Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen lived and worked in Russia for 20 years before increasingly severe anti-gay legislation led her, her partner and three children to leave for the U.S. last December. Her newest book, “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot,” details the story of the famed feminist punk rock activist group, tracing the roots of their revolt in Russia’s post-Soviet culture and documenting the members’ journey into Russia’s penal colonies after being convicted of hooliganism. She joins Kojo to discuss the art of dissent.

Guests

  • Masha Gessen Journalist and author, "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot"

Transcript

  • 13:07:48

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Masha Gessen knows the dangers of speaking out in Vladimir Putin's Russia. For more than two decades she's offered a rare platform for -- voices in Russia, an influential journalist and openly gay public figure. But spaces for public protest and dissent have rapidly disappeared in recent years.

  • 13:08:25

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn 2012 the music group known as -- and we should mention that if you are sensitive or have young children around, we are going to be mentioning the name of this group on several occasions, so you might want to take whatever the appropriate action. The group Pussy Riot was arrested and convicted of hooliganism for staging a punk rock prayer in a Moscow cathedral.

  • 13:08:45

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIGessen herself was fired for refusing to cover what she knew would be one of the president's publicity stunts. She was beaten in front of parliament and she heard Russian lawmakers single out her family by name as they escalated their legal assault on the LGBT community. Late last year Gessen decided the environment had become too toxic, that she and her family would need to leave Russia.

  • 13:09:08

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe joins us this hour to discuss the state of politics, protest and descent in Russia. Masha Gessen is a Russian American journalist. She is the author of several books including her most recent work. It is titled "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot." Masha Gessen joins us from the Argo studios in New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:09:29

    MS. MASHA GESSENThank you.

  • 13:09:31

    NNAMDIYou know, as foreign journalists and tourists flood into Sochi for the Winter Olympic Games, they've poked fun at broken toilets, eerily yellow tap water, overall dysfunction. Almost, it seems, delighted that a 51 billion project of Russian President Vladimir Putin could result in such chaos. But that tone sometimes seemed, well, a little inappropriate since these stories reflect some deeper more profound problems in the country, do they not?

  • 13:09:56

    GESSENThey do. And actually I'm not on the side of those who have criticized journalists for Tweeting about the broken toilets. I think what's missing is the second level of analysis which is sort of explaining that this is a very accurate reflection that we're seeing of the state in which Russian society is, the total disintegration of everyday life and the total disintegration of the state. I mean, this was supposed to be Putin's big party and he couldn't really pull it off.

  • 13:10:26

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation with Masha Gessen. You can also sent us an email to kojo@wamu.org or a Tweet @kojoshow if you have questions for her about Pussy Riot, her work reporting in Russia or her role as a gay rights activist. You can also go to our website kojoshow.org and ask questions or make a comment there.

  • 13:10:48

    NNAMDIMasha Gessen, you do not seem to shy away from risks. As a well known voice of the opposition you've stood up to President Vladimir Putin but last December you decided that as an openly gay journalist, you, your partner and three kids needed to leave your home in Russia. What triggered -- what influenced your decision to leave at that point? At what point did the environment in Russia grow so hostile? Is there a point that you can point to that you said, okay this is, we've got to go?

  • 13:11:19

    GESSENIt was pretty simple and I'm almost grateful to the Russian government for leaving me no choice because it would've been a very difficult choice to make if I felt like it was a choice. In June of last year, the parliament passed a ban on so-called homosexual propaganda which essentially bans any mention of LGBT people in any context in any venue that is potentially accessible to minors. That includes my family.

  • 13:11:46

    GESSENThe same month they passed a law banning adoptions by same-sex couples, which I was worried could be retroactively applied to us, even though our oldest son has been in the family since the year 2000. And then the head of the parliamentary committee on the family declared their intention to create a mechanism for removing children from same-sex families altogether. That was a clear indication that it was time to leave the country because it's really one thing to know that I have a dangerous job, and I've had a dangerous job for a long time.

