ground than do hypocrisy, lying and false piety used to mask crimes. Top state officials go to church wearing the correct facial expression, but they lie, and in doing so they sin more than we ever did,” Ms Tolokonnikova declaimed.
Prison correspondence provides a vivid picture of the continuing awfulness of the Russian penal system, with its slave labour and dire conditions. “When the pipes are clogged, urine gushes out…and clumps of faeces go flying. Convicts are always given stale bread, generously watered-down milk, exceptionally rancid millet and only rotten potatoes.” Attempts to complain provoke revenge, petty and not so petty, from the prison authorities. Only hunger strikes win some respite.
Ms Gessen has rushed into print because Ms Tolokonnikova and Ms Alyokhina have just been released, in a window- dressing exercise before next month’s winter Olympics in the Russian resort of Sochi. Her book is ideal for those curious about the country behind the games.
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