January 8, 2014
Guest: Masha Gessen
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The only thing more creepy than hearing someone suggest the likes of you should be burned alive is hearing someone suggest that and thinking, I know that guy. That's a quote from Russian journalist Masha Gessen referring to an experience she had with one of Russia's most virulent homophobic public persons. Gessen is a lesbian who's been an outspoken LGBT rights advocate in Russia.
After Russia passed two anti-gay laws in June, she decided it was time for her, her partner and their children to leave. Two weeks ago, they moved to New York. We'll talk about that in a little while. Gessen is the author of a critical book about President Vladimir Putin, which was published in 2012. Today her new book was published about Pussy Riot, the Russian group that has used punk rock as a form of performance art to protest against Putin.
Their most famous action was in February 2012 outside a Moscow cathedral, where they danced and played air guitar as their boom box played what they called their punk prayer with the lines Virgin Mary, mother of God, chase Putin out. The phantom of liberty is up in heaven. Gay pride sent to Siberia in a chain gang. Virgin Mary, mother of God, become a feminist.
The action resulted in the arrest of three members of the group. Two of them were sentenced to two years in prison. As part of Putin's pre-Olympics prisoner amnesty, they were released last month, two months before their sentences were up. Gessen just interviewed them. Her new book is called "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot."
Masha Gessen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about your interviews with the two members of Pussy Riot who were just released, why are they so important to you, and why were the performances they gave so important to you?
MASHA GESSEN: Pussy Riot, I think, performed a great work of art, and a great work of art is something that makes people think and something that makes people re-examine their assumptions. And I think they did all of that with their action in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February of 2012. And the Cathedral of Christ the Savior is the biggest and gaudiest cathedral in Moscow. It's this huge church where the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church performs official services and official holidays.
And not coincidentally, their arrest two weeks later launched Putin's crackdown on the opposition and on his critics, which has lasted for the last two years. So in a way, both their performance and their arrest mark the beginning of a new political era in Russia.
GROSS: Is it fair to say they don't really see themselves as a band as much as they see themselves as a protest movement?
GESSEN: Right, the band was a creation of this art collective. Right, so, I mean, none of them is actually a musician. They drew in some musicians as they organized to be able to come up with these songs, but it's certainly not a punk rock group as the deposition says. The punk rock group is sort of a character created by the art collective that is Pussy Riot.
GROSS: So you not only, you know, like covered the trial and stayed in touch, to the extent that you could, with the two members of Pussy Riot who were in prison, you recently got to talk to them after they were released on amnesty. What are some of the things you learned about the prison conditions they were subjected to?
GESSEN: Yeah, prison conditions is pretty much all they're talking about now. They actually had very interesting and very different trajectories while they were in their penal colonies. The two members of Pussy Riot who ended up serving time are Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, sort of the mastermind behind the art collective; and Maria Alyokhina, who was a journalism student in Moscow before being arrested. And Maria was also very much an activist. She had been very active in the environmental movement in Russia before joining Pussy Riot.
So Maria sort of became a jailhouse lawyer almost as soon as she got to a penal colony. She would write and list complaints. She actually managed to secure two judgments against her own penal colony while she was behind bars. She was pretty amazing. At one point her lawyer was telling me that she went everywhere with a bulging folder that contained her list of all the violations that the colony was perpetrating against inmates.
And Nadezhda's position was quite different. She said that she wanted to be an inmate like any other. And this to her was both sort of a survival strategy and an existential position. She wanted this to be an experience that she could use as a philosopher, and she wanted this experience to not be extraordinary because she was this celebrity inmate.
So she did her best to blend in, and she sort of tried to adopt the most common strategy of Russian prison inmates, which is I think the strategy of monotony. It's the sort of trying to forget about everything that's around you and just working as much as you are forced to work, sleeping as much as you are allowed to sleep, hoping that the days blend into each other until your time is finally over.
And when I visited her in prison in June of last year, she was still very much in that sort of mode. And she didn't want to talk about conditions in the colony, even though it was clear from a few things that she let drop that they were getting worse. Just how much worse we learned in September, when she finally decided that she was going to protest prison conditions.