  • 13:12:19

    GESSENAnd I've tried to adjust my risks as I had children and some people may think I didn't do it enough. Some people may think I did it just perfectly. But that's different from living in an environment where you cannot raise your children without a constant sense of danger, which is the environment that we found ourselves in starting last summer.

  • 13:12:40

    NNAMDIYou wrote in the New York Times, quoting here, "The only thing more creepy than hearing someone suggest the likes of you should be burned alive is hearing someone suggest the likes of you should be burned alive and thinking, I know that guy." It turns out that you knew at least two such guys, worked with them. Tell us about that.

  • 13:13:00

    GESSENIt's -- you know, the legislative part that has gotten a lot of publicity in the states, the antigay laws, which are easy to serve, put your finger on, are actually a very small part of a huge campaign of hatred that's been unleashed by the Kremlin and that employs the might of the Russian state-controlled media, which is to say almost all Russian media, to carry it out. And obviously someone who's been a journalist in Russia for 20 years, I knew some of the people who were now engaged in this campaign.

  • 13:13:30

    GESSENAnd the man who's become one of the strongest voices in sort of pushing for antigay legislation, he's now campaigning to see homosexual behavior recriminalized. He was somebody I had edited as a columnist and somebody I had once fired for writing a racist column, but had been forced by my publisher not to tell him I was firing him for writing a racist column. Because of course editors aren't supposed to fire columnists for expressing their opinions.

  • 13:14:03

    GESSENAnd it was a very painful episode for me to recall because that idea that there's no opinion that's off limits, that there's -- that freedom of speech applies to privately held media and is interpreted to allow any kind of hateful speech to be included as long as it expressed somebody's opinion. That idea, which is very, very dangerous, especially very dangerous when it's unchallenged, is part of what's enabling this incredible campaign of hatred.

  • 13:14:36

    GESSENIndeed what that individual wrote, if you don't mind me saying it or what he said in his column, is that if one of his daughters brought home an African man he would drive them both out into the woods and shoot them, correct?

  • 13:14:48

    GESSENThat's exactly what it said, yes.

  • 13:14:50

    NNAMDIYou also worked with the head of the new Russian Ministry of Truth who suggested that the hearts of gay people should be buried or burned for they're unsuitable for the aiding of anyone's life. Not a person you worked with, right?

  • 13:15:05

    GESSENYes, but at the time that I did a little bit of work with him, he was just a TV anchor trying to make a little bit of extra money. And that money was to be made in helping facilitate seminars for journalists that were funded by the European Union.

  • 13:15:22

    GESSENAll of this is very funny now because of course he's campaigning strongly against western influence in Russia. He thinks that the European Union is forcing its values on its unsuspecting people and on Russia as well. Russia recently released a report on human rights violations in the European Union which criticizes the homosexual lobby that forces homosexuality down people's throats supposedly.

  • 13:15:46

    GESSENBut this was like a dozen years ago, the guy was much more tolerant of those kinds of views. And he actually was hired to help me run a seminar on covering drug addiction and AIDS. He was perfectly game. He wasn't very well engaged with the topic but he did a very serviceable job and clearly did not find those opinions offensive at the time.

  • 13:16:10

    NNAMDIAnd who knew what was lurking in his heart? We're talking with Masha Gessen. She's a Russian American journalist, author of several books including her most recent work. It's titled "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot." You can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think of the International Community's response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent push against gay rights, 800-433-8850?

  • 13:16:34

    NNAMDIMasha Gessen, we're a week into the Sochi Olympics and Russia's antigay laws remain in the spotlight. At the beginning of this week an openly gay Dutch speed skater who won a gold medal Sunday, apparently hugged Putin. Do you think the Olympics are any indication that Putin might be softening his stance toward gays in Russia, or do you expect his mood to change once the games are over?

