“We’ve been fighting for the right to sing, to think, to criticize. To be musicians and artists, ready to do everything to change our country, no matter the risks,” says a hooded member of Pussy Riot in a 2012 video message to the group’s supporters. That year, three members of the Russian punk band and artist collective were arrested on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” They had staged a performance inside a Moscow cathedral, which they described as a protest directed at the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, who had supported Vladimir Putin during his election campaign. All three were sentenced to two years in prison.
Being an artist or a writer in Russia has never been particularly easy, or free of risk—especially during the 19 years since Putin became the nation’s president. For this podcast episode, I spoke with Masha Gessen, staff writer at the New Yorker and author of 11 books of nonfiction, including 2017’s National Book Award–winning The Future Is History. We talked about the legacies of the Soviet period, self-censorship, and what the experiences of Russia’s artists can teach us about the dangers of tyranny everywhere—a subject touched on in Gessen’s forthcoming book, Surviving Autocracy.