Revolution that wasn’t
The Roman conquest of the West is fairly well known, and was thoroughly horrible. From his own writings, it has been estimated that Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul left a million dead, another million enslaved. As Tacitus famously made a victim of Roman imperialism say: “The Romans create a desert, and call it peace.”
The Sons of Remus looks at what happened after the conquest. In popular imagination, as far as the period exists at all, it is a story of unending struggle. In one small village a Druid continued to collect mistletoe, a Bard sang, and Asterix led the fight of the indomitable, freedom-loving Gauls. The consensus among modern scholars, however, is much more placid. When two centuries of fighting in Spain were over, and despite a few initial revolts in Gaul, each separated by a generation,
The first time I heard of Pussy Riot, in December 2011, they were a Moscow rumour. Hipsters in the know said these underground punks might do something spectacular. Seven months later, as a reporter, I was at their show trial: outrageous, they filled the courtroom, as the judge seemed to shrink away.
But the first time I properly met Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, two of the band, they were bored out of their minds at a human rights jamboree in Oslo, picking up an award from some pompous European diplomats – wondering what had happened to their rock and roll. “Selfie, that’s what we do,” said Tolokonnikova sarcastically as she gestured at
from the inhabitants of both settled down to forget their own past completely, and to make themselves assiduously Roman.
Andrew Johnston offers a new understanding that avoids these poles of Asterix-style resistance and full Romanisation. Instead, he argues, local identities persisted – even proliferated. They were malleable, and open to fiction. The Gallic tribe of the Remi, for instance, put forward the unlikely claim that they were descended from Romulus’s brother. In different contexts, a Western provincial could see himself as a member of a tribe (a label Johnston avoids), of an ethnic sub-group, an inhabitant of a particular city, or, especially when abroad, simply as a Gaul or Spaniard, or even as a Roman. Unlike the hero of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, it seems that every morning me that I could get myself a selfie, too, if that’s what I really wanted.
Alyokhina’s memoir Riot Days is the story of what happened in between the Moscow rumour and the afterlife. Raw and restless, it begins as a vivid diary of the December 2011 protest movement, which briefly filled the streets near the Kremlin, before turning into that Russian classic, a prison diary.
Alyokhina is no latter-day Solzhenitsyn. The writing is rough, and often confusing; when the energy wears off, it feels rushed. This really is just a prison diary and not much more. The strength of Riot Days lies in its ability to capture a moment, little noticed abroad, when change seemed possible, but history failed to turn.
“We came up with an idea to make a film about the revolution.” Alyokhina’s opener will confuse her Western readers because she is writing about a revolution that never happened; the anti-Putin revolution that was only hinted at when, on Christmas Eve six years ago, 100,000 people gathered 10 minutes’ walk from the HQ of the Federal Security Service in Lubyanka. “We were led by a belief in a possibility of change,” she writes. “A naive and childish belief that can suddenly awaken in adults and is usually accompanied by a feeling of shame.”
I remember the snow and the optimism in that crowd. Like everyone else in that crowd, I remember I was freezing, excitedly asking my friends: Could this really be it? Could he really fall? It was the last day that the future felt wide open in Russia.
Reading Alyokhina reminds me of those conversations we had, the
The diary of a Pussy Riot singer recalls how much freer Russia felt in 2011. By Ben Judah