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When five brightly balaclava’d members of the Pussy Riot collective climbed atop the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012 to chant “Our Lady, Chase Putin Out!,” they became celebrities; five months later, when Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova answered the state’s charge of hooliganism, they became heroes. Their closing statements turned a show trial into The Death of Socrates. Samutsevich criticized the government’s exploitation of Orthodox symbols, Alyokhina lamented political apathy, and Tolokonnikova insisted that their action, which was sending them to prison, had really set them free. Accused of religious hatred, she offered spiritual wisdom. “A human being is a creature that is always in error, never perfect,” she said. “She quests for wisdom, but cannot possess it. I think that Christianity . . . supports the search for truth and a constant overcoming of oneself, the overcoming of what you were earlier.”

“Constant overcoming of oneself” is a somewhat less media-ready maxim than Solzhenitsyn’s “Words will break cement,” which became a slogan for the group’s plight. (Tolokonnikova quoted it in her statement, and the journalist Masha Gessen used it as the title of a book.) But “constant overcoming” captures something at least as profound about the meaning of Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer”: a spirit of remaking, a seeking after truth that gladly risks ridicule and indignity, a rejection of pharisaical expertise. The Puritans used the term “visible saint” to describe the elect among them — those who had a message but, being human, no authority to speak it. Tolokonnikova, for what it’s worth, puts her faith in miracles. “I love miracles and strive for them. All of our activity is a quest for miracles.”

Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow, Russia, by Michael Kenna

Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow, Russia, by Michael Kenna

So she wrote in 2012 from Penal Colony No. 14 (PC-14) in Partsa, Mordovia, where she was held for nearly two years, until the eve of the Sochi Olympics. Her letter was addressed to the theorist-provocateur Slavoj Žižek, in a correspondence arranged by the French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff. The exchange has now been published as comradely greetings: the prison letters of nadya and slavoj (Verso, $9.95). It’s a short volume — eleven letters, two of which date after Tolokonnikova’s release, as events in Crimea tilted toward annexation.

The conditions at PC-14 are notoriously inhumane. The inmates are beaten, denied sleep, fed rotten food, and forced to bathe from faucets that regularly burst with sewage. Bribes are routinely extorted. And prison, like Pussy Riot, has collective politics: when one person speaks out, everyone is punished. At first all this seems to Tolokonnikova like another opportunity for self-overcoming. “I’m fascinated to see how I’ll cope with all this,” she writes, bravely and heartbreakingly, in April 2013. Five months later she goes on a hunger strike.

Defiance (Pussy Riot), by Sage Vaughn. Courtesy the artist

Defiance (Pussy Riot), by Sage Vaughn. Courtesy the artist

Eltchaninoff’s introduction insists that “Nadya Tolokonnikova is not only a punk protestor, but a great intellectual” with “perfect mastery of the reference points of contemporary thought.” (Something may be out of joint with the critical climate when “reference points” are that which perfection demands.) His embarrassment at the contrast between a great male mind and a suffering female body is well-intentioned as far as it goes, but there is more to be gained from acknowledging difference than obscuring it. Comradely Greetings is a conversation between two different kinds of intellectual-activists with two different kinds of authority. Žižek proves that he respects Tolokonnikova by disagreeing with her, and at length: he rejects her description of Pussy Riot’s performance as Dionysian excess and explains (entertainingly!) Hegelian totality; Tolokonnikova challenges Western Marxists with the facts of life in a “Special Economic Zone.” Žižek’s letters are easily twice as long as hers, though of course he wasn’t writing them between sixteen-hour shifts at a broken-down sewing machine.

Tolokonnikova’s last letter explains that, since their release, she and Alyokhina have been working to create protest-training programs inside prisons, beginning with women’s camps. (Samutsevich was released in October 2012; none of the three are any longer members of Pussy Riot.) She remains loyal to her belief in revelatory, revolutionary speech, and seems unpersuaded by Žižek’s argument that “Masters” are necessary to liberate the masses. “Female prisoners are the ones most totally deprived of voice,” she writes. “Why is this so? Probably because women have long had inculcated into them a deep sense of weakness, of their need for a big, strong man . . . Our work is already turning up evidence that a lot of them buy into this garbage.”

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