What had happened at her penal colony was that the sewing factory that is sort of the lifeblood of every women's penitentiary institution in Russia and many of the men's ones, was taking on more and more orders. So the inmates were forced to work longer and longer hours. By then of the summer, the workday was about 17 hours.
So they were allowed to sleep about four hours a night, if that, and they wouldn't get days off except maybe once every six weeks or so. So they were incredibly sleep-deprived. The working conditions were very unsafe. And they also obviously - it almost goes without saying - are fed very, very poorly in the prison colony. So finally Nadezhda decided to protest first inside the prison by going to complain to the warden and saying that they needed to return the workday to the legal limit of eight hours. In response he threatened her with murder.
GROSS: He threatened to murder her?
GESSEN: He threatened to have her murdered by other inmates. What he said exactly was sure, I'll return the workday to eight hours, and the other inmates are going to learn that this was done because of you, and things are going to be fine for you. In fact things are always going to fine for you because things are never not fine in the afterlife.
So at this point she felt that she had almost no choice. She decided that she was going to go on hunger strike. Hunger strike in...
GROSS: Well let me stop you there. When you go on a hunger strike in, you know, in a Russian penal colony, how does the word get out that you're on the hunger strike?
GESSEN: Right, so she had a challenge, the challenge of getting a letter out of the colony to tell people that she was on hunger strike. I mean, hunger strike is almost a ritual in a Russian prison colony. It actually has been going back to Soviet times. It's a way of protesting. It's also a way of getting yourself isolated from other inmates, which Nadezhda realized at that point was essential both for her survival, because if she was going to go on hunger strike, that could possibly have repercussions for other inmates, if she was going to be safe, she needed to be in isolation.
As soon as you go on hunger strike, you're put in solitary. So she wrote this amazing open letter that she wrote on scraps of paper that she passed out - that she passed to her husband Pyotr Verzilov when he visited her in prison. Some she managed to dictate to him in a whisper while the guard was - had, say, stepped out of the room while they were in a visit.
And it was one of the most searing descriptions of what goes on in Russian prisons that I have ever read. One of the things that she did in this letter actually was she violated this unspoken taboo against talking about what happened to women's hygiene in prison. This is one of the key ways of controlling and humiliating women in the penitentiary institutions. They are systematically denied the right to wash themselves.
There is usually one bathing day a week. In Nadezhda's colony, this bathing day is - women are escorted to a common washroom. So there are 80 to 100 women in a very, very small space, you know, all of them naked, all of them elbowing each other out of the way to try to get to a faucet which may or may not have running water on that particular day at that particular hour.
The experience was so traumatic and humiliating that she actually told me when I talked to her this time that she had hidden - she had taken to hiding from the guard when they were about to be escorted to this common washroom, just to avoid the experience.
GROSS: It must have been very humiliating because I'm sure she really wanted to bathe once a week. So I can only imagine how horrible the experience was if it prevented her from cleaning. What are some of the other conditions she told you about?
GESSEN: She talked about the labor. I mean, it's slave labor. There's no other way to describe it. Again, the conditions in the factory are extremely harsh. A lot of the equipment that they work on is outdated. So it's this thing where they're constantly trying to fix the sewing machines. They bloody their hands. They're struggling to get the stuff done. They're constantly exhausted. They're sleep-deprived.
They are taken to the factory regardless of whether they're well or not well on that particular day. Later as she has started documenting violations at other colonies, she actually was able to find stories of women actually dying in the factory, apparently collapsing from exhaustion, and dying as other women watched.
GROSS: Who buys the clothes that they make? Are these clothes that are commonly sold in Russia?
GESSEN: No, this is one of the great ironies of the thing. Some of the colonies make things like bed sheets, but the biggest client of all these penal colonies is the police. So most of what they sew is police uniforms. And Nadezhda, actually when I saw her in Moscow last week, said that one of the sort of jarring moments of having been released was going on the Moscow metro and seeing a policeman wearing a uniform with red piping that she knew she had sewn, or this was a uniform that was exactly like a uniform that she had sewn red piping onto.