  • 13:16:57

    GESSENI absolutely do not think that he's softening his stance toward LGBT people in Russia or towards civil society in Russia. In fact, the extent to which he has now been trying to cover it up is mind boggling. On the first day of the games as the opening ceremonies were underway, or about to get underway, LGBT activists were arrested in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg they simply went out in the street with signs. And in Moscow they went to Red Square and sang the Russian national anthem.

  • 13:17:33

    GESSENAnd for this they were hauled into police stations. Some of them were booked. At least half of them weren't booked but they were beaten and threatened with rape. This happened the day the Sochi Olympics were opening.

  • 13:17:45

    GESSENIt's not the only thing that happened. About 30 people were detained in Moscow for standing with umbrellas because this was to symbolize their support for the last remaining independent television station in Russia which is called TV Rain. And it is threatened with forced closure. In fact, I think will be closing in the next few weeks. So people came out in support of TV Rain. And their only sign of support was holding umbrellas. And they were actually booked. And the protocol said, was standing in the street with an open umbrella. This was the violation.

  • 13:18:23

    GESSENAnd finally on a less funny note, the present sentence of an environment activist in the Sochi region, Yevgeny Vitishko, who was one of the main critics of the environmental violence that was done -- there's no other way to put it -- during the construction of the Sochi Olympic buildings. He was sentenced to three years in December. He appealed and his sentence was just upheld yesterday in the middle of the Olympic Games.

  • 13:18:54

    NNAMDISo there is no softening of stance here. One gay club owner in Sochi, Andrew Tanichev, has asked foreigners not to protest Russia's antigay legislation during the Olympics. He says pressure from outside might only make things worse because Russian society just isn't ready, he says, to accept gays. In your view, how should the International Community be responding?

  • 13:19:18

    GESSENI think that's a misguided stand. I mean, I think it's not entirely A-typical. There are certainly some Russians who feel that way, some LGBT Russians. There are a lot of LGBT Russians who don't feel that way. It's a matter of some debate. My position in this is that you cannot win when you're dealing with a thug. You cannot calculate his reactions. You cannot try to figure out what the backlash might be if you protested or whether you would do even worse for yourself if you just laid down and took it, which is what some people are suggesting. You know, just lay low until this sort of passes.

  • 13:19:55

    GESSENThere no calculating what's going to happen because you're dealing with somebody who does not play by the rules and whose goal is actually to incite hatred. So anything will go. I mean, your protesting will be used to incite hatred and your not protesting will be used to incite hatred. And so in the absence of any kind of strategic planning, I think we should maybe think about what's right and what's wrong.

  • 13:20:15

    GESSENAnd it is wrong for the Dutch openly gay Olympic skater to hug Vladimir Putin. It disgusted me. And I know it really demoralized a lot of LGBT people in Russia and outside of Russia who were watching to see that sort of acceptance, to see that kind of condoning. And basically, to see him express something akin to acceptance of Russia's policies, which is what Putin embodies.

  • 13:20:44

    NNAMDIMeanwhile, a lot of foreign journalists and tourists have taken to a hash tag called Sochi problems to point out the general dysfunction around the Olympics. Do you think all of this attention on these structural problems in Sochi is helpful to everyday Russians?

  • 13:21:01

    GESSENI don't think it's a standard by which journalism can be measured. I mean, our job is to report what's out there. Our job is not to help a particular population. I think truth is useful. I think shining a spotlight on problems is a journalist's job. You can't expect people who are tweeting to tweet at any depth, right. Their job is to report problems. Analyst's jobs is to talk about the connection of those problems to the lives of everyday Russians. I haven't seen enough of that but I think that's probably coming. I hope that's coming.

  • 13:21:36

    NNAMDIFor the 20 years that you lived and worked in Russia you were openly gay. And a lot of your focus now, at least in our conversation, has to do with the effect that Vladimir Putin himself is having on all of this. What was it like for LGBT rights when you first started living in Russia?

