Marco Werman: With all the drama over Russia's intentions in Crimea, another Russian story has been pushed to the back pages. I'm talking about Pussy Riot. Today, though, the Russian punk protest group is back in the headlines. There is a disturbing video from Russia making the rounds that shows an apparent attack on two of the group's members. Russian journalist Masha Gessen is the author of "Words Will Break Cement." It's about Pussy Riot. She says the video is chilling.
Masha Gessen: From what I understand, this was actually not a Pussy Riot action. Maria and Nadezhda, two members of Pussy Riot, who served two years in jail, went to Nizhny Novgorod where Maria served out the last few months of her sentence to document some prison violations at the prison there. They were not there to do Pussy Riot action.
They were in a local McDonald's talking when they were attacked by a group of young men, wearing orange and brown ribbons that symbolize Russia's victory in World War II. They screamed 'get out of town' and various sexist and offensive epithets. First they sprayed them with a green ointment that is commonly used in Russia to treat infections. They screamed some more and then one of them approached Nadezhda and sprayed some sort of acid in her eyes. She says the she couldn't see anything for about ten minutes and then her vision returned but her eyes still hurt and apparently she has some cornea damage. They also lobbed a metal job of ointment at Maria, who had to go to the hospital and get stitches on her head.
Werman: What do you make of those orange and brown ribbons, what do they suggest to you?
Gessen: Usually they're worn around the time of the anniversary of World War II. The fact that they decided to put them on before attacking Pussy Riot indicates that they thought this was a patriotic act, that they were somehow defending Russia from these women, which is very much the official rhetoric and Putin's rhetoric in relation to people like Pussy Riot and in relation to political protesters in general. So I think that they got their message from television.
Werman: And so hat especially patriotic and nationalistic trend in Russia right now, is there a Crimea and Ukraine connection do you think?
Gessen: Well, Crimea and Ukraine have both been used as causes for further mobilization and this is a campaign that's been going on very intensively for at least two years and less intensively for the ten years before that and it's intensified further in the last few weeks over Ukraine. In television propaganda, and I would suspect in these young men's imagination, it all sort of lumps into one. Beat up the protesters, chase the gays and lesbians, take over Crimea, all of this in the name of a greater Russia.
Werman: We spoke earlier to a human rights activist in Nizhny Novgorod. She told us these two women, as you say, were taken to the hospital and she believed it was not staged. She said they seemed really frightened. Is this going to get worse?
Gessen: It's very difficult to predict something like that. I am extremely worried for their safety. The entire state propaganda machine has worked for months, actually for years at this point, to portray them as enemy number one of the Russian people, of the Russian Orthodox Church, of the Russian State. It's an extremely violent country and considering that message of hatred, we shouldn't be surprised at all when that translates into violence. I wouldn't be surprised at all if it translates into life-threatening violence.
Werman: If these nationalists are getting their messages from Russian television, is Vladimir Putin able to control the entire scenario, is he able to control these nationalists? I mean, he can control the television, we know that.
Gessen: The thing about the Putin regime, and this has been true actually for many, many years, is there are certain people who are sort've declared outside the bounds of the law. It's open season on some people and that is why we have seen a lot of the political murders, a lot of the murders of journalists - all of these murders have gone unsolved. Do I believe that Putin personally ordered most of these murders? No. He just made it very clear that those people could be attacked and killed with impunity and he created a system in which impunity was guaranteed. Nadezhda and Maria are marked women, they're in that part of society on which it's open season. Nobody has to order the attacks in order for the attacks to happen.
Werman: Masha Gessen, the author of "Words Will Break Cement." Thank you very much.
Gessen: Thank you.