GROSS: We'll talk more with journalist Masha Gessen after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Masha Gessen, and she's a Russian journalist who has a new book about Pussy Riot. It's called "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot." And she's also interviewed the two members of Pussy Riot who were imprisoned and very recently released. She interviewed them after they were released.
She's also gay and has just moved to the United States to escape the anti-gay laws, and we'll talk about that very soon. What are Nadezhda and Maria's plans for the future, the two members of Pussy Riot who were in prison for about a year and a half and got out now on Putin's amnesty program just in time, probably no coincidence, for the Olympics?
So are they going to continue with Pussy Riot?
GESSEN: Well, they make it very clear that Pussy Riot - one of the tenets of Pussy Riot is that membership in it is anonymous. So when they're talking to you, they cannot be Pussy Riot. And they say that if they ever do anything as Pussy Riot again, I won't know about it, which I hope is a promise.
So they are speaking out as prisoners' rights activists. They have decided to start a nongovernmental organization that will fight for prison reform and for individual prisoners in Russia. The first thing they did when they were released was get together to talk about it. So in fact Maria instead of flying to Moscow to see her family flew to Krasnoyarsk, where Nadezhda was getting released, to talk to her about their prisoners' rights work.
And then two days later they both flew to Moscow together and saw their kids before going to hold a press conference on their new organization.
GROSS: They strike me as being incredibly brave. They suffer in prison. They try to do activist things while in prison. And they get out, and they want to continue their activism as opposed to leaving the country or just kind of staying and hiding.
GESSEN: Bravery is a complicated thing. I think - I think they are very brave. I don't want to dismiss that at all. I also think that they had no idea they were going to go to prison when they staged their protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. And when they were arrested, they had no idea this was going to last more than a few days.
So it was sort of a slow realization that it was going to be weeks, and then it was going to be months and then that it was going to be years. Their ultimate sentences were two years, and they served almost all of that time, and they were released just two months ahead of time.
I think that they didn't know what they were getting in for, which doesn't in any way diminish their bravery. They were certainly willing to confront the system in a way that almost no one or probably no one in Russia has been willing to do. But they didn't quite see the penalty that was coming.
Now things are different. Now what Nadezhda says is you can't scare somebody who has been to a Russian prison, and I think in some ways that's true. The worst thing that can happen to them now is that they would be sent back to prison, which is a very, very real possibility. I mean, Putin has released them in advance of the Olympics. He has no reason to keep them out of prison after the Olympics are over. In fact, he has every reason to put them back into jail after the Olympics are over because actually the experience of having to release these high-profile prisoners has been, I think, quite humiliating for him.
And Nadezhda and Maria are the only two of the bunch of people who were released who are staying in the country and making trouble.
GROSS: Well, they kind of almost, like, spit in his face after he released them. They said we didn't want the amnesty, we could've finished the sentence. It's a phony amnesty just to make the country look good before the Olympics.
GESSEN: Absolutely. I mean, that's what they do; they speak the truth. And I think that in that sense, they're completely consistent. That's what they did in the cathedral, and that's what they did when they got out of prison. And Maria in fact clearly wanted to reject the amnesty and was removed from the colony by force.
GROSS: So, you know, the performance that Pussy Riot was - that the three members of Pussy Riot were arrested for took place in a large Russian Orthodox church, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church is close with President Putin. They knew each other before this man became head of the Russian Orthodox Church. What's in it for Putin now to have that alliance?
GESSEN: Putin has faced a large protest movement that began in December 2011. This was really the first challenge to his power. I think it was very, very jarring for him. And his popularity rating really dropped and hasn't recovered since then. So his real fear - he has a well-founded fear of losing power and losing support in Russia.
And so what he has done is what every Russian ruler and most dictators in the history of the world have done in these kinds of situations, which is that he has sort of tried to mobilize a potentially loyal constituency against some sort of imagined enemy. And the constituency that he is reaching for is a constituency that would support traditional values, that would support the Russian Orthodox family, that identifies as Russian Orthodox, which may sound a little bit strange in a country that lived through decades of religion being illegal, but in fact many, many Russians identify as Russian Orthodox and have this vague idea of a Russian national identity that is tied to the Orthodox church.