  • 13:21:55

    GESSENIt was -- when I first started living in Russia actually the first time I went back to Russia was to start organizing the first LGBT conference in Russia. We didn't use that acronym then but this was 1991. So I've kind of been around since the beginning of an above-ground LGBT movement in Russia. And at first, times were very hopeful. It seemed like Russia was going to become just like western Europe in another couple years.

  • 13:22:20

    GESSENThat didn't happen. And it didn't happen for obvious reasons and Russia had not lived through the sexual revolution. Russia had not lived through the kind of public discords that enabled a gay rights movement in western countries. But even though it was slow, things did change. And by, I'd say, I don't know, five, six years ago, things felt comfortable enough for a lot of people in Russia. And this is part of what's so insidious and so scary about what's going on now is that people are ending up exposed.

  • 13:22:54

    GESSENI mean, this is, I think, a unique situation, certainly unique in the last half century, where a country -- where people felt comfortable enough to be out, if not publicly out like I was, but then publicly -- then out to neighbors or friends or pediatricians if they had children or school teachers, again if they had children. All of a sudden they're threatened exactly for who they are. And they're threatened by those school teachers and by those pediatricians who are now holding this incredibly dangerous information. And they don't have a closet to run back into. That closet has been destroyed. This is something that we haven't seen before, that kind of sudden reversal.

  • 13:23:33

    NNAMDIWhy do you think -- why countries like the U.S. move toward greater equality for same-sex couples, in Europe the environment for gay people in Russia has only gotten worse? On the one hand, you are absolutely correct, there was probably no -- three was probably no sexual revolution there but what other reasons?

  • 13:23:50

    GESSENWell, there's a significant difference between an authoritarian country that's careening toward totalitarianism, which is what Russia is and a democratic country. I mean, I think for the natural direction in a democracy is for greater individual race and greater liberalization. There are starts and goes. There are obviously backlashes, et cetera that are part of the normal process. But the general trend is usually toward great equality and greater liberalization for everybody.

  • 13:24:21

    GESSENAnd in an authoritarian country it's the opposite. It doesn't stand still. It has to keep cracking down. And it especially has to keep cracking down in times of crisis. Putin was faced with a mass protest movement two years ago. He responded with a crackdown. He needed to find some sort of enemy to single out. So he decided to scapegoat the gays and lesbians. It was a fairly random choice. It was a good choice from his point of view because nobody represents foreign agents better than LGBT people do. But it was almost random. It turned out to have a lot of traction.

  • 13:24:58

    GESSENBut the reason that there's a crackdown on a minority at all is because it is necessary to sustaining an authoritarian country.

  • 13:25:08

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Black on line three. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:25:13

    BLACKYes, good afternoon. Look, I'm just going to take a -- play the devil's advocate here as an openly gay black male. I'm sorry, this strikes me as nothing but propaganda. I used to date someone from Russia so I have some at least familiarity with some of what your guest is actually discussing. But to be perfectly honest with you, it seems like what you're doing is you're taking sort of like a very biased lens to Russia where you could find the same type of oppression in America. You could find oppression in Latin America. You could find the same type of oppression in any country in the Middle East.

  • 13:25:51

    BLACKTo me it's like, why Russia? What is the reason for pointing this out? I mean, I see videos where people are calling each other N-words and being shot on sight and people getting away with shooting young black males in a legal court in America. To me, and since I sort of qualify under both categories, I think it's much easier to be a gay person in America than a black person. And so it's amazing to me how you can just shine this spotlight of oppression in Russia. And you're actually to at least imply that it's somehow this oppressive society for gay people when I think you can easily argue that in America it's an oppressive environment for African Americans. And you don't show that same...

  • 13:26:34

    NNAMDIWell, let's not confuse issues here, Black. I want to...

  • 13:26:38

    BLACKI think they're confused at all because (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:26:40

    NNAMDIWell, I want to be clear. I want to be clear.

  • 13:26:40

    BLACK...tell you there is a much...

