Alan Johnson's Reviews > Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

Words Will Break Cement by Masha Gessen
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it was amazing
bookshelves: history-russia-post-soviet

This book shows what happens when church and state are not separated. There are two classic forms of church-state combination. The most familiar to us is theocracy, when religious clergy control the state or have the state do their dirty work, as in Calvin's Geneva (where Calvin, by his own admission, instigated the trial and execution of Servetus for heresy) and in seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay (where four Quakers were hanged, Baptists were whipped, and Roger Williams and others were banished, all because of their religious beliefs and nonviolent religious practices), My book The First American Founder: Roger Williams and Freedom of Conscience discusses these examples and issues of church-state separation and liberty of conscience in depth.

The second classic form of church-state combination is what scholars call Erastianism: the state controls the church and all religious doctrine and practice for political purposes. The bible of Erastianism is Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651), a work that Vladimir Putin must keep at his bedside. As described in Gessen's book, Putin installed one of his KGB buddies as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the most important cathedral in Russia was turned into a propaganda vehicle for Putin's political regime, including televised appeals to vote for Putin in the name of God. It is this same church that Pussy Riot turned into its own media platform in an effort to protest the Putin regime's emerging theologico-political dictatorship. Pussy Riot's activity might have been a technical criminal trespass under American law, but it was certainly less of a violation of others' rights than the original Boston Tea Party, from which a popular right-wing movement in the United States currently takes its name. The Pussy Riot contingent waited until a time when no services were being held in the cathedral in order to perform their protest song-and-dance routine. Of course, the Putin regime brought the full power of the one-party Russian state on them, and the state-controlled church and media mischaracterized the Pussy Riot action as an antireligious criminal act. Three Pussy Riot performers were tried (in a good imitation of Soviet-style judicial proceedings), convicted, and sentenced to two years imprisonment. The sentence of one of them was later suspended, because she had been grabbed by security before she could participate in the performance. The other two were consigned to prison colonies, where they were forced to live and work under intolerable conditions until December of 2013, when Putin freed them shortly before the expiration of their sentences in order to avoid adverse media publicity at the imminent Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Gessen's portrayal of the current Russian criminal justice system provides the reader with a chilling reminder that due process of law and other constitutional protections we take for granted in the West have not prevailed everywhere. Like its predecessor Soviet constitutions, the current Constitution of the Russian Federation pays lip service to these concepts, but the practice of the Russian government is far different. Although individual examples of lack of due process exist even in the United States, Gessen's book shows that due process is systemically denied in Russia, at least when the power of the Putin regime is threatened in any way. Moreover, the Pussy Riot performers well understood the nature of their protest. At their trial it was the defendants themselves who made their own closing arguments, and Gessen faithfully reproduces these arguments from written transcripts made by independent observers. The logic and eloquence of the Pussy Riot performers' closing statements are themselves sufficient to warrant the price of this book and sufficient justification to read it.

(Originally posted 6/21/2014; revised 8/23/2015)
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
February 4, 2014 – Shelved
February 4, 2014 – Finished Reading
October 26, 2014 – Shelved as: history-russia-post-soviet

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☘Misericordia☘ ~ The Serendipity Aegis ~  ⚡ϟ⚡ϟ⚡⛈ ✺❂❤❣ Sorry, what? Church and State are separate in Russia. As a matter of fact they haven't been joint officially since 1918 and unofficially for much longer.
In fact for the most of 20th century practicing religion, of any kind had been prosecuted. You really should read something worthy on history of Russia before making such statements :)


Alan Johnson Putin is reestablishing a merger of his increasingly authoritarian state with the Russian Orthodox Church in a classic Erastian manner in order to promote his political objectives. Read this book and Gessen's and others' books on Putin if your government permits you to do so.


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