Book review: Pussy Riot – How to start a Revolution by N. Tolokonnikova

The English translation was supposed to be available from autumn 2016. The German version was published spring 2016. The Dutch and Flemish translation hit the market a few weeks ago. Yet the large international web-based book shops state it is “unavailable”. Has Pussy Riot’s greatest fan, Mr V. Putin, bought up all copies?

Usually, when a well-known group or person publishes a book, media fall over their feet to interview and review. So where are the English reviews by say, the Guardian or Observer of “Pussy Riot: How to start a Revolution”? Did it appear under a different title? If so: where are the interviews? Dutch quality papers interviewed Ms Tolokonnikova a few weeks ago. There are posts by German bloggers dating from spring last year.

Regardless, my advise on “Pussy Riot: How to start a Revolution”?
Buy this book! Read it! Use it!

No; I’m no fan nor lover of punk music and performance art. A few years ago, while reading Pussy Riot had been arrested singing some obscene song in a cathedral, it hardly raised an eyebrow. Did I know, the official version contained alternative facts and lacked important background information.

Like why does a bishop need that many expensive cars and heaps of money? Why turn a church into a highly profitable business by renting it out? How come, a punk band with no money which gate-crashed this business venue, ends up in the docks. Not because it hired the venue for free, but accused by corrupt religious leaders and a country’s president of heinous crimes? Answers given in the chapter “Pussy Riot Church” – and throughout the rest of the book.

I ended up borrowing and reading the Dutch translation. Not my favorite language, but one has to make-do.This version of about 240 pages, contains an introduction, seven chapters and notes to the text.

The book is based on a diary, notes and other documents. Ms Tolokonnikova kept the diary during her imprisonment. The introduction, numbered zero, starts with a number 1 kind-of sub-chapter and underscored text.

For the book is not just divided into chapters. From its introduction to end, it contains 200 quotes to think about. They can be used as stepping-stones towards a revolution.

The 200 points consist of ideas, catch phrases, memories and excerpts from what other people and Ms Tolokonnikova wrote. There are observations by Ms Tolokonnikova’s father, remarks by Putin, excerpt from legal documents, letters and more. There is an Einstein quote, while number 171 is a few lines from “America” by Allen Ginsberg.

Some text is printed in italic, most is not. Included are translations of well-known Pussy Riot songs. The timeline of the narrative is not linear. Some events are described more than once. Does this make this riotous book unreadable? Certainly not – and it offers an awful amount to think about.

Take chapter one: “Surviving in a phallus-centered world without phallus”, number 11: Empowering people. It starts with this note, then continues with a descriptions of the hall inside the forced labour camp – a Gulag.

Women are working behind sewing machines and gossiping. Ms Tolokonnikova is listening while working – and it takes her several minutes to realize she has accidentally sewn straight through her hand, which is now firmly attached to a police or army uniform.

In a later chapter the horrendous conditions in such prison camps are described. The women have to work nearly 20 hours a day, seven days a week. When not working, they are served rotten food and housed in barracks where there are not enough blankets and five layers of clothes do not keep out the cold, while toilets overflow because they are nearly permanently blocked.

Prisoners can only “shower” once a week. This is deemed “a privilege”, so a whole group can be barred from taking showers because it failed to finish the set number of uniforms to be completed per week. Many individuals spend time in isolation cells, though sometimes it is whole groups – for whatever reason.

The mentally ill, political prisoners, criminals are all lumped together. Healthcare is of course non-existent. One pill serves all and everything. If one needs other medication because one is HIV-positive for instance, if medication turns up at all, its sell-by date is long past.

Cruelty is ingrained in the guards. Whole families, whole villages work at these gulags – generation after generations. Prisoners are of course not humans. Plenty inmates die, or rather: are murdered through this cruel regime. In chapter six, called “Prison Break”, Ms Tolokonnikova is already released, when she witnesses a prison director in the dock. His crime? Not cruelty, torture, murder: read the book.

The last chapter is called “Russia Today”. It is not the only place which describes what happens once Ms Tolokonnikova is released in 2014. Point 181, page 218 in the version I read, lists various torture methods used by Russian police. Under the Czars, while being a Communist State, under Putin: violations of human rights continue – but so do protests.

The front cover of the version I borrowed stated a small part of the sale-proceeds will go to “Zona Prava”. It aims to improve the Russian prison system. Extremely slowly and thanks to riots and protests, some things are changing in Russia.

The book’s message? What is applicable in Russia, is applicable in any other country and any other life. A riot starting a revolution can be a mass event, or take place in one person’s life.

Somewhere between chapter five and six of “Pussy Riot: How to start a Revolution”, I noticed workmen preparing to fell a tree near a recently sold house. The umpteenth nearly a century old, healthy and protected tree being illegally cut down. I took issue.

It was this stirring book which got me “off my *ss”. There followed an argument. More people wanted the tree to remain. Then what started as a one-person action to save a tree, uncovered something else.

One of the cars the workmen used, sported what looked like false number plates. It was unclear if the men were in the country legally. One of the people who had hired them, turned out to be familiar with various forms of money laundering.

I may have to move house – stalking, intimidation, bullying. The tree stands – though for God knows how long. But life feels worth living. To cite a few catch-phrases from “Pussy Riot, How to start a Revolution”: Make open-mindedness your vocation. Don’t wait till they skin you. The only way to survive the worst in life, is by laughing. You want change? Get off your *ss! 

“Pussy Riot, Zo begin je een Revolutie”, Nadja Tolokonnikova, paperback version, 240 pp, Atlas Contact, Amsterdam/Antwerp, 2017.
“Pussy Riot, Anleitung für eine Revolution”; German translation, Hanser Literaturverlage, 2016.
Youtube: Pussy Riot – Make America Great Again!

 

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