So it's a shrinking constituency, but it's a much more sort of militant one than the one that Putin had before, and at this point it's becoming key to both Putin's own identity and to Russia's national identity and to Russia's identity on the international stage. Putin in his last address to parliament in December of last year, Putin talked about Russia being a ray of light in a world that is being swallowed up by darkness, darkness being the unbridled liberalism of the West, including gay rights.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Russian journalist Masha Gessen. Her new book is about Pussy Riot. It's called "Words Will Break Cement." She just moved to the United States with her partner and their children because of the anti-gay laws in Russia. She's a lesbian. She's been active in the LGBT movement in Russia, and the new anti-gay laws have really endangered the life of her family.
Masha, let me ask you first to describe what the national anti-gay laws are like now.
GESSEN: There are two laws that were passed in June of last year. One is the - a ban on homosexual propaganda, but homosexual propaganda is defined, and I'm going to quote, as the distribution of information that can cause harm to the physical or spiritual development of children, including forming in them the erroneous impression of social equality of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations.
Now, what that basically means, and the relevant official body has actually just released guidelines that spell this out, what this means is that any portrayal, positive or neutral, or really any portrayal of LGBT people and LGBT relationships and LGBT families is now illegal in Russia if it's accessible to minors, which of course is a problem for LGBT families because we are ourselves examples of LGBT families and are by definition accessible to minors who live in our own homes.
So the natural consequence of these laws is a campaign against LGBT parents, which began with the second law that was also passed in June, which is a ban on adoptions by same-sex couples or single people from countries where same-sex marriage is legal. And the authorities have made it quite clear that they view those laws as an all-out ban on LGBT people having adopted children.
So it's not just new adoptions. It can be used retroactively to annul adoptions that have already taken place.
GROSS: Masha Gessen will talk more about Russia's new anti-gay laws in the second half of the show. Her new book is about Pussy Riot. It's called "Words Will Break Cement." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, the author of a new book about the Russian protest group Pussy Riot. It's called "Words Will Break Cement." Gessen is the author of a 2012 book about Vladimir Putin. She has dual citizenship in Russia, where she spent the first 14 years of her life, and America, where she emigrated with her parents in 1981.
Ten years later, she moved back to Russia where she's worked as a journalist and editor. But two weeks ago, she relocated from Moscow to New York with her partner and children to escape Russia's new anti-gay laws. Gessen is gay and an outspoken advocate of LGBT rights. One of the new laws abandons adoptions by same-sex couples and people from countries where same-sex marriage is legal.
You have a son who you adopted when he was three. You adopted him from an orphanage for children whose mothers had HIV. And you sent him - before you decided you were going to move to the United States, you sent them to a boarding school in the United States to protect him from being taken away from you by the government. How close do you think that was to being a reality?
GESSEN: You know what? I realized - I've been an opposition journalist in Russia for a long time. And I've often considered how real risks are and how much of a risk I can take. When this past year I've had to think about the risks to my children for the first time, I realized I was not willing to engage in these kinds of calculations. In fact, the first time I saw my children mentioned in print, I just found myself shaking as I was sort of looking at the screen, and I thought any risk at this point was too great to take.
Before this ban on same-sex adoptions was passed, one of the advocates of the bill actually mentioned our family by name and said what the Americans want is to adopt our orphans and raise them in perverted families like Masha Gessens. So that was kind of enough of a message for one of the proponents of the bill fingering my family and basically my son. I wrote to an adoption lawyer at that point and asked him how real the risk was, and he told me a couple of things. One was, teach your son to run. He said that...
GROSS: Teach your son to run?
GROSS: To run away from government people who might snatch him away?
GESSEN: Yes. He said if people approach him in the street he needs to run in the opposite direction. You do not want to try to get him out of social services. You probably will the first couple of times, but basically you just need to tell him that if people go up to him in the street he needs to run away. And the second thing he wrote was the answer to your question is at the airport.
