“WORDS WILL BREAK CEMENT” (THE PASSION OF PUSSY RIOT) & “MAN WITHOUT A FACE;THE UNLIKELY RISE OF PUTIN”, both by MASHA GESSEN
The well respected Russian/American journalist, Masha Gessen has recently written the story of activist group in Russia, Pussy Riot. And quite a story it is.
It starts off with her going to visit one of its members, Nadya, in a desolate Russian prison, where they had been sentenced to 2 years for their protests against the Putin government in 2012. Gessen then likewise interviews and follows the other two main members, Kat and Maria. She shows how the three had come together and their early attempts to take on the repressive system, until their“event”in one of Russia’s most famous churches( to show the close connections between The Church and the government) that gained them worldwide attention which led to their arrest and prison.
“Pussy Riot” as they became known to the world, weren’t really even musicians as such, but were more of a punk feminist/art collective who would later combine music and lyrics into their performance art. An interesting thing the individual members seemed to have initially in common were their childhoods; they each already felt like “outsiders” in society, as most artists do. But it’s how they turned their personal rebellion into a social and political statement that’s fascinating. The state, it seems, just didn’t know how to deal with them and their unorthodox ways, especially in this era of social media. Vladimir Putin, head of the Russian state, recognized the threat and so tried to stifle them, which he saw as a direct opposition to his control.
And Gessen in her other book about Putin (2012) shows how they would inevitably clash. Putin although he was a former KGB man, had actually been an unlikely person to rise so high in the government hierarchy, let alone eventually run Russia. He had even been seen by some as, perhaps a bit of a reformer, having been an assistant to former liberal Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, as well as to the mayor of Leningrad.
But Masha Gessen also examines his childhood and personality and reveals that he had been a schoolyard bully. Since her book, Gessen has recently written a high profile U.S. newspaper article in which she maintains Putin is neither “insane” nor a “Hitler”, as Hillary Clinton had suggested recently, but a Russian nationalist, who has been quoted as saying the fall of the Soviet Union is one of the greatest tragedies. He sees himself as destined to bring it back to its former glory. He is a former KGB man as are most of those around him, and that colours his view of the West and the world. But she maintains, his personality is still but that of a schoolyard bully. Another story that others have described about Putin is when he met with Merkel of Germany (with whom he has a good relationship because he speaks fluent German, having been stationed there when in the KGB) is when he brought along a big black dog, even though Merkel has a fear of dogs. He evidently wanted to see how she would react; fortunately Merkel maintained her cool. So there is a bit of a chess player in Putin, whom evidently only respects strength in his opponents and considers Obama weak. It was Putin’s intervention in Syria that allowed Obama to find a way out to not join in the war in Syria, despite drawing a line against chemical weapons.
Unfortunately, Putin represents to some Russians, especially an older generation, a tough leader as in their glory days, as evidenced by his infamous macho, shirtless antics- a chess player whose next moves are hard to decipher. And Gessen says several Russian journalists have been killed by the secret police and could very well have ‘staged’ even some of the terrorists’ bombings to justify his law and order decrees. So Putin is one wily character.
Of course, the recent Olympics in Russia was all part of Putin’s plan for his new vision of Russia and he even had early released the Pussy Riot members as part of that PR package. It will be interesting to see how far they and others will be able to continue their fight against the system. I had mentioned in my previous book review (see below) how my Russian friend, Yury Pelyushonok’s, and BBC director, Leslie Woodhead’s books and film, reveal how Beatles’ music helped bring down the Soviet Union. Early folk protestors like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger had written on their guitar, ”This Machine Kills Fascists”. So sometimes even the most unlikely things can cause cracks in a corrupt system. And Pussy Riot are carrying on that brave tradition. There is also a documentary film on Pussy Riot out now. Are we entering another cold war with Russia as some have suggested? With the Russians’ recent annexing of Crimea and the mass of troops on Ukraine’s borders, we shall soon see if this is all part of a larger plan for Putin or not. In the meanwhile, it can’t hurt to try and understand whom we may have to deal with. And both of Gessen’s well written books offer us insight on such.