- - Wednesday, March 19, 2014


By Masha Gessen
Riverhead Books, $16, 308 pages (paperback)

Given that Russian President Vladimir Putin is behaving like a 17th-century Russian czar, I suggest that the time has come to grant him an appropriate title — and what immediately comes to mind is “Vlad the Terrible.”

What prompts my disgust is an Associated Press photo from Sochi, Russia, during the first days of the Olympics showing several men clad in czarist-era Cossack uniforms thrashing cowering women with whips — members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, women whose innovative protests have bedeviled the Russian president for the past several years.

Did Mr. Putin order the savage beatings? We will never know. However, given the high profile the group has achieved worldwide, one can logically conclude that the men swinging the whips did so knowing they were shielded by official impunity.

How Pussy Riot became the driving force behind what seems to be a growing resistance to Mr. Putin’s dictatorial domestic conduct is vividly recounted in “Words Will Break Cement” by the talented Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist whose earlier works include “The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”

Members of the group cooperated in enabling Ms. Gessen to recount how their group came into being, how they developed their own version of “performance art,” and how they suffered for their outspokenness by sham Stalin-type political trials and cruel prison terms.

By Ms. Gessen’s account, Pussy Riot had a revolving membership over the years, a shared grievance being Mr. Putin’s drive to deaden the Russian intellect by repression. Her book focuses on the three women who eventually were convicted for demonstrating in a Russian cathedral — Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yetaterina “Kat” Samutsevich.

As did many Russians, they came to loathe the means by which Mr. Putin dismantled their nascent democracy, stomping on free elections and the press, leaving little ground for opposition politicians. Booming oil prices enabled him to reward oligarchs who applauded his thuggish conduct. Individuals who convened protest rallies were beaten and jailed.

Frustrated at the failure of traditional protest rallies, Ms. Tolokonnikova and several friends formed an “arts group” named Voina, or “War,” to devise innovative ways to display contempt for Mr. Putin’s rule. Their medium: comic videos with a strong political message.

An actor donned the long black robe of a Russian Orthodox priest and a police officer’s hat, entered a supermarket, and left with a full cart of groceries without paying — to demonstrate that both priests and cops were robbers.

Pussy Riot carried the theme a significant step forward: to perform with staging, visuals and costume. As Ms. Samutsevich told the author, “Because if we just got up there and started screaming, everyone would think we were stupid chicks just standing there screaming.”

So they wore neon-colored balaclavas and multi-colored dresses and stockings. They clambered atop Metro buses, they haunted subway stations, singing against rigged elections:

“Voters are stuffed into classrooms,

“Polling booths stink up stifling rooms,

“It smells of sweat, and it smells of control,

“The floors have been swept and stability has been served.

“Free the cobblestones free the cobblestones.”

They also decided they needed a venue more striking than overexposed Red Square, the site of uncountable protests over the years. The Orthodox Patriarch Kirill gave them an opening in February 2012, on the eve of Mr. Putin’s re-election. In a televised interview with Mr. Putin, he described Russia’s prosperity as “God’s miracle, greatly aided by the country’s leaders.”

As Ms. Gessen writes, “The message was clear again: Putin was next to God, and this was not just Putin’s election campaign — it was also the patriarch’s and that of the Church itself. Thus they decided the proper venue to protest would be in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was to the patriarch what the Kremlin was to Putin.”

A bit of visual fakery was involved. Pussy Riot knew that guards would throw them out of the cathedral in short order. So snatches of video were taken around altars in other churches which, at fast-glimpse speed, would pass for the main cathedral.

It featured five members of Pussy Riot (only three are identified in the book; police never identified the other two), wearing their trademark garb, and singing, “Black robe, golden epaulets, all the parishioners are crawling to bow ” and ending with the chorus, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out. Chase Putin out, chase Putin out.”

The video went viral worldwide and, predictably, the three women who were identified ended up in a show trial the outcome of which was foreordained.

The power of these young women’s convictions comes through strongly in their closing statements, quoted at length by Ms. Gessen: 13 pages in the book for Ms. Tolokonnikova, 12 for Ms. Alyokhina. However, the judge was not impressed: Two years in prison for Ms. Tolokonnikova and Ms. Alyokhina, two years suspended for Ms. Samutsevich, who had a lesser role in the performance.

When Mr. Putin moved against Ukraine a few days ago, he did so on the blatantly false grounds that “fascists” were behind the Kiev demonstrations that forced his puppet president from office. However, the record becomes abundantly clear that it is Russia that has suffered from fascism in the years of Mr. Putin’s rule.

In a civilized society, men do not beat women with whips — on the public streets or elsewhere — simply because they choose to speak their political minds.

President Obama and other Western leaders should summon the courage to treat Mr. Putin for what he is — an international thug who violates the standards by which decent people live. The world community should shun Vlad the Terrible.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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