  • 13:26:43

    NNAMDIWell, I listened to you. Let me listen -- let me have you listen to me so you can ask Masha Gessen the question you want to ask. What you seem to be suggesting -- correct me if I'm wrong -- is that there is no difference between the way gays are treated in the United States and the way gays are treated in Russia. You also seem to be suggesting that the treatment of blacks in the United States is much worse than the treatment of gays in Russia. Am I correct?

  • 13:27:09

    BLACKWell, let me say something without you putting words in my mouth. What you said is partly correct. I'm saying that it's worse for black people in America, and I'm gay so I'm saying it's amazing to me that people...

  • 13:27:17

    NNAMDIBut that's not what we're talking about. We're not talking about black people in America.

  • 13:27:20

    BLACK...get up here and talk all this propaganda.

  • 13:27:22

    NNAMDIWe're not talking about black people in America, of which I happen to be one. We're talking about gays in Russia. So allow me to have Masha Gessen explain why she thinks that the situation for gays in Russia is much worse than it is here and in other countries. Masha Gessen, go ahead, please.

  • 13:27:39

    GESSENI think the situation for gays in Russia is certainly worse than it is for gays in the United States. And I don't think the caller would argue with that, right. I mean, I think saying that you can easily find that kind of oppression in the United States, if you're talking about LGBT people, is simply wrong. I mean, you cite and incident, I'll tell you why it's different. If you make a blanket statement like that, it's very difficult to argue with it because it's wrong. That is not true. You cannot find that kind of oppression.

  • 13:28:06

    GESSENYou cannot find a campaign of hatred that's on the airwaves of state television which goes out to 98 percent of the households and completely dominates the media. You cannot find that broadcasting messages of hate 24/7 for the last two years. Now, you mentioned the Middle East. That's a whole different story. I mean, there are countries in the world, many more countries than you probably realize, that have the death penalty for homosexual behavior. There are countries in the world that -- where gay people risk arrest just for being gay people.

  • 13:28:38

    GESSENThis is all true and this is worst than it is in Russia. I think the situation in Russia is very particular. I think it's important to understand it. And what I talked about the sort of sudden reversal, the way that people are exposed, is actually a weird aspect of the Russian situation that puts more people at risk than in many countries where homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty. That doesn't mean that the death of one gay person in Iran can be explained away or that I can say that Russia is worse than Iran. That is certainly not true, right.

  • 13:29:17

    GESSENBut this is my country. My job is to report on it. It has also affected my family and I've used that to shed light on what's going on in Russia. This is my job. I really hope that there are brave Iranians and Nigerians out there who can do the same for their countries.

  • 13:29:34

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. We're talking with Masha Gessen. She's a Russian American journalist, author of several books including her most recent work "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot." We'll be talking about that book and what the situation is with Pussy Riot when we continue the conversation. But as you know, this is our winter membership campaign. We're in the sixth day of it so when we come back we'll be talking about that too. But if you're called, stay on the line. The number's 800-433-8850 if you'd like to join the conversation with Masha Gessen. You can also send email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:39:07

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Masha Gessen. She is a Russian American journalist , author of several books including her most recent. It's titled "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot." Masha Gessen, this book focuses on the story of Pussy Riot, the feminist punk rock group or the feminist group with a persona of being a punk rock group...

  • 13:39:28

    GESSENExactly.

  • 13:39:29

    NNAMDI...that caught the world's attention when three members were arrested for their punk prayer. It involved going into the cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and singing Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out. But let's give a listen to the work of Pussy Riot.

  • 13:40:24

    NNAMDIThe work of Pussy Riot, Masha Gessen, I said, affects the persona of a punk-rock group because I read where you pointed out that this is not really a group of musicians at all.

  • 13:40:35

    GESSENRight. This is a group of activists, protest artists who were looking for a way to protest by means of art. And they invented this punk -- feminist, radical-feminist punk rock group in the mold of the Riot Girls in the sound of Bikini Kill. And this invented group was Pussy Riot. And then went on to stage a number of guerrilla performances in various places in Moscow to protest what they saw as expressions of Putin's rule, which began with unbridled consumerism and ended with the symbiosis of church and state, which is what they ended up in jail for.

