PRINT Summer 2014


Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement

Diagram of Maria Alyokhina’s pretrial jail, Moscow, 2012.

IN THE MONTHS since journalist Masha Gessen wrote the postscript to her riveting history of Pussy Riot, a lot’s happened. Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, two of the women imprisoned for their guerrilla performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in early 2012, were released in advance of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, thanks to Vladimir Putin’s grudging, Christmastime concession to world opinion. In February, after Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina spoke at an Amnesty International concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, an open letter from Pussy Riot appeared online, stating that the two were no longer members of the anarchic collective and that, with their new focus on prisoners’ rights, they didn’t represent “the aspirations and ideals of our group—feminism, separatist resistance, the fight against authoritarianism and personality cults.” Yet, just weeks later, back in Russia (and back in their bright balaclavas and mismatched dresses), Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were among the Pussy Riot members whipped by Cossacks as they attempted to shoot a video for the song “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland” in front of a huge blue sign emblazoned SOCHI 2014. In March, they were assaulted with paint and some kind of caustic chemical by a group of men in a McDonald’s. This is all to say that Words Will Break Cement feels like part one of the Pussy Riot story, not the final word.

Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face (2012), the best-selling political biography of Putin, writes with wit and telling detail about the “intellectual pranksters who presented themselves as silly young girls” to famously challenge the dictatorship and doublespeak of their country. She sympathizes with her radical protagonists: Her account is brought to life by the candid commentary elicited in her extensive interviews, and her portraits of the three women imprisoned for their rebellion—Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich—are sensitively rendered against the political backdrop of Putin’s Russia.

In a typically vivid scene, Gessen describes the group’s curious start as a fictional band, invented for the finale of a slide-show presentation. Tolokonnikova, a veteran of street-art provocateurs Voina (War), had recently immersed herself in feminist and queer theory and decided to use her opportunity to speak at a September 2011 conference for opposition groups, to “compensate for Russia’s lack of a feminist movement, a body of social theory, or a Riot Grrrl legacy,” Gessen explains. Beginning with the 1990s American feminist band Bikini Kill and speeding through a list of feminist figures as diverse as Shulamith Firestone, bell hooks, Orlan, and Martha Rosler, Tolokonnikova ended with the claim that punk feminism was alive in Russia. To prove it, she played a noisy recording she’d made with ex-Voina comrade Samutsevich: shouted lyrics over a backing track swiped from Oi! band Cockney Rejects. “Kill the Sexist” was Pussy Riot’s promising start.

Like-minded women joined their ranks, and Pussy Riot pulled off a series of exhilarating stunts, emerging as the feminist vanguard of the Snow Revolution, the groundswell of discontent that, beginning in December 2011, brought unprecedented numbers of Russians into Moscow streets to protest election fraud, corruption, and Putinist repression. Pussy Riot performed in metro stations, on top of a bus, on a street lined with luxury boutiques, and on an icy platform in Red Square. But as Gessen charts their ascent, she also reveals the fault lines of the group. Scathing anti-Putin punk songs and surprise performances with viral-video afterlives had brought them international attention, and with success came the pressure to best themselves in increasingly brazen actions. Within a few short months, their castrating joie de vivre was already on the wane: The stakes were higher, the presidential election loomed, and, Gessen writes, “the group required total commitment: to be Pussy Riot you really had to live Pussy Riot. Otherwise, you felt like an extra in Nadya’s show.”

Five members of the group went through with the risky plan to perform their song “Mother of God, Get Rid of Putin” (later known as “Punk Prayer”) in the cathedral’s sanctuary, hoping to deliver their most pointed message to date. Beginning with the lyric “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out,” the song is a send-up of patriarchal religion, an indictment of the corrupt business enterprises of the Church, and a condemnation of Patriarch Kirill’s cynical efforts to manipulate believers into voting for Putin. Churchgoing witnesses and a scandalized candle lady understood the performance—cut short by security guards—as an act of spiritual terror. And Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich were subjected to a confounding witch trial, in which the prosecution carefully obscured the political content of the women’s lyrics.

“Total commitment” meant risking everything, and Gessen never downplays the price the women paid for their daring. But she does show their trial as the context for a brilliant new phase of their project. Perhaps they had accomplished what they could as anonymous troublemakers; a Russian kangaroo court became their next stage. Gessen’s account of their attempts to variously mount a defense, refuse the terms of the judicial charade, and articulate their political motivations is a fascinating and moving read. And it’s clear—especially given the author’s decision to reproduce the young artists’ court statements and prison correspondence in their entirety—that she sees the women of Pussy Riot as the best representatives of their own ideas.

Johanna Fateman is a musician, a writer, and an owner of Seagull Salon in New York. She is working on a book about Andrea Dworkin.