GROSS: The airport?
GESSEN: The airport. Yes.
GROSS: You mean like leave.
GESSEN: Meaning like get out.
GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GESSEN: And, you know, I wasn't going to tell my son to run away. I mean I did tell him to run away from any strangers who approach him but, you know, it's a scary and humiliating and kind of ridiculous position to put a parent of an adolescent into.
GROSS: How old is your son?
GESSEN: He's 15.
GESSEN: You know, he's practically a grown-up. He should not be told to run away from adults who approach him in the street. And we have two other kids and in September the ruling party introduced another bill in parliament that would remove children from same-sex families, period, so that's biological children and adopted children. And that bill has been temporarily withdrawn to correct the language as the sponsor said. But basically what that means is to wait out the Olympic Games and then it will certainly be reintroduced and will certainly be passed, because I should mention that all of this anti-gay legislation has passed in the Russian Parliament unanimously.
GROSS: Why are anti-gay laws and this kind of witch hunt of gay people catching on now in Russia?
GESSEN: Well, for a couple of reasons. One is that it's convenient. I mean it's Putin's effort to shore-up his constituency around is very vague but very Putin idea of traditional values, the Russian family, the Orthodox religion, and against the West. And nobody represents that alien West in Russia better than LGBT people do. Part of the reason for that is that, you know, there was never any conversation, public conversation about sexual orientation in Russia. While the Western world was having the sexual revolution, we were having the Soviet Union. So this is really the first time that issues of sexuality - as absurd as that sounds - have been brought up in the public arena in Russia. So the first participant in this discourse, which in this case is the Kremlin, sort of gets to shape the discourse. And at this point you can't even say words like nontraditional sexual orientation, which is the way Russians put it, or LGBT, which is the way they don't usually put it - you can't even say those things without it sounding like it's part of the Kremlin controlled campaign.
Also I think that Putin believed that LGBT people were one minority that they could beat up on with impunity. I think it's only very recently that he has realized that the West is actually quite serious about its negative reaction to these laws. This is ridiculously reminiscent of the anti-Semitism of the 1970s and the American Campaign for Soviet Jewry, when we know from a lot of people's memoirs, that whenever the Americans tried to negotiate with the Soviets about letting the Jews leave the country Soviet officials just couldn't understand how it could possibly be so important to these important men to talk about this tiny minority that wanted to go to some tiny country somewhere. And we're seeing this reproduced. I think they couldn't imagine that there would be any repercussions on the international stage, but at the same time it was a very effective weapon in Russia.
GROSS: The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and this is the same church Pussy Riot performed and got arrested as a result. So that the patriarch called the international trend toward legalizing same-sex marriage a sign of the coming apocalypse. So is there a connection in the anti-gay movement too between the church and the government?
GESSEN: Of course, they are in this together. And they actually, this is playing out the way wars play out, because the rhetoric that they have created is very much the classic sort of war rhetoric. To effectively create the image of an enemy you have to show first of all that the enemy is extremely dangerous, but on the other hand less than human. And that's the way the church and the secular officials have sort of divided this up. The church talks about the coming apocalypse. The church talks about the LGBT movement being the antichrist, and there has been a lot of that kind of talk. And then you have people on television talking about the LGBT people being less than human.
For example, the number two person in the state broadcasting company - actually now he's the number one person - hosted a show devoted to the question of whether it was enough to protect our children to ban homosexual propaganda or whether more needed to be done. He argued that more needed to be done. He said and we need to outlaw blood and sperm donations by them. And if they die in car accidents, we need to bury their hearts underground or burn them for they're unsuitable for the aiding of anyone's life. This is also a quote. So you can see the sort of, you know, again, extremely dangerous on the one hand, immediate grave danger, the apocalypse and less than human. You need to bury - to burn their hearts.
GROSS: Now one pundit who called for - and correct me if I'm wrong - called for burning gays live in ovens. Is...
GESSEN: Oh yeah, that one.
