[NetBehaviour] Pussy Riot and the new age of dissident art

marc garrett marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Wed Feb 19 10:58:45 CET 2014

Pussy Riot and the new age of dissident art

Neither of these two new books about the feminist art collective leave 
one optimistic about the immediate future of Russian politics, but they 
show the deep effect the saga has had.

Kicking the Kremlin: Russia’s New Dissidents
and the Battle to Topple Putin
Marc Bennetts
Oneworld, 288pp, £11.99

Words Will Break Cement: the Passion of Pussy Riot
Masha Gessen
Granta Books, 308pp, £9.99

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, an imposing gold and white 
structure beside the Moscow River in the heart of Russia’s capital, may 
look old but it’s actually a reconstruction. The original 19th-century 
building was demolished by Stalin in 1931 to make way for a never-built 
Palace of the Soviets. And, in a sign of the communists’ disdain for the 
Orthodox Church, a public swimming pool sat on the site until the 1990s, 
when work on the replacement began.

To some, it’s the centre of a resurgent Christianity, which along with 
the firm leadership of Vladimir Putin, has given Russia a sense of pride 
and purpose once more. To others – including many believers – this gaudy 
edifice, infamous for its overpriced souvenir shop, is a symbol of 
what’s gone wrong with the country: a repressive, corrupt government, 
given spiritual legitimacy by equally corrupt church leaders. On 21 
February 2012, five members of the feminist art collective Pussy Riot 
walked into Christ the Saviour, dressed in balaclavas and brightly 
coloured dresses to perform a song in which they implored the “Mother of 
God” to “chase Putin out”. Their “punk prayer” would propel them – and 
Russia’s burgeoning protest movement – on to the global stage. It would 
also, arguably, mark the point at which that same movement lost any hope 
of success in Russia itself.

Marc Bennetts’s Kicking the Kremlin is a calm but compelling account of 
how a disparate set of political groups came together in 2011 to create 
the largest anti-government protests Russia has seen in living memory. 
It begins not with the protesters themselves but with Putin’s rise to 
the presidency at the turn of the millennium. This context is essential 
to understanding what came next: Putin’s promise to tackle the chaos and 
lawlessness of the Yeltsin years – when Russians escaped the repression 
of the Soviet Union only to be plunged into abject poverty as a handful 
of businessmen enriched themselves by dismembering state assets – was 
attractive to many.

Yet it soon became apparent that the former KGB officer’s promises to 
respect freedom of expression and human rights were hollow. Bennetts 
briskly tracks how, under the banner of “sovereign democracy”, Putin 
developed a system of rule in which media outlets were neutered, 
opposition parties were firmly in the pocket of the Kremlin and 
corruption was institutionalised. Yet, for most of the 2000s, open 
dissent was confined to a tiny movement of liberals, or fringe 
extremists such as Eduard Limonov, a sometime poet whose “National 
Bolshevik” movement attempted to combine elements of Stalinism and Nazism.

More at Newstatesman

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