  • 13:41:17

    NNAMDIHow do you think Pussy Riot ultimately affected Russia's political climate? Is Putin's increasingly hard-line response to the opposition, in your view, a direct result of their protests?

  • 13:41:30

    GESSENThat might be a nice story, but I don't think there's a clear cause and effect. I think Putin was going to crackdown on the opposition no matter what. They provided him with a convenient first object on which to crackdown. They were arrested on the day that he claimed to be reelected for his third, arguably unconstitutional, term as president. They were sentenced in August of 2012 to two years in prison. One of them -- one of the three women arrested was later released on a technicality. And two of them served almost the entire sentence.

  • 13:42:09

    GESSENThis was the beginning of the Putin crackdown. They were the first people arrested for peaceful protest and given real jail time. Now, it has become almost routine. The environmental activist, Yevgeny Vitishko, whom I mentioned earlier in the show, was just sentenced to three years. There are people who are about to be sentenced, again, before even the Olympic Games are over. On February 21, eight people are facing sentencing in a case that stems from the May 6, 2012 protest on the eve of Putin's inauguration. And they're facing sentences of five years and up.

  • 13:42:44

    GESSENSo I think this expresses actually -- this reflects the fact that Putin was going to crackdown anyway. But Pussy Riot is emblematic both at the beginning of his crackdown and the kind of object that he chooses.

  • 13:42:56

    NNAMDIIn a way, is it possible that Vladimir Putin may have played into Pussy Riot's hands -- their cause, so to speak? He drew into national attention and sustained publicity to their message. Now that the world has seen their example, do you think the Putin government will be able to control the rise of groups like Pussy Riot in the years to come?

  • 13:43:18

    NNAMDIThose are kind of two separate questions and the answers are vastly different. You're absolutely right that Putin, in a way, created their -- he certainly created their international fame. And then we forget that when they went to prison -- and this was something that I was very interested in actually documenting and describing -- was who they were when they were arrested. They were basically college students who had staged a prank. It was a brilliant prank. It was a fantastically, sort of spectacular prank. But it was a prank.

  • 13:43:50

    GESSENThey didn't expect to go to prison for two years for it. But the witch trial in which they were sentenced became ultimately a part of their performance and became part of their maturation process. And they came out of prison, after spending more than a year in penal colonies, seasoned political activists: very articulate, very clear about what they want to do, and not only who they're fighting but why they're fighting him. And of course they have access to all the international media and a slew of international celebrities. So, in a way, they're the perfect dissidents.

  • 13:44:26

    GESSENSo, in that sense, he played into their hands. Will the crackdown on them inspire other people? Unlikely. I mean, he has raised the stakes for protest to an absolutely mind-boggling level. The people, as I said, who are going to be sentenced on February 21, many of them are rank-and-file protest participants. Unlike Pussy Riot, they were not even masterminds and organizers of a particular protest. They went to a peaceful protest march. They were attacked by police. And then they were charged with attacking the police themselves. That's basically the substance of that case.

  • 13:45:06

    GESSENAnd so the Russians who are watching that case and similar cases are realizing that, even by going out into the street to join a peaceful protest, you may be risking the rest of your life. Those stakes are way too high for most people.

  • 13:45:21

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones, now. I would like to go to Tom in Reston, Va. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:45:31

    TOMThank you for taking my call. I'm just curious, you know, with the increasing acceptance of gay rights in the United States and the legitimacy as basic human rights, what can the State Department do as far as granting asylum to individuals who are persecuted for their sexual orientation -- whether they're from Nigeria or Russia or wherever? I just feel like we've made a lot of progress and people's lives are in danger. So I'd like to offer the people asylum. I don't know how to bring that to bear politically, but I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you very much.