GROSS: Yeah. He's somebody who used to write for a website that you edited. So you actually know him. He knows you. He knows you're gay. So what was your reaction when he said that? Had he said similarly inflammatory, hateful, horrible things when you were editing him?
GESSEN: He had. This is one of the odd aspects of this whole experience for me is that a lot of the people that I see on television, you know, they're calling for the hearts of people like me being burned or people like me to be burned alive are people I know. I mean I know the guy who said that hearts should be buried or burned as well. But, yes, I had once fired Ivan Okhlobystin, who has called for putting gays in the ovens, as a columnist. And I had fired him as a columnist because he had written this incredibly racist column. In fact, the column was called "Yes, I'm A Racist." And he wrote that if one of his daughters ever brought home an African man, he would take both of them out of town and shoot them in the woods. So I was in this position that many editors have experienced where you realize you have to fire a columnist over something he has written. But also this is a no-no for an editor, I mean you're not supposed to fire a columnist for expressing their opinions; you brought them on to express their opinions. So I was locked in battle with my publisher for actually several months about whether it was acceptable to say that some things were not acceptable, even for a columnist. So finally, we reached a compromise. I was about to fire him but wasn't allowed to tell him why I was fired him. So I said something about needing to rotate old columnists and get some fresh blood in.
So one of the things I felt when I saw his statement about putting gays in the ovens was OK, so I was a part of creating that situation. I was somebody who at some point when I had the opportunity failed to tell him that there were certain things that couldn't be said in public.
GROSS: Do you think that would've stopped him?
GESSEN: I don't think it would've stopped him. But...
GROSS: Probably just would've said it someplace else.
GESSEN: I'm sure he would've said it someplace else but, you know, in a situation of war and, you know, if I've been declared the enemy, then whether I like it or not I'm also at war. In war you're either a collaborator or you're a resistor. I mean you don't get to be neutral. And so whenever I didn't resist I collaborated.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Masha Gessen. She has dual citizenship in Russia and the U.S. Her new book is about Pussy Riot. We'll talk more about Russia's anti-gay laws after break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Masha Gessen, a journalist who just relocated with her children and her partner from Moscow to New York to escape Russia's new anti-gay laws.
So what is it like for gay people in Russia who can't move or don't want to move? How is a life being changed on a day-to-day level now?
GESSEN: It's difficult to generalize. Some people are maintaining that nothing has changed for them, but there are certain things that are clear. There's an incredible rise in anti-gay violence. I mean that's the most immediate effect of all this propaganda and all this anti-gay legislation. It's not what happens in the courtrooms, it's what happens in the streets. And there are many different kinds of anti-gay violence. There is a sort of organized for the cameras violence, so every LGBT protest or demonstration or rally turns into a bloody fight. It's not right to call it a five because nobody's fighting right, and people are just getting beaten up and the police stand by and watch basically.
There is also random violence. There's street violence. There's violence in cafes. There are attacks on LGBT clubs. And...
GROSS: Let me ask you. Before these anti-gay laws, were you able to be out without danger in Russia?
GESSEN: I lived in Russia the second time around, because I should probably mention my family emigrated to this country, and this is part of what makes me feel a little ridiculous emigrating again. But my family emigrated to this country as part of the Soviet Jewry thing when I was 14, and then I went back as a correspondent in the early '90s and ended up staying after 1993. So I lived in Russia full time for the last 20 years and I've always been out. So yes, clearly I've been able to be out. I've always been out to my employers. I've been publicly out. I mean I've been public. I've been one of those people that are invited to every talk show that's ever devoted to LGBT issues, which were never so heated as they have been over the last year, but still sometimes they came up.
And that's one of the pernicious things about what's going on in Russia is that there are few people who are as publicly out as I was, but people are generally comfortable, or have been comfortable until recently. So they don't have a closet to hide in, especially if they have kids. You know, often their pediatrician knows, their school teachers knows, their neighbors know. What are they supposed to do? How are they supposed to suddenly un-come out and prevent social services from going after their kids?
GROSS: There is a fairly large protest movement that you've been part of against Putin. Do you think he sees the anti-gay movement as a way of helping to shore up his popularity with more conservative Russians?
