Pussy Riot in Translation

Pussy Riot in Translation

Did Pussy Riot’s protest change the course of Russian history, or merely make its members famous abroad?

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina in Moscow, January 22, 2014 (tvoe/Flickr)

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot
by Masha Gessen
Riverhead Books, 2014, 308 pp.

On February 21, 2012, five young women in brightly colored tights and dresses entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in central Moscow. There was no service in progress, and there were only a few people in the cathedral. The women pulled on neon balaclavas, stepped onto the stage-like area at the foot of the altar, and, jumping, punching, and kicking, shouted out a song that began: Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out.

Security guards carried one of the women, Yekaterina Samutsevich, out of the cathedral before she could even start performing. The other four women were hustled out about a minute into their performance, before they could get all the footage they wanted. That day, they felt that the action had failed. But they spliced the footage together with some clips they had filmed in previous days, in other cathedrals with less security. They added a prerecorded audio track and then posted the video online.

This “punk prayer” turned out to be Pussy Riot’s greatest success by far, leading to an international scandal that reverberates even today. After a period of hiding, three Pussy Riot members—Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Maria Alyokhina—were arrested and held without bail. The ensuing show trial became an emblem of Russia’s new repressiveness, and it made Pussy Riot famous. Alyokhina, Samutsevich, and Tolokonnikova received two-year sentences for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

Amnesty International designated the women “prisoners of conscience,” and many Western political leaders, Barack Obama included, expressed their criticism of the verdict. Various international celebrities, mostly musicians, voiced their support; they perceived Pussy Riot as a musical group, though it would have been more accurate to call them conceptual artists. In fact, many of Pussy Riot’s supporters had only the vaguest idea of what Pussy Riot stood for. One still-anonymous Pussy Riot member commented, “We’re flattered, of course, that Madonna and Björk have offered to perform with us. But the only performances we’ll participate in are illegal ones. We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets.”

The international media showed the punk prayer music video occasionally and reprinted some of the lyrics, though rarely all of them. Mostly it told a story of bravery in the face of tyranny and showed photos of the women on trial: beautiful, behind bars, smiling beatifically. Their art wasn’t the important thing; what mattered was their sacrifice, and their image. Pussy Riot’s martyr narrative gained steam when Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina began reporting on the terrible conditions to which they were subjected in prison. Tolokonnikova declared a hunger strike for which she was eventually hospitalized.

For the West, the Pussy Riot trial was appealing in part because it seemed to be a familiar story with a modern twist. Once again, authoritarian Russia was oppressing dissident artists—but this time, instead of being grumpy old men like Solzhenitsyn, retyping dogeared manuscripts in dingy communal apartments, the artists in question were young, attractive, charismatic women who invoked riot grrrl and Slavoj Žižek. Tolokonnikova particularly captured the public imagination. Photographs of her in the courtroom cage, smiling defiantly in her blue “¡No Pasaran!” T-shirt, were everywhere. And she didn’t just look great; she spoke compellingly, movingly, drawing on a wide range of references and demonstrating a deep sense of moral conviction.

Clearly, the Pussy Riot affair—the sensation, the controversy, the appalling trial, and the outrageous sentence—was about much more than words spoken against Putin. There is censorship in Russia, but people say bad things about Putin and his government all the time. The punk prayer wasn’t particularly eloquent, either, though it served its purpose: the lyrics include lines like, “Shit, shit, holy shit! Patriarch Gundyayev believes in Putin/Bitch, better believe in God instead.” Pussy Riot’s songs were a primitive frame on which to hang a much larger set of arguments about the state and the body, about men and women, and about public space. The prosecution picked and chose the lyrics it repeated in court, removing the parts of the song that were about Putin and focusing on the parts about the Orthodox Church; the goal was to prove that Pussy Riot had committed an act of “religious hatred” rather than political protest. Yet Pussy Riot’s words weren’t the only thing the court held against them; there was also the question of their young female bodies, legs and arms exposed, dancing profanely in a space where women were expected to have their bodies covered.

The members of Pussy Riot are not the only Russians who have used their bodies to make a point. A young artist named Pyotr Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to Red Square a year after Pussy Riot’s performance. He had previously wrapped himself in barbed wire and, on another occasion, sewn his mouth shut and held a banner that read, “The performance of Pussy Riot was a replay of Jesus Christ’s famous action (Methodius 21:12-13).” He told a reporter, “In our country, the line between what happens in the prisons and in everyday life is disappearing. . . . The entire country is slowly transforming into one huge prison.”