  • 13:46:18

    NNAMDIMasha Gessen. And, Tom, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:46:21

    GESSENI couldn't have asked for a better question. The State Department could create a group status for LGBT refugees from Russia and/or other countries. The way it works now is that for a person to find safe haven in the United States, that person has to leave the country -- has to leave Russia, come here on a tourist visa, or go to a third country and from there apply for asylum in the United States. If the person is here, it will take several months -- usually about six months -- to file the asylum claim. And only six months after the asylum claim is filed can the person ask for permission to work.

  • 13:47:05

    GESSENNow, many asylum claims based on sexual orientation and persecution on the basis of sexual orientation are being granted by U.S. asylum officers and immigration judges. But that kind of life -- as the professionals call it, out of status -- is incredibly scary. The person does not qualify for any kind of public assistance, does not have the right to work. It's not clear what they can do to provide their children with health care or education. So the people in Russia who are most at risk, which is same sex families with children, are least well-positioned to pick up and leave and move to a safe place.

  • 13:47:44

    GESSENAnd that means they're going to sit there and remain in danger until the situation gets really desperate and they feel like they have to run. And then they may or may not be able to run, because it may actually be too late. So the United States could change that by creating group status of the kind that was created for Soviet Jews back in the 1970s and that functioned until recently, where it was sufficient for a person to show that he or she was a Jew living in the Soviet Union.

  • 13:48:13

    GESSENAnd that qualified the person for refugee status, which qualifies the person for public assistance and which means that the person comes into the country with an actual legal status already.

  • 13:48:23

    NNAMDIOn to Dmitri in Ashburn, Va. Dmitri, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:48:29

    DMITRIOkay. I have just a comment, because of Olympics now, in Russia. It looks to me like a low blow a little bit -- like to -- somebody want to make Russia look bad. Russia and Putin, you know, is different things. The Putin is a legitimate president and I know the majority of Russian people support him. And what else? And what about Pussy Riot? They do such things...

  • 13:49:04

    NNAMDIAllow me to have her answer one question at a time, because we're running out of time very quickly. Masha Gessen, I have heard Dmitri's comment from others who say that a lot of the coverage of the Sochi Olympics sounds as if we are right back in the Cold War again. And you've been making the point that President Putin's leadership is qualitatively different from the leadership that we have seen in the past -- that he's moving Russia towards being a completely totalitarian -- or authoritarian society. What would you say to Dmitri?

  • 13:49:35

    GESSENWell, what I would say to Dmitri is, first of all, no. Vladimir Putin is not a legitimate president of Russia. In -- he's been in power for 14 years. In the first year that he was in power, he engineered a complete state takeover of the media. And in the first five years that he was in power, he completely dissembled the Russian electoral system. So to say that he's the legitimate president, considering that there is no election -- or the elections are fraudulent. No candidate gets on the ballot without Putin's personal permission. And, still, they're not allowed to campaign.

  • 13:50:10

    GESSENOpposition candidates and opposition in general does not have access to any media. So to talk about legitimacy in that context is frankly ridiculous. Now, as for the Sochi Olympics and low blow, that fascinates me. I mean, that whole argument of sort of, Look, they're trying to throw a party, but saying that the party is poorly organized and people are uncomfortable is a low blow, is just absurd. I mean they were -- they lobbied the International Olympic Committee.

  • 13:50:43

    GESSENPutin went -- personally traveled to Guatemala City to lobby the International Olympic Committee to bring the Olympic Games to Russia. One of their arguments was that they would have excellent facilities and be able to provide the spectators and the athletes with good conditions, a comfortable environment and, you know, basically pull off a good celebration of international sport. They haven't done that. They have failed. They weren't able to organize it. They lied to the International Olympic Committee when they said they would do it well. They did it poorly. That needs to be reported.

  • 13:51:16

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Masha Gessen, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:51:22

    GESSENThank you. Same to you.

  • 13:51:22

    NNAMDIMasha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist, author of several books including her most recent work. It is titled, "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot." And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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