The 'Pussy Riot' Arrests, And The Crackdown That Followed

Pussy Riot members Yekaterina Samutsevich (left), Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass-walled cage in a Moscow court on Oct. 10, 2012.

hide captionPussy Riot members Yekaterina Samutsevich (left), Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass-walled cage in a Moscow court on Oct. 10, 2012.

Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

Masha Gessen is a prominent journalist who is also a lesbian and an outspoken LGBT rights advocate in Russia. After Russia passed two anti-gay laws in June, she decided it was time for her, her partner and their children to leave. In late December, they moved to New York.

"The only thing more creepy than hearing someone suggest the likes of you should be burned alive is hearing someone suggest the likes of you should be burned alive and thinking, 'I know that guy.' "

That's what Gessen wrote recently, referring to an experience she had with one of Russia's most virulent homophobic public figures.

Words Will Break Cement
Words Will Break Cement

The Passion of Pussy Riot

by Masha Gessen

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Gessen is the author of a critical book about President Vladimir Putin, published in 2012. Her new book is about Pussy Riot, the Russian group that has used punk rock as a form of performance art to protest against Putin. Its most famous action was in February 2012 inside a Moscow cathedral where band members danced and played air guitar as their boom box played what they called "A Punk Prayer":

"Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out
... The phantom of liberty is up in heaven,
Gay pride sent to Siberia in a chain gang
... Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist."

The action resulted in the arrest of three members of the group. Two of them, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were sentenced to two years in prison.

"Not coincidentally, their arrest ... launched Putin's crackdown on the opposition and on his critics, which has lasted for the last two years," Gessen tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So, in a way, both their performance and their arrests marked the beginning of a new political era in Russia."

As part of Putin's pre-Olympics prisoner amnesty, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released last month, two months before their sentences were up.

Gessen's new book is called Words Will Break Cement: The Passion Of Pussy Riot.


Interview Highlights

On the working conditions inside the women's prison where Nadezhda Tolokonnikova served time

What had happened at her penal colony was that the sewing factory that has served as the lifeblood of every women's penitentiary institution in Russia, and many of the men's ones, was taking on more and more orders, so the inmates were forced to work longer and longer hours. By the end of the summer, the workday was about 17 hours, so they were allowed to sleep about four hours a night, if that. They wouldn't get days off except maybe every six weeks or so. So they were incredibly sleep deprived. The working conditions were very unsafe and they were also ... fed very, very poorly in the prison colony.

So Nadezhda decided to protest first inside the prison by going to complain to the warden and saying that they needed to return the workday to the legal limit of eight hours. In response, he threatened her with murder.

On the open letter Tolokonnikova wrote from prison

She violated this unspoken taboo against talking about what happens to women's hygiene in prison. This is one of the key ways of controlling and humiliating women in the penitentiary institutions. They're systematically denied the right to wash themselves. There's usually one bathing day a week. In Nadezhda's colony, this bathing day, women are escorted to a common washroom, so there are 8,200 women in a very small space, all of them naked, all of them elbowing each other out of the way to get to a faucet, which may or may not have running water. ...

The experience was so humiliating that she actually told me ... that she had taken to hiding from the guard when they were about to be escorted to this common washroom, just to avoid the experience.

On Russia's anti-gay laws

What [the anti-gay propaganda law] means is that any portrayal of LGBT people, LGBT relationships and LGBT families is now illegal in Russia if it's accessible to minors, which of course is a problem for LGBT families because we are ourselves examples of LGBT families and are by definition accessible to minors who live in our own homes.

So the natural consequence of these laws is a campaign against LGBT parents which began with the second law ... which is a ban on adoptions by same-sex couples or single people from countries where same-sex marriage is legal. ... It's not just new adoptions; it can be used retroactively to annul adoptions that have already taken place. ...

It's Putin's effort to shore up his constituency around this very vague but very potent idea of traditional values — the Russian family, the Orthodox religion — and against the West. Nobody represents the alien West in Russia better than LGBT people do.

Part of the reason for that is because there was never any conversation about sex and sexual orientation in Russia. While the Western world was having the sexual revolution, we were having the Soviet Union. So this is really the first time that issues of sexuality, as absurd as that sounds, have been brought up in the public arena in Russia.

On being "out" in Russia before and after the anti-gay laws

I lived in Russia full time for the last 20 years and I've always been out. So yes, I've been able to be out. I've been out to my employers; I've been publicly out; I've been one of those people that are invited to every talk show that's ever devoted to LGBT issues, which were never so heated as they were in the last year. ...

One of the pernicious things about what's going on in Russia is that there are few people who are as publicly out as I was, but [LGBT people] are generally comfortable, or have been comfortable until recently. So they don't have a closet to hide in, especially if they have kids. Often their pediatrician knows, their schoolteachers know, their neighbors know. What are they supposed to do? How are they supposed to suddenly un-come out and prevent social services from coming after their kids?

On what she learned while reporting on the upcoming Sochi Olympics

I did some investigative work on the construction in Sochi and the incredible amount of corruption and shoddy construction and theft and embezzlement that was going on there. To give you an idea, there was a point starting about three years ago and until quite recently where a reporting assignment in Sochi was probably more dangerous than a reporting assignment in a war zone for a Russian journalist. People were getting beaten up, intimidated and killed around Sochi [for exposing corruption]. ...

We actually don't know much about what we're going to find in Sochi [for the Olympics], except that an incredible percentage of the money that was allocated to the construction there was stolen, so there's every reason to believe that the construction is of poor quality, shoddy and probably dangerous. We also know that Sochi itself is going to be turned into essentially a military zone for the duration of the Olympics. It's going to be heavily restricted, no protests are going to be allowed, very little communication is going to be allowed, very little freedom of movement.

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