GESSEN: Absolutely. He also, I think, when we talk about this cynical design for this anti-gay movement, we in some ways of him a little bit too much or maybe a little bit too little credit. This is a very much an expression of his own worldview. I think in December of 2011, when he looked out his window and saw 100,000 people protesting his regime, he really did think he saw the enemy. He thinks that anybody who protest the regime is protesting Russia itself. If somebody is protesting Russia itself, then they're the enemy. Is there the enemy, then they have to be foreign. And he said things when the protest movement began - including blaming Hillary Clinton personally -for inspiring the protest movement that I think were very accurate expression of the way he views things. He thinks that a bunch of Westerners, a bunch of foreigners, aided by urban dwellers, representative of the creative class - which has sort of become a stand in for something vaguely LGBT, these strangers have come into his country and onto his city to try to challenge what he represents. And what he represents is a solid traditional Orthodox Russia.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the Olympics. You left just in time to not be there, coincidentally.
GROSS: Just what are your thoughts about how Russia is preparing for the Olympics and the security measures they're taking, the cosmetics of what they're doing?
GESSEN: I actually left in time to not be there after the Olympics. I'm not afraid of what's going to happen during the Olympic Games, but I think there will be a severe crackdown after the Olympic Games are over. Like all Russian journalists, I've been watching what happens with the Olympics for years. I did actually some investigative work on the construction in Sochi and the incredible amount of corruption and shoddy construction and just theft and embezzlement that was going on there. To give you an idea, there was a point about - starting about three years ago and until quite recently where a reporting assignment in Sochi was probably more dangerous than a reporting assignment in a war zone for a Russian journalist. And people were getting beaten up, intimidated and killed around Sochi. My efforts at some point to find a freelancer in Sochi or anywhere near Sochi failed because it was so dangerous - because it was so dangerous to report on the corruption.
I have asked many sources that I had who had confirmed Sochi to go to Sochi with me and act as my guide and none of them would agree again, because they feared for their lives. So we actually don't know much about what we're going to find in Sochi, except that an incredible percentage of the money that was allocated to the construction there was stolen there, so there's every reason to believe that the construction is of poor quality, shoddy and probably dangerous. We also know that Sochi itself is going to be turned into essentially a military zone for the duration of the Olympics. It's going to be heavily restricted, there are no protests are going to be allowed, very little communication is going to be allowed, very little freedom of movement.
GROSS: Well, Masha Gessen, I want to wish you and your family good luck with your new lives in the United States.
GESSEN: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Masha Gessen's new book is about Pussy Riot. It's called "Words Will Break Cement," and it was published today.
Coming up, David Bianculli reviews two new series: the soap opera spoof "The Spoils Of "Babylon" and the HBO drama "True Detective." This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic David Bianculli says two new series this week are worth special mention and couldn't be more different. One, "The Spoils Of "Babylon" is a miniseries soap opera spoof on IFC. The other, "True Detective," is a new drama from HBO which David says starts out as the best HBO drama since "The Wire."
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "True Detective," which begins Sunday on HBO, is a combination series and miniseries, kind of like "American Horror Story" on FX. Each season is designed to tell a different, self-contained story, followed the next year by a new tale with new characters and sometimes even new actors. This first season of "True Detective" is an eight-hour murder mystery starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, neither of whom is expected to return next season.
But catch them while you can, because this first salvo of "True Detective" is riveting. My, what a narrative - and what performances. Just after saying goodbye to "Treme," HBO presents another complicated drama series set in Louisiana. Novelist Nic Pizzolatto has written all eight episodes, and Cary Fukunaga has directed them all, so there's a strong unity of vision. The closest things I've seen to "True Detective" on TV are "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Wire," which I intend as the highest kind of praise.
Woody Harrelson plays Martin Hart, a respected detective who was born and raised in Louisiana. Matthew McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a former undercover cop from Texas with a tragic past and an even more tragic world view. Within weeks of being assigned to each other as partners, Hart and Cohle catch a gruesome, ritualistic murder: a young woman found dead in the woods, tied to a tree, posed unnaturally, draped with a crown made of antlers.
