Virgin Mary, Become a Feminist!
Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot
By Masha Gessen
New York: Riverhead Press, 2014, 308pp., $16.00, paperback
Reviewed by Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild
Russia has a long tradition of female protest. The mastermind of the assassination of Alexander II, the tsar who emancipated the serfs, was a woman, Sofia Perovskaia, and in a perverse kind of gender equity, she became the first Russian female to be subjected to capital punishment, hung for this political murder. Her compatriot, the noblewoman-turned-radical Vera Figner, during her own trial for aiding in the tsar’s assassination and other terrorist acts, declared, according to her Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1991), “The most essential part of the program…which had the greatest significance for me, was the annihilation of the autocratic form of government.”
Much more than in the West, Russian radicals, women and men, embraced female liberation as a key element of their vision for societal transformation. In addition to Figner and Perovskaia, women were prominent in all factions of the social movements opposing the tsarist autocracy—from assassins to agitators, from those organizing among the peasants and the proletariat to those specifically championing women’s rights. Feminists in Russia were the first in a major power to win full women’s suffrage, in 1917, three years before US women. The Bolshevik Revolution brought with it the most far-reaching laws proclaiming women’s equality seen to that time. Lenin proclaimed that, as a result of these measures, the humblest of women would rise to the pinnacle of state power.
Authoritarianism soon dashed democratic hopes. While the new Soviet woman learned to read and climb the educational ladder, the highest realm of the government, the Politburo, more closely resembled capitalist boardrooms in their white maleness than any bastion of women’s liberation. Female protest during much of the Soviet period was limited, with few successes. So called (women’s revolts) influenced Stalin to reverse efforts at collectivizing private peasant garden plots in the 1930s. In 1980, the first openly dissident Soviet feminists, publishers of the samizdat Woman and Russia Almanac, were exiled to the West, a punishment reserved for those who, like Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, were considered particularly dangerous.
Now comes Pussy Riot, with the same name in English and Russian, advocating a feminist, antipatriarchal, and antiauthoritarian ideology. In Words Will Break Cement, Masha Gessen’s book chronicling the group, she provides a thorough and detailed description of their emergence as key opposition figures against Vladimir Putin and his allies in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Pussy Riot consists of seven to eight women, some of whom have never been caught or identified by the authorities. Gessen focuses on those who were captured and tried for their part in a performance art/protest on February 21, 2012, in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the mother church for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a close Putin ally with alleged KGB ties.
The three women whose activism forms the center of the book are Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich. All are children of the 1980s, the last full decade of Soviet power. Tolokonnikova, born on November 7, 1989, in Norilsk, Siberia, one of the most polluted places in the world (its nickel industry was privatized by Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team). She and Alyokhina, born on June 6, 1988, in Moscow, were toddlers when the Soviet Union collapsed. Both are young mothers. Tolokonnikova has a daughter, Gera, born in 2008, and is married to Pyotr Verzilov, a Canadian citizen. Alyokhina has a son, Philip, also born in 2008. Samutsevich, the oldest of the three, was born in 1982 in Moscow.
Gessen is particularly helpful in highlighting the feminism of Pussy Riot as she details their trial and the conditions of their imprisonment. She describes the origins of the group in the performance art of Voina (War). Voina’s most famous actions included the February 29, 2008, “Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear,” in which five heterosexual couples, including Tolokonnikova and Verzilov, videotaped having sex in the Moscow Biology Museum. In June 2010, they painted a giant outline of a penis on half of a drawbridge across from the St. Petersburg secret police headquarters. When the bridge was raised, the penis went erect. These bold actions were not enough to keep the group together. One of Voina’s last forays, in 2011, presaged its transition to an all-women’s group. Dubbed “Buss the Buzz,” it involved spontaneous same-sex kissing of the police. The male activists couldn’t do it; the women did. Carrying Julia Kristeva’s Revolt, She Said (2002) with her, Tolokonnikova referred to then Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s condemnation of gays as she grabbed policewomen and kissed them. She claims that many put up little resistance.
