After reading Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, David Remnick asked its subjects for their take on Putin’s Russia:
“For Putin, the Olympic Games are an attempt to inflate the inflatable duck of a national idea, as he sees it,” [Nadezhda] Tolokonnikova told me. “In Russia today, there are no real politics, no real discussion of views, and meanwhile the government tries to substitute for this with hollow forms of a national idea—with the Church, with sports and the Olympics.”
“These Olympic Games are central to the meaning of his life—they are as important to him as anything he has done,” [Maria] Alekhina said. “For us, it is important from an entirely different point of view. People need to note the corruption involved in building Sochi for the Games; they should notice the demolitions of buildings.”
Tolokonnikova and Alekhina said they thought that Putin, despite managing to suppress the wave of anti-government protests that erupted in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia two years ago, is weaker than he seems to the outside world. Even though they are now traveling in Europe and the United States, they said that they had no intention of emigrating or backing off; they plan to remain in Russia and concentrate their efforts on human-rights issues, particularly the plight of prisoners in Russian jails and prison colonies.
Reviewing Masha’s book, Graeme Wood comes away with a newfound respect for Pussy Riot:
Tolokonnikova read out a long closing statement that Gessen quotes in full. Nothing we previously knew about Tolokonnikova can prepare us for that statement’s decency, wisdom, and sadness at how little Russia has learned from the still-living memory of Stalin. “It is the entire Russian state system that is on trial here, a system that, to its own detriment, is so enamored of quoting its own cruelty toward the human being, its own indifference toward his honor and integrity,” she said. “If the political system turns all its might against three girls who spent a mere thirty seconds performing in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, that means only that this political system is afraid of the truth.”
Read in tandem with Gessen’s Putin book, Words Will Break Cement would indeed seem to suggest that anti-Putinism is its own source of strength, and that oppression can prematurely impart wisdom to the young and ennoble the frivolous. Pussy Riot’s movement started silly but was forced to into a position of dignity and principle by its tremendously undignified and unprincipled opponent. Tolokonnikova’s speech — delivered, I am impressed to say, by a twenty-two-year-old — is a great deal more sophisticated than throwing cats at fry cooks, and it is sure to outlast any words uttered by the man who had hoped to render her silent.