Revo­lu­tion that wasn’t

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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

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