The group’s transformation took place against the background of growing anti-Putin protests and the Arab Spring. In September 2011, Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich, as Pisya Riot (Pee-Pee Riot), lectured on feminist art at a Moscow conference called to unite opposition groups. They ended with “Kill the Sexist,” a song set to the soundtrack of the British punk rock group Cockney Rejects, with lyrics such as: “You are sick and tired of …your daddy’s stinky socks…your mother is all in dirty dishes…..Become a feminist, kill the sexist!” Recruiting more members, the women rehearsed and then splashed onto the scene as Pussy Riot. On November 7, 2011, the 94th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and Tolokonnikova’s 22nd birthday, they launched a video clip and blog called “Free the Cobblestones.” Borrowing music this time from the British band Angelic Upstarts, they declaimed “Spend a full day among strong women, Find an ice pick on your balcony and free the cobblestones….Tahrir! Tripoli! The feminist whip is good for Russia.” Several other actions followed; one, on Moscow’s Red Square on January 20, 2012, brought the group major media attention. Pussy Riot, in their now-trademark colorful balaclavas, took aim at Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, mocking the Russian leader’s crudeness, shouting, “Putin has pissed himself,….the Orthodox religion is a hard penis.”
They had no such luck the next time. Shouting “Virgin Mary, become a feminist,” on February 21, 2012, several Pussy Riot members, their faces masked by balaclavas, mounted the platform in front of the iconostasis at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. After less than a minute, they were dragged off by guards. The video that spread rapidly across the Internet showed the power of virtual protest. Calculating that they might not be able to complete their song at the main Cathedral, Pussy Riot had prerecorded their protest at the nearby but lightly guarded Cathedral of the Apparition and then mixed the videos together to give the appearance of one complete action. In the wake of the protest, Patriarch Kirill called on the government to criminalize blasphemy. Five days after the incident, prosecutors opened a criminal case against the Pussy Riot members they managed to identify.
On March 5, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were arrested and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” On March 16, Ekaterina Samutsevich was also arrested and charged as a hooligan. Although Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were both mothers of small children, they were held in jail until their trial.
Some of the most powerful passages in the book describe the surreal atmosphere in the courtroom. The trial was a sham, the action successfully framed as an assault on the Russian Orthodox Church. The defendants were placed in cages in the courtroom, as had been oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskii during his trial. Gessen gained access to the women’s letters from detention; she includes large excerpts that detail the deplorable jail conditions. Both Gessen and her subjects condemn the defense lawyers as inadequate to the task, but it is not clear what more they could have done to change the predetermined verdict or the clear bias of the presiding judge. On the eighth day of the trial, Tolokonnikova, wearing a blue tee shirt emblazoned with the Spanish Civil War slogan ¡No Pasaran! (“They shall not pass!”) gave a long closing statement, arguing that “it is the entire Russian state system that is on trial here.” The system, she said, resembled the Stalinist purge trials, with the troika pre-wrap;"> of investigator, judge, and prosecutor all working together. “Like Solzhenitsyn,” she stated defiantly, “I believe that in the end, words will break cement.”
On August 17, 2012, the Pussy Riot Three were sentenced to two years in a penal colony. After an appeal on October 10, Samutsevich, with a new lawyer handling her legal affairs, was released on two year’s probation. The judges rejected the appeals of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina. Despite their requests to serve their time in Moscow, the two were sent to separate penal colonies. Alyokhina was dispatched to IK-32, in Berezniki, near Perm, approximately 700 miles from Moscow, reputed to have relatively decent conditions. Tolokonnikova was initially assigned to the IK-14 camp in Mordovia, a notorious Soviet gulag area, about two hundred miles from Moscow.
Gessen includes long excerpts from Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s letters, which describe the appalling conditions at the camps. Lack of sufficient toilets, showers, overcrowded hygiene facilities and bunks, bad food, inhumanly long work hours, corrupt officials who stole the women’s meager wages, hostile inmates, crime, beatings—all were similar to the gulags of the late Soviet era.
