Two members of the Russian dissident punk group Pussy Riot came to the Capitol Tuesday and asked members of Congress to add 16 officials to the list of Russian human rights violators who face U.S. sanctions. Before a throng of cameras and reporters, the women — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina — said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on human rights was damaging that country.
“Putin is not leading Russia to stability, but to complete instability and chaos,” Tolokonnikova said through a translator. The pair was arrested in 2012 after an obscenity-laced performance criticizing Putin at Moscow’s main cathedral. They spent nearly two years in prison, but since their release have continued decrying the lack of freedom in Russia and harsh government tactics against opponents.
The women said Russia has resumed abusing prisoners, including using mandatory psychiatric treatment for some. They said they hoped public pressure would force the mistreatment to stop. “Silence is the most dangerous thing for a political prisoner,” said Tolokonnikova.
By law, the United States can freeze assets and ban travel to the U.S. of Russians deemed to be human rights abusers. Currently, 18 Russians are on a public list of people facing such sanctions while an unknown number of others are on a confidential list.
That Putin had been handed back the Presidency from his buddy Medvedev; that three women got arrested for performing inside that cathedral; and feminist punk in Russia just gained a quantum leap in fame and perspective. This is the arc and coverage of Words Will Break Cement by Masha Gessen (also the author of the anti-Putin biography The Man Without a Face), who narrates the story of Pussy Riot from its gestation in the performance art collective Voina, up to the first versions of the band (called Wee Wee Riot), honing shock performance as Pussy Riot, jail time, a show trial, and more jail time.
Gessen’s work delves deeper into the histories of the three girls who were imprisoned, through exclusive letters and interactions she got from Nadya, Kat, and Maria (but mostly Kat and Maria) while in jail, and through interviews with the rest of the Riot members, their families, and their friends. While the HBO documentary presents a vivid albeit quick portrait of how Pussy Riot came together, Gessen works on her own mural and traces how the quirky art group Voina and its members were eventually left dissatisfied with the shocking, albeit fairly shallow and obscurantist methods of that collective, like kissing cops and holding an orgy at a biology museum.
That a collective of women has embraced the punk aesthetic and used it as both weapon and fuel for protest because there is nothing of creative dissent in contemporary Russian culture just bowls me over. It’s an astounding act of courage. Makes you appreciate a democracy where you can sing and march in protest without getting sent to a gulag the day after. Gessen’s work is nuanced, layered, and complex, just like the context that birthed Pussy Riot. It’s also rambling and often prone to muse on branching stories that weigh down the action of the narrative. Boy, you can really feel the boredom of the girls in jail and those parts I could have really skipped over.
Pussy Riot has used punk to re-imagine a better Russia, and to endeavor to shape their world without demagogues, cultural rot, and political static. A Russia free from Putin. Of course they got arrested and put through a show trial. This is where Gessen’s work shines with revelation. Riot had, previously, already performed in a lingerie store, on a roof top, and in the Red Square near the Kremlin.
Their accomplishment can’t be overlooked at all, however. With the cathedral performance, jail time, and the coverage of the trial, Pussy Riot has done more to shine a light on Russian life’s ills and corruption than any news agency has in years. With the Taqwacore movement in America and Pussy Riot in Russia, punk rock has unexpectedly become the empowering force it’s long hankered for, the dreamer who can almost literally enact change by shouting at the ills and social dystopia surrounding him.
Gessen’s work is at its best when she simply recounts action and leaves herself out of the narrative (which happens more often than a reportage/biography book should normally allow). This happens in the prison scenes, the lull during the trials and at transfers, and in the communiques between Nadya, Maria, Kat and their friends and loved ones. All these in-betweens happen off-camera, without a camfone or journalist to record the event.
All in all the book is at its core an entertaining documentation of Russian judiciary processes in reaction to what five women did at a cathedral, what it meant to Russian liberals, and what it meant to the world, and why it motivated musicians and celebrities to assemble support on social media and other methods. The book stops while Maria and Nadya are still in prison, but the great epilogue off-book here is that, having served 21 months, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released on December 23, 2013 after the State Duma approved their amnesty.
Alexei Navalny and his Fund for Combatting Corruption (FBK) rose to prominence as the independent investigative and political foil for pro-Kremlin officials in recent years. During protests in 2011 against Putin’s return to the presidency, the charismatic Navalny became known as one of the leading critics of Putin and the ruling United Russia party. (Navalny’s Party of Progress holds no seats in parliament.)
Navalny’s planned protest on Sunday follows his investigation of the prime minister’s financial worth. In a report released in March, the activist claimed Medvedev had secretly amassed an “empire” of assets (including yachts and a vineyard) and luxury real estate, via questionable deals.
According to Navalny, Medvedev uses a web of charities run by his associates to conceal these deals. He made the link after cross-referencing alleged leaks from Medvedev’s transactions under an online alias with Medvedev’s possessions. The account in question had ordered a series of shirts and flashy sneakers that Medvedev has been photographed wearing.
A Moscow city court ruled on Thursday to place two teenager girls accused of extremism under house arrest, a day after hundreds of people gathered to protest their detention in central Moscow.
Anna Pavlikova, 18, has been held in pre-trial detention alongside Maria Dubovik, 19, since March 15 when were arrested along with eight others. Prosecutors say the defendants were part of a Telegram chat group called Novoye Velichiye (New Greatness) that planned to topple the government. The defendants deny the charges.
The Dorogomilovsky court in Moscow ruled on Thursday to transfer Pavlikova and Dubovik to house arrest until September 13, following a request filed by investigators on Wednesday to move the girls from pre-trial detention.
The case has stirred controversy in recent weeks after reports that the girls’ health had deteriorated. Dubovik has said that she has developed a tumor, problems with her digestive system and a thyroid condition, while Pavlikova has said that she is suffering from neurosis and heart problems.
The defendants’ lawyers and families have criticized the extremism charges against the girls as being trumped up, adding that they had been provoked by a Federal Security Services (FSB) officer who had infiltrated their online chat group.
On Wednesday evening, an estimated 2,000 people marched in central Moscow in support of transferring the girls from prison to house arrest, according to a representative of the OVD-Info police watchdog that attended the event.