Both Pussy Riot and Pavlensky sought to use their bodies to reconfigure politically charged spaces. They got a lot of attention, but did their message come through in the way they had intended? Could these performances, designed to respond to the particular nature of power in Russia, to “seize public space in Moscow,” as one anonymous Pussy Riot member put it, be intelligible to Western audiences? In response to criticisms that his work was out of date, a throwback to Viennese Actionism (which also rejected the commodification and institutionalization of art and used artists’ bodies to make political statements), Pavlensky told the Russian magazine Snob, “Our political context is absolutely different from that of the West. This action is only worth considering in our specific place, in the nest of power. In the West, the system works differently—this action wouldn’t have succeeded there.”

Though Russia now receives fairly extensive coverage in the Western media, discussion of the country still relies heavily on tropes that date back to the Cold War and a different political system: the Gulag, Stalin, Solzhenitsyn. This picture of the bad old Russia has been updated with images of the weird new Russia: Putin wrestling bears, dash-cam crash videos, and photos of sad-looking women in tracksuits and too much makeup, posing seductively in front of carpets hung on walls. In both cases, Russia is a bit of an enigma. For some people, Pavlensky’s self-nailing was a freakish joke, a good opening for bad puns; for others, it was a desperate act committed in a scary, totalitarian state. It was hard even for Russians to parse, let alone for foreigners.

Today, it’s easier than ever to send a message from Russia, but there’s no guarantee that the message will be understood. Perhaps more importantly, there is no certainty that it will have any effect on Russian reality. For all their popularity in the international media, Pussy Riot attracted relatively little sympathy in Russia; in fact, by making it seem that the political opposition is full of anarchist feminist blasphemers, Pussy Riot may have done Putin a favor, strengthening his support from his conservative core constituency. In the West, sympathy for Pussy Riot was also mixed with confusion. Were they musicians or performance artists? Did their imprisonment mean that Russia had gone back to its Soviet ways? Had Pussy Riot changed the course of Russian history, or had its members merely thrust themselves into the international limelight?

Masha Gessen is one of the most important journalists covering Russian politics for a Western audience. A liberal Russian American who is completely bilingual and has lived and worked in both countries, she has played an essential role in interpreting Russia for her readers. Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot provides the most detailed account to date of the Pussy Riot story, based on exclusive access to Pussy Riot and their family members. Gessen offers much interesting new material about the lives of Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich; about the development of the art collective Voina (“War” in Russian), from which Pussy Riot eventually splintered off; about the lead-up to the protest performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, including debates within Pussy Riot (several members chose not to participate, either for religious reasons or for fear of arrest); about the immediate aftermath of the performance; and about the trial and imprisonment of the three women. Gessen also interviewed other, still-anonymous Pussy Riot members, providing valuable new information about the group’s internal workings.

For all their popularity in the international media, Pussy Riot attracted relatively little sympathy in Russia.

Gessen captures the sense of purpose, belonging, and exaltation that comes from participating in a group like Pussy Riot. Alyokhina was an alcoholic teenage hippie, hanging around the Moscow streets with her friends, in love with Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. She eventually stopped drinking and became an ardent, if somewhat eccentric, environmental activist and yoga enthusiast, and she joined Pussy Riot relatively late in the game. She went on to become a jailhouse lawyer, ferociously defending the rights of her fellow prisoners and winning many victories. In Pussy Riot, she found her purpose. The same was true for Samutsevich: a dissatisfied engineer from a strange family, she felt left out of the new Russia and was in need of friends. When she met Tolokonnikova, a born leader, she finally found a sense of direction.

