Flavorwire Interview: Masha Gessen on Telling Pussy Riot’s Story and Russia’s War on Gays

By
Share:

The trial and imprisonment of three members of the activist collective known as Pussy Riot captivated the world. It is a story of the Russian government treating these radical women like dangerous criminals who threatened to shatter the nation’s already-shaky foundation. The spectacle of holding the trio — Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich — in a glass cage while they stood trial for performing a song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior that begged, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out, chase Putin out,” seemed, at best, totally absurd to those of us who don’t live in Russia. Yet what people outside of Russia actually know and understand about the whole story remains a bit murky. For instance, as I write this, a number of outlets and people are reporting and tweeting that “Pussy Riot” will be “playing” in Brooklyn at the start of February for an Amnesty International concert.

“A lot of people think of them as a music group, and they’re not,” the journalist Masha Gessen tells me over tea. “But that was the character they played. They played the character of a music group.” They aren’t a punk-rock band, but it is difficult to deny that Pussy Riot embody the punk-rock spirit to a greater extent than the world is used to seeing in an age when the term is splashed across stickers and used to sell everything from cars to soda.

Gessen’s latest book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, pieces together the Pussy Riot story through original reporting — an approach that separates it from other media accounts, many of which have drawn solely on public fragments that don’t tell the whole tale, rarely illuminating the women’s lives, motivations, or the stories behind their trial and eventual punishment. Gessen, a Russian-American writer who lived and worked in Moscow for over two decades, is the perfect guide to lead readers through the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova, and Samutsevich for hooliganism.

Despite the Pussy Riot members’ release this past December, many in the media have speculated the move is just Russian president Vladimir Putin’s way of appeasing critics the months leading up to the Sochi Winter Olympics. While Gessen admits she was surprised at the early release, she notes that “there had been a rumor for a while that there would be an amnesty.” The Pussy Riot members’ somewhat unexpected freedom did push the book’s release date up a few months, and has provided an interesting catalyst for new discussions about Russia, the nature of the Olympic games, and the way the country’s government treats dissent. Most remarkably, it was written while Gessen was preparing to leave Russia, because, as she wrote in the Guardian last August, the country’s anti-gay laws threatened not only her personal safety but also her family’s well-being.

Masha Gessen

Piecing together the chronology, it becomes apparent what sort of pressure Gessen must have been under while writing this book. Asked whether she felt the same urgency while writing her bestselling book The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin — an equally necessary examination of contemporary Russia — Gessen recalls, “I was careful enough when I was writing my Putin book, I kept it secret. So no one knows… except for my editor and my partner. And my research assistant. That’s it.” She says this with an edge of stoicism that seems necessary for any journalist in the sort of spotlight Gessen had occupied for years before writing either book, as both a journalist and a very public face of Russia’s LGBTQA community.

And Gessen is truly a journalist in the truest, most courageous sense of the word, producing groundbreaking work in an environment where both her personal and professional lives put her at great risk. Several times throughout our conversation she mentions slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose unsolved 2006 murder stands as the prime example of the risks of writing about Russian politics. “I think the lesson they drew from that is, don’t kill journalists who are well known in the West,” Gessen says. But closer to home, the country’s frightening oppression of its LGBTQA citizens made her realize that, “If there’s a chance that social services will go after my kids, then there’s no acceptable level of that risk.”

Gessen knows she’s made some very powerful enemies in Russia, but just like the subjects in her book, she admits that she can “live with some high level of risk” that comes with her occupation. Like Pussy Riot, she wants to see change, and her work is living proof of that, yet she admits that there comes a point when a new strategy is in order: “With the anti-gay laws, it got personal. And that’s a little different. Obviously it’s personal.”

In writing the real story of Pussy Riot, Words Will Break Cement is exemplary of what Gessen excels at as a journalist: educating the English-speaking world about Russia through a topic that has global name recognition and support. Just as Man Without a Face helped readers outside of Russia to better understand Putin’s history and motivations, Words Will Break Cement both gives us Pussy Riot’s story, and shows us the lengths to which Putin and his underlings will go to silence any opposition. Obviously the plan backfired, and the entire world learned of this group of women wearing neon balaclavas screaming about a “Russian riot riot riot.” It embarrassed Putin and his cronies on an international level, and Gessen reflects that — even after over two decades of political activism — “all of us in Russia went through this whole growth process, and that’s a testament to what a great work of art [Pussy Riot] actually created.”

Top image credit: Denis Sinyakov