"True Detective" could have focused on that case exclusively, but it has other mysteries to solve: namely, the mysteries of Hart and Cohle, both of whom have secrets. And those secrets linger.
In a structural choice that makes this series even more fascinating, it takes place in different timelines: One is 1995, when the murder they're investigating occurs, and the other is 2012, when the two men are interrogated separately by another set of detectives investigating a disturbingly similar murder.
This typical scene shows how those two timelines intertwine: It begins in 1995, as Hart and Cohle examine the initial crime scene, with Hart asking his new partner to assess the evidence. Cohle takes notes and makes drawings in a giant ledger as they talk. Then the scene shifts to 2012, when first Hart, then Cohle, give separate accounts of their first impressions of the case.
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WOODY HARRELSON: (As Martin Hart) OK, tell me what you see.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Rust Cohle) Ligature marks on her wrist, ankles and knees. Multiple shallow stab wounds to the abdomen. Hemorrhaging around throat. Levity at the shoulders, thighs and torso. She'd been on her back a while before he moved her.
HARRELSON: (As Martin Hart) That's why they call him The Tax Man. Yeah. And the rest of us had these little notepads or something, he had his big ledger. Looked funny walking door-to-door with it like the tax man - which ain't bad as far as nicknames go.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Rust Cohle) Yeah. Of course, I've always taken a lot of notes. I mean you never know what the thing is going to be, do you? A little detail somewhere way down the line makes you say (sighs) breaks the case.
BIANCULLI: "True Detective" is very smartly written and structured, and artfully photographed. But it's the performances that dazzle me the most here. Harrelson pulls off a nifty juggling act, being funny one moment and ferocious the next. And McConaughey, who's in the midst of a mid-career resurgence, is flat-out superb as a detective so tightly wound he doesn't sleep, he hallucinates while awake and he's prone to speaking either in long pessimistic monologues or cryptic monosyllables.
When Hart asks Cohle the simplest of questions: Your mom still alive? Cohle answers with one word: Maybe. And it's the way the two actors respond to one another that makes True Detective TV's latest must-see drama.
"The Spoils Of Babylon" - on the other hand - isn't a drama, and isn't even must-see - but it's fun. It starts Thursday on IFC, and is a multi-part production from Will Ferrell's comedy website "Funny or Die," with a very meta concept.
It pretends to be a lost period miniseries from a previous era - the era of such overblown romances covering decades as "The Thorn Birds." It stars Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire, Tim Robbins, Jessica Alba and others, with a theme song sung by Steve Lawrence.
It's acted, staged, written and directed like an intentionally bad Ed Wood movie. And for this pretend lost masterpiece unveiling, each episode is introduced by its alleged auteur, played by Will Ferrell in all-out Orson Welles-gone-to-seed mode. The costumes and tacky direction made me laugh - and so did Ferrell as writer-director-producer Eric Jonrosh, whose intros are filmed at an old-school Hollywood restaurant.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPOILS OF BABYLON")
WILL FERRELL: (As Eric Jonrosh) The original production of "Spoils Of Babylon" had a running time of 22 hours and was considered not quite done with it, and was considered too long for network television. Tonight's abbreviated version pales in comparison, and yet, in my humble opinion, is far superior to anything on television today. Mm.
(As Eric Jonrosh) The cast is perhaps the finest assembled for the time, as the young romantic lead Dirk Snowfield coming off a weeklong engagement on the hit television show "Telepathy Man." Sir Richard Driftwood, celebrated British stage actor in his first film performance, playing an American - no less - with great skill. And my former life, the beautiful Lauria(ph) Sankick(ph), left us much too soon who left us much too soon and now lives in Arizona with a man who owns a chain of sporting goods stores.
BIANCULLI: "The Spoils of Babylon" for the next few weeks on IFC, has good fun masquerading as high TV art. But "True Detective" for the next two months on HBO, is the real deal.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLEAR SPOT")
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: (Singing) I have to run so far to find a clear spot. Ha. Sun's all hottin'...
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