Tolokonnikova is the star of the book, partly because Gessen had the most contact with her and partly because of her charisma. Tolokonnikova was a precocious student in Norilsk, a polluted city in the Russian Far North. As a teenager, she was already a dissident, rebelling against school rules and reading widely. While still in secondary school, she fell in love with the work of the great Conceptualist poet, performer, and visual artist Dmitri Prigov. He was the inspiration for Voina, which Tolokonnikova founded with her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, and another couple. Tolokonnikova and Verzilov had met during a brief stint in the philosophy department of Moscow State University. As the Russian protest movement began to gain steam in 2007–08, the young couple turned their attention to art and protest. Gessen’s book shows to what extent Voina and later Pussy Riot (founded in 2011) were part of this larger protest movement, which received much less attention than Pussy Riot did in the Western media. In 2011–12, as the protests became increasingly dramatic, Voina and then Pussy Riot took bigger risks, because that was the only way to stand out. This was when Pussy Riot conceived of the performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Gessen has a gift for swift, engaging narrative: Words Will Break Cement is a page-turner with compelling characters. But for the most part, Gessen contents herself with crafting a heroic story that will be easily digestible for Western readers. She does not engage with the thornier questions raised by the Pussy Riot affair, such as Russian liberals’ disgust with the cathedral action, or the claims made by Russian feminists that Pussy Riot members didn’t know what they were talking about. Words Will Break Cement also seems torn between two competing theses: one about the power of words, indebted to the history of Soviet dissidence, and one about using the body when words have lost their power. This seems a false binary given the close connection, in Soviet history and Russian art, between protest through language and protest with the body. Eager to make its members heroes, Gessen diminishes the complexity of Pussy Riot’s art and downplays its largely negative reception within Russia.

Gessen captures the sense of purpose, belonging, and exaltation that comes from participating in a group like Pussy Riot.

Gessen’s title, Words Will Break Cement, is a quote from Solzhenitsyn used in the courtroom by Tolokonnikova, who has often compared herself to the great Soviet dissidents. The other person to whom Tolokonnikova likes to compare herself is Jesus Christ, a comparison Gessen repeats in the book’s subtitle, “The Passion of Pussy Riot.” (Other members of Pussy Riot, especially Alyokhina, have also spoken extensively about religion and the Bible.)

Much of Gessen’s rhetoric, borrowed from her subjects, is based on an almost religious faith in the power of words. This is in keeping with the Soviet dissident tradition, which was based largely around illicit texts, and also with the Christian one. (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”) But the dissidents weren’t unique in their logocentrism. Russian society has been obsessed with the power of words for centuries, which helps explain its tradition of strict censorship. Stalin was obsessed with eliminating double meanings, and Gessen seems to share his preoccupation: she praises Pussy Riot for “painting a portrait of Russia in words that could mean nothing else.” Her discussion of Russian history and the power of words is often reductive. She informs us, for instance, that “real words that corresponded to actual facts and feelings broke through in a sudden, catastrophic flood and brought down the Soviet Union.” In fact, the fall of the Soviet Union was the result of a complicated mix of economic, political, social, and other factors. Glasnost—which is translated as “openness,” but which comes from the word for “voice”—was the result of a long process of weakening and decay. Gessen’s emphasis on the monosemic nature of Pussy Riot’s work also does a disservice to them as artists, since art thrives on ambiguity and multiple meanings—and because Pussy Riot’s art, in particular, relies on the body, on unsanctioned physical interventions into public space.

The longing for truth in a world of lies, for words that can only mean one thing, takes a strange form in Gessen’s portrayal of Samutsevich—who was seen by some as having betrayed the cause by switching lawyers and thus escaping prison time. Gessen portrays her as socially clueless, unable to solve problems or think of new ideas, with a suspiciously indirect way of speaking. While Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina bravely speak truth to power, Samutsevich, according to Gessen, has a roundabout way of expressing her thoughts. Yet Gessen too takes a roundabout approach; the sections on Samutsevich are marred by heavy use of indirect quotation. For reasons that are not explained, Gessen crafts a novelistic third-person narrative rather than quoting Samutsevich’s own words. This makes for easy reading and a rather compelling story, but it also makes it unclear where Samutsevich ends and Gessen begins.

At other points in the book, Gessen suggests that Russian words have lost their power entirely. This is where discussion of the body begins. Although she does not fully develop this point, Gessen suggests that Pussy Riot and Voina differed from Soviet dissidents in that they emerged in a society in which words had lost their power. She declares, in a rather dramatic overstatement, “Voina faced a challenge that perhaps exceeded challenges faced by any other artist in history: they wanted to confront a language of lies that had once been effectively confronted but had since been reconstructed and reinforced, discrediting the language of confrontation itself. There were no words left.” It’s true that Putin’s government has proved adept at incorporating the opposition’s narratives into its rhetoric in order to defuse them. (This tactic has been mastered by many American politicians as well, but they don’t have the advantage of a non-democracy and a well-censored press.) It’s also true that Russian literature no longer holds the remarkable political power that it had in the Soviet Union; today, it competes with many other forms of media and has lost the aura of courage and truth-telling that it had when it was subject to strict censorship. But does that really mean that there were “no words left” in Russia, circa 2007? Why then does Tolokonnikova keep making speeches? Why does she keep talking about Solzhenitsyn? Why is she so preoccupied with “truth,” as conveyed by words? What about other Russian opposition writers who have formulated powerful protests in words? They are a small minority—but so were the Soviet dissidents.

