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The Truth of Pussy Riot

Masha Gessen


Masha Gessen, born 13 January 1967, is a Russian and United States journalist and author. She is a militant lesbian and an activist for the rights of sexual minorities. The mass media mentioned her as a member of the board of directors for the Moscow LGBT human rights organization "Triangle" from 1993 to 1998. She writes in both Russian and English, and has contributed to The New Republic, New Statesman, Granta, Slate, Vanity Fair, and US News & World Report.

 

     A great work of art is something that makes people pay attention, return to the work again and again, and re-examine their assumptions. A great work of art infuriates, hurts, and confronts. A great work of arts is always a miracle.

     A great work of art is also often not immediately recognizable. Five young women entered the enormous Cathedral of Christ the Savior early in the morning on February 21, 2012, took off their overcoats to expose differently colored dresses and neon-colored tights, pulled on similarly neon-colored balaclavas, climbed up on the soleas (having lost one of their number in the process—she had been grabbed by a security guard), and proceeded to dance, play air guitar, and sing a song they called a “punk prayer,” beseeching Mother of God to “get rid of Putin.” They were quickly removed from the church by security, but in the next day they used video footage shot during their very brief performance to put together a clip that began circulating on Youtube. The significance of this sequence of events was not immediately apparent to anyone. As the video gradually began to make its way around the world, some observers (mostly abroad) rejoiced in the pure spirit of punk it demonstrated. In Russia, much of the opposition intelligentsia frowned on what it perceived as a prank in questionable taste. Perhaps a couple of the more cerebral bloggers made note of the lyrics, which, in addition to the “Mother of God” tagline, contained an eerily precise portrayal of the current state of Russian politics and the cozy relationship between the Kremlin and the Church.

     In March three of them were arrested. In May I first heard one of the most popular leaders of the protest movement, Olga Romanova, say, “I have realized that 'Mother of God, get rid of Putin,' is the most moving protest slogan ever produced. I will now make a point of using it everywhere.” Again, she meant the uncanny precision with which the lyrics had combined an allusion to the Kremlin's relationship with the Church, the magical hope-against-hope sentiment that underlay the Russian protest movement, and the sense of absolute and utter exhaustion with the very fact of Putin so much of the Russian public now shared.

     It was also in May that Putin was inaugurated for his third term as president. We know now that the crackdown that has characterized his third term began with the arrest of Pussy Riot. We also know that the August 2012 trial of Pussy Riot drew the lines in the culture war that Putin has launched.

     In the center of Europe's largest city, in the bright days of the summer of 2012, an actual witch trial was taking place. Witnesses for the prosecution testified that the accused were possessed. So-called victims claimed they had been rendered unable to work by seeing Pussy Riot's “devilish shakings.” Meanwhile, the three young women – only one of whom, Tolokonnikova, had ever been at all a public figure – impressed observers as extraordinarily intelligent and uncannily articulate. With each passing day, the number of articles written about them in the world media grew, as did the number of Muscovites gathered outside the courthouse: few people could get in, but the patch of grass in front of the courthouse had become a sort of social and political magnet. The artists, journalists, architects, and others milling there day after day exchanged news leaking from the courtroom and, increasingly, quoting the statements the young women were making. They proved uniquely able to articulate not only their own mission but the issues rocking their very unwell country. Even the skeptics were compelled to admit the “punk prayer” had been no prank and no accident: it was a uniquely well-aimed, well-planned, and well-executed act of confrontation. It was a great work of art.

     All societies' public rhetoric involves some measure of lying and history is made when somebody effectively confronts the lie. But in really scary societies, all public conversation is a lie and confronting it is the most frightening and lonely thing a person can choose to do. These are societies of Evgeniy Zamyatin's We, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, or 20th century Russia, which has now been recreated for the 21st century. For nearly a hundred years, almost every important word in the language, from love to democracy, has been used to mean its opposite. The decade-long respite in the 1990s was not nearly enough to restore the language. The question of finding a way out of the culture of profound lying has been at the heart of Russian dissent all along (in fact, Russians are probably more familiar with Solzhenitsyn's essay Live Not by Lies than with the Archipelago - and in a perversely perfect way, the title has given life to a derogatory term for dissenters: zhitnepolzhiviye, or the livenotbyliers). And as with any web of lies, the longer they go on and the more tangled they become, the harder it is to see a way out. In this way, today's dissenters have an even more difficult job to do than their Soviet predecessors.

     It took several very unusual women to manage to tell the truth. They were very young. They were all outsiders – because they were unusually smart, because they read unusual books (their cultural baggage is familiar to anyone who went to graduate school in the US in the late 80s or early 90s but entirely exotic to Russians of all ages), and, most important, they took themselves very seriously. As a high school student, Tolokonnikova had to write a letter to the principal explaining her behavior. She decided to stress the importance of “crisis moments” to the development of any social body. “Therefore I create such crisis moments,” she wrote, “solely out of concern for the school – so that it may develop better and faster.” The principal was apparently incensed – not so much by the message of the letter but by the way Tolokonnikova signed it: with her full name and patronymic – Tolokonnikova, Nadezhda Andreevna, as an adult would, rather than Nadya Tolokonnikova, as would be expected of a child. He demanded that she re-write the letter with the appropriately juvenile signature. “This was exactly how my relationships with representatives of the state would develop from that point on,” Tolokonnikova wrote to me in a letter from a penal colony about ten years later.

     The young women who took themselves very seriously cast about for a way to tell the truth in a society that always spoke in lies. It had to be an elaborate production, or else it would not work - especially since the normal tools of truth-telling, like language, had been turned against it. Their discussions and the honing of speech and presentation finally led to the "punk prayer." Which was an attempt at truth-telling that succeeded by any measure - which is also what makes it a great piece of art. It got people to think. It got the world not only to pay attention but, broadly, to change its opinion of Russia: in this way its impact is comparable to that of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, which changed the world's view of the Soviet Union. And it got the targeted liars really, really mad.
 


Pour citer ces ressources :

Masha Gessen. 02/2014. "The Truth of Pussy Riot".
La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LYON/DGESCO). ISSN 2107-7029. Mis à jour le 24 février 2014.
Consulté le 20 septembre 2014.
Url : http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/the-truth-of-pussy-riot-223449.

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mise à jour le 24 février 2014
Créé le 21 février 2014
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues