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Pussy Riot and the new age of dissident art

Neither of these two new books about the feminist art collective leave one optimistic about the immediate future of Russian politics, but they show the deep effect the saga has had.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot
Out and about: Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot in New York on 5 February. Photo: New York Times/Evevine.

Kicking the Kremlin: Russia’s New Dissidents
and the Battle to Topple Putin 

Marc Bennetts
Oneworld, 288pp, £11.99

Words Will Break Cement: the Passion of Pussy Riot
Masha Gessen
Granta Books, 308pp, £9.99

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, an imposing gold and white structure beside the Moscow River in the heart of Russia’s capital, may look old but it’s actually a reconstruction. The original 19th-century building was demolished by Stalin in 1931 to make way for a never-built Palace of the Soviets. And, in a sign of the communists’ disdain for the Orthodox Church, a public swimming pool sat on the site until the 1990s, when work on the replacement began.

To some, it’s the centre of a resurgent Christianity, which along with the firm leadership of Vladimir Putin, has given Russia a sense of pride and purpose once more. To others – including many believers – this gaudy edifice, infamous for its overpriced souvenir shop, is a symbol of what’s gone wrong with the country: a repressive, corrupt government, given spiritual legitimacy by equally corrupt church leaders. On 21 February 2012, five members of the feminist art collective Pussy Riot walked into Christ the Saviour, dressed in balaclavas and brightly coloured dresses to perform a song in which they implored the “Mother of God” to “chase Putin out”. Their “punk prayer” would propel them – and Russia’s burgeoning protest movement – on to the global stage. It would also, arguably, mark the point at which that same movement lost any hope of success in Russia itself.

Marc Bennetts’s Kicking the Kremlin is a calm but compelling account of how a disparate set of political groups came together in 2011 to create the largest anti-government protests Russia has seen in living memory. It begins not with the protesters themselves but with Putin’s rise to the presidency at the turn of the millennium. This context is essential to understanding what came next: Putin’s promise to tackle the chaos and lawlessness of the Yeltsin years – when Russians escaped the repression of the Soviet Union only to be plunged into abject poverty as a handful of businessmen enriched themselves by dismembering state assets – was attractive to many.

Yet it soon became apparent that the former KGB officer’s promises to respect freedom of expression and human rights were hollow. Bennetts briskly tracks how, under the banner of “sovereign democracy”, Putin developed a system of rule in which media outlets were neutered, opposition parties were firmly in the pocket of the Kremlin and corruption was institutionalised. Yet, for most of the 2000s, open dissent was confined to a tiny movement of liberals, or fringe extremists such as Eduard Limonov, a sometime poet whose “National Bolshevik” movement attempted to combine elements of Stalinism and Nazism.

This began to change when Putin was succeeded in 2008 by Dimitry Medvedev, who made promises of genuine reform at the start of his term in office. When it became apparent that he was unable or unwilling to make good on these promises, and that Putin was in fact using Medvedev to sidestep a constitutional ban on presidents serving more than two consecutive terms, public anger grew. Discontent was most evident among Russia’s urban, educated professionals: the so-called creative class who were frustrated that the wealth amassed by their country’s super-rich elite was not trickling down to them. A range of grievances – over the environment, or the corruption that made bribery a feature of everyday life – were given focus by Putin’s announcement that he would seek the presidency once more in 2012.

Bennetts has lived and worked as a reporter in Moscow for 15 years, and he was an eyewitness to the protests that erupted after rigged parliamentary elections at the end of 2011. His account of these episodes is the book’s liveliest element, as well as portraits of the protest leaders, based on his interviews. We meet Alexei Navalny, a fearless anti-corruption blogger whose nationalist leanings – Navalny has described immigration to Russia from central Asian states such as Uzbekistan as “planting a bomb under our future” – have made many of his anti-Putin allies uncomfortable. And Sergei Udaltsov, the ascetic revolutionary leftist, whom Bennetts likens to Rakhmetov, the anti-hero of the 19th-century novel What is to be Done?, who “ate nothing but black bread and slept on a bed of nails”.

Bennetts doesn’t attempt any grand theorising but nor does he impose his own politics on the account – which in this case is welcome. The picture that emerges is of a fractious movement, which at its peak could mobilise 100,000 people on the streets of Moscow but made little progress elsewhere in Russia – in those vast parts of the country that lack a “creative class”, where Soviet-era infrastructure continues to rot, and where Putin-appointed governors reign supreme.

Although Bennetts devotes a chapter to Pussy Riot and their ensuing trial, what’s interesting is how tangential they appear to this story. Before their punk prayer, the group’s previous guerilla performances – in the Moscow metro, in Red Square, outside the police cells where members of the protest movement were detained in December 2011 – had been gaining them notoriety at home and abroad, but they certainly weren’t “leaders” of a movement. And their intervention at Christ the Saviour, coming just as a crackdown on the protest movement was gathering pace, provided the Russian state with an excuse for yet more repression. It was easily misconstrued as an attack on the Orthodox religion; government-controlled media outlets did their best to give that impression. Campaigners such as Navalny had to distance themselves angrily from Pussy Riot, while the three members whom police could identify were prosecuted for “hooliganism”. Two were sentenced to long spells in penal colonies but released in December 2013 following an amnesty.

But if the action was costly, neither was it some naive stunt. In Words Will Break Cement, Masha Gessen makes a forceful case for Pussy Riot as creators of great art, which in her definition is “something that makes people pay attention … re-examine their assumptions, something that infuriates, hurts and confronts”. With extensive access to the friends, relatives and prison correspondence of the jailed activists, she delves deep into the lives of Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, the three Pussy Riot members on trial last year. As a Russian-American steeped in the same ideas that inspired Pussy Riot – a blend of Russian avant-gardism, the feminist theory of US writers such as Judith Butler and the punk aesthetics of the Riot Grrrl movement – Gessen is a useful guide through this patchwork of influences.

With that context established, her account of their trial sets it up as the group’s most ambitious art intervention yet. The women’s testimony and cross-examination of prosecution witnesses is not designed to win sympathy with the court; it’s intended to reveal the absurd process for what it is: a show trial. Gessen’s painstaking account of brutal conditions in the penal colonies is an argument that elements of the Soviet system never went away. All that is a lot to fit into one short book, and Gessen’s narrative voice flits between detached reportage, meditations on the nature of art and broadsides against “the suffocating political conformity, the overwhelming mediocrity, and the obsessive consumption of Putin’s Russia”.

But Gessen’s book also hints at why Pussy Riot have been so feted abroad. It’s not just a free speech issue: their feminism and their stated challenge to “the political and economic status quo” chimes with the broader mood of discontent that has swept the world in the past four years. We’ve seen widespread protest against that status quo in Britain, too – and it’s been met by a milder but nonetheless illiberal government response: just look at the case of the Australian-born Trenton Oldfield, who disrupted the Oxford-Cambridge boat race in 2012, was sent to prison for six months and has since been pursued with a special vindictiveness by the Home Secretary, who has appeared set on deporting him even though he has a British wife and young child.

Neither book leaves one optimistic about the immediate future. Although Bennetts suggests that the protests have permanently dented Putin’s authority, for the moment the president appears to have consolidated his power. A series of populist new laws – the ban on “homosexual propaganda” being only the most prominent – are intended to keep public anger focused elsewhere, while the Sochi Winter Olympics, if all goes to plan, could be a boost to Russia’s image abroad. Rossiya bez Putina – “Russia without Putin” – was the protesters’ rallying cry. That demand still looks a long way from being fulfilled.

Daniel Trilling is the editor of the New Humanist

 

 

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