The two women responded to the conditions differently. Alyokhina became an expert on the law and prison regulations, and managed to use every part of the penal code to challenge the system, winning a change in the number of work hours for inmates, although it is not clear if this continued after she left. Tolokonnikova in Mordovia faced harsher conditions. Hardened prisoners claimed that the Mordovian prisons were the real thing; those in other prisons had not done “real” time. Camp administrator Kupriyanov boasted to her that he was a Stalinist and that “we’ve broken stronger wills than yours here!” Fed up with the conditions and the hopelessness of challenging them, Tolokonnikova went on hunger strike. Fearing that she might die in captivity, officials moved her to a prison hospital, then back to the camp; then, after she declared another hunger strike, to a tuberculosis hospital in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. For 26 days, while she was in transit, her family and supporters had no word about her whereabouts. They feared the worst.
Finally released on December 23, 2013, by Putin, as he sought to ratchet down concerns about human rights violations before February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Alyokina and Tolokonnikova have been lionized in the West. They appeared at an Amnesty International benefit, made the Manhattan arts scene, held their own with Stephen Colbert, and most recently called for the release of the jailed Occupy activist Cecily McMillan. They have had a much rougher time in their homeland, including being disowned by some Pussy Riot members for supposedly capitalizing on their celebrity status. Their attempts to disrupt the Sochi Olympics resulted in a kind of back to the future moment, when they were whipped and pepper sprayed by Cossacks.Soon after, they were doused with germicide in a McDonald’s in Nizhni Novgorod. In the meantime, Putin’s popularity has risen to more than eighty percent in the wake of his annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and his continued crackdowns on opposition activists and media outlets. With the neo-Soviet revival in full swing, Pussy Riot’s activist future inside Russia is in doubt. Their colorful balaclavas have recently been eclipsed, in the region from which the masks originated, by the black balaclavas of pro-Russian forces, official or unofficial, in Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine.
Asha Gessen, born in the Soviet Union in 1967, emigrated with her family to the US in 1981, returned to her homeland in 1991, became a prominent journalist and LGBT activist in Moscow, and returned to the US in December 2013, after the passage of antigay laws threatened state seizure of the children of lesbians and gays. An outspoken critic of Putin, especially in her 2012 book The Man Without a Face, she brings to this book a keen awareness of the nuances of Soviet and Russian life, and access to sources difficult or impossible for non-native speakers to obtain.
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are only the latest in a long tradition of female protest in Russia, yet they and Gessen ignore or minimize this history. Gessen claims that “feminism had never taken root in Russia.” In fact, Russia has rich feminist and progressive democratic traditions, which have persevered despite Soviet and post-Soviet attempts to repress and stigmatize them. Gessen’s view of Russian and Soviet progressivism as largely cynical and manipulative helps perpetuate stereotypes of Russian “backwardness” and intrinsic authoritarianism.
Pussy Riot may be the new face of protest: rather than large mass movements, they employ actions whose message is spread through the Internet and social media. Have they been effectively crushed by the Putin steamroller and become part of yet another Russian exile community more active in the West than in their homeland? Only time will tell. But for readers seeking information on Pussy Riot’s form of feminist activism, Gessen’s book is by far the most comprehensive source.
is a research associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, and a visiting scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center. She is the author of Equality and Revolution: Women’s Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917(2010), and an editor of Aspasia, The International Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women’s and Gender History. She spent two years as an exchange scholar in the Soviet Union, and has travelled to Russia frequently since 1991. From 1988 to 1994, she was the director of the Russian School at Norwich University. She is an executive producer of the documentary film Left on Pearl: Women Take Over 888 Memorial Drive, Cambridge. Most recently she has written about Putin’s anti-lesbian and gay laws on WOMEN=BOOKS (www.wcwonline.org/womensreview) the Women’s Review of Books