Pussy Riot’s emphasis on the body also has clear links to the Soviet past. As Gessen tells us, while in prison, Tolokonnikova requested a copy of the memoirs of Anatoly Marchenko, a late Soviet dissident who died after a lengthy hunger strike in the Gulag. (As Slavicist Anastasia Kayiatos pointed out late last year, Marchenko’s memoirs include an entire chapter on self-mutilation, including a story about an inmate who nailed his scrotum to a bench in an act of protest.) In 2013 Tolokonnikova declared her own hunger strike, announcing, “I will not remain silent, watching in resignation as my fellow prisoners collapse under slave-like conditions.” Words and bodies are closely connected for Pussy Riot, as they were for Soviet dissidents and prisoners. Marchenko wrote about one prisoner who had the words “Khrushchev’s slave” tattooed on his forehead. The prison medical staff removed the skin that bore the offending words and stitched it up. As soon as it healed, the prisoner had the words “slave of the USSR” tattooed in the same place. Again he was sent to the hospital to have his skin removed and stitched back up; by the time it healed, his skin was so tight that he could no longer close his eyes.

Anya Bernstein, an anthropologist who researches religion, secularism, and censorship in post-Soviet Russia, has offered an interesting perspective on Pussy Riot, one that contrasts markedly with Gessen’s reading. Bernstein argues that the Pussy Riot affair is part of a “new Russian biopolitics.” Examples include the Sochi Olympics, which combined spectacular physical feats, shameless exploitation of migrant labor, and the looming threat of suicide bombings; the Russian government’s campaign against homosexuality; the ban on foreign adoptions; and the rounding up of migrants. Bernstein argues that Russian policy treats individual bodies (athletes, migrants, orphans) metonymically, using them to “strengthen the collective body of the nation.” Pussy Riot’s punk prayer also used bodies, but to a different end. By inserting young female bodies into the cathedral, Pussy Riot drew attention to the corrupt relationship between church and state in Russia. Putin countered by throwing the bodies of three Pussy Riot members in prison. Then, by declaring amnesty for numerous political prisoners, including Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, in the run-up to the Olympics, he offered prisoners as a peace offering, in the hope that the world’s full attention would now be devoted to the spectacular bodies showcased at Sochi.

Putin, Pussy Riot, and Pavlensky are not alone in placing the human body at the center of Russian political discourse. Pussy Riot’s performance was followed by widespread discussion of sexualized forms of corporal punishment. It was suggested that instead of being put in prison, the women should be spanked, pinched, stripped naked and whipped, covered in honey and feathers, and thrown out in the cold. The idea was to treat the women like naughty little girls rather than as artists making a serious political statement. Such proposals did not come only from hardline Putinists or from the Orthodox Church; they came from liberal opposition figures as well. Boris Nemtsov, leader of a liberal-democratic coalition, said, “If I could get my way, I would spank these girls and let them go.” Many Russian liberals were horrified by the overreaction of the state, but they were also offended by Pussy Riot’s performance, or contemptuous of it, dismissing the women as attention seekers. Pussy Riot’s anti-capitalist, anarchist, radical feminist views were unpalatable for many Russian liberals, as well as for conservatives. Appeals to keep Pussy Riot out of prison often glossed over the content of their protest, returning to a more normative idea of the body by emphasizing Pussy Riot’s femininity and the fact that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina had small children.

Now that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have been released, some of their detractors have managed to realize their sadistic fantasies. In Sochi, Cossacks whipped the two women, and at a McDonald’s in Nizhny Novgorod, men threw trash and green antiseptic in their faces, calling them whores and telling them to go to America. In both cases, the men who attacked them did not feel it necessary to cover their faces, though the attacks were filmed. No arrests were made. During the attacks, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina remained remarkably calm. Maybe this was because they knew that their attackers, like Putin, like the prosecutors in their trial, were just playing their roles in a work of art that continues to ripple outward—from Moscow, to the provinces, and into the wider world.


Sophie Pinkham is a doctoral student in Columbia University’s Slavic Studies program. She has written for the London Review of Books, the Nation, n+1, and other publications.


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