Pussy Riot rehearsal

Members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot during a rehearsal in Moscow, February 2012. (ANNA VOLKOVA / EPA / February 10, 2012)

The video went viral in early 2012: a handful of performers in bright dresses and colored balaclavas doing high kicks in a Moscow cathedral, shouting in rhythm, as dark-suited men dragged them away one by one.

The feminist art collective the world now knows as Pussy Riot had been mounting guerrilla happenings around Moscow for less than a year, and the performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was in many ways typical: a surprise takeover in a public place, stage-managed for maximum YouTube mileage, with synchronized dance moves and lyrics that careened between obscenities, feminist battle cries, and calls of support for the anti-Putin protest movement that had finally erupted in December 2011.

For years, Russians had seemed complacent about the country’s stratification of wealth, widespread government corruption and Putin’s unending stranglehold on power. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, the country was beginning to wake up, and Pussy Riot was there to incite.

“Time to learn to occupy squares / Power to the masses,” went a characteristic couplet; they sang that one from a rooftop next to a jail full of locked-up activists. Within a year, they would themselves become some of the world’s most famous political prisoners.

In “Words Will Break Cement,” the first book about Pussy Riot, Russian American journalist Masha Gessen tells the story of this band of young women who pushed an autocratic regime into overplaying its hand and made feminist art into a matter of geopolitical significance. Pussy Riot formed in 2011 out of the ashes of an earlier art collective named Voina (War); a few women from Voina broke off in order to create something explicitly feminist, inspired by the simple provocations of punk rock, the 1990s Riot Grrrl movement, and feminist artists like Karen Finley. The new collective’s performances highlighted sexist and anti-LGBT dimensions of political repression, an approach that now looks prophetic in light of Russia’s recent antigay legislation.

Pussy Riot’s cathedral performance was intended to denounce the cozy relationship between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church. In early 2012, the church’s leader — Patriarch Kirill, a rumored KGB agent with a $30,000 wristwatch — praised Putin and told his followers not to attend demonstrations; other priests, too, instructed their congregants to shun marches. Shouting their “Punk Prayer,” Pussy Riot retorted: “Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!”

The prayer, cut short by security guards, lasted just 40 seconds, but the music reverberated much longer: Three members of Pussy Riot were arrested shortly afterward, convicted of “criminal hooliganism,” and sentenced to two years in prison. The group that had once obsessed over finding the perfect angle for their online videos had now been handed a starker image of Russian repression than they ever could have devised themselves, and news outlets around the world ran courtroom footage of these articulate, attractive young women locked in an airless Plexiglas cage while prosecutors denounced them for blasphemy.

The spectacle of Russian authorities shipping artists off to labor camps had a disturbingly familiar ring to it. Instead of silencing criticism of the regime, the prosecution of Pussy Riot turned the group into a global cause célèbre, with figures from Madonna to Obama coming to their defense. Late this past December, Putin granted the imprisoned Pussy Rioters an early release, part of a transparent attempt to rehabilitate Russia’s image before the Winter Olympic Games, but the gesture was too little and too late.

Not just a keen observer of these events, Gessen’s also an impassioned partisan. Her damning Putin biography, “The Man Without a Face,” came out in 2012, and she ran a protest clearinghouse in Moscow. “Words Will Break Cement” is written in a dry, raised-eyebrow deadpan, which allows post-Soviet repression to indict itself and adeptly captures the bluster and headiness of activist idealism.

Gessen begins with the back stories of the three arrested women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadya), Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich (Kat). Gessen interviewed Nadya and Maria through the mail while they were locked up, and went along on a family visit to Nadya in prison; she had unlimited access only to Kat, a perplexing figure who received a suspended sentence on appeal (her lawyer pointed out that guards had seized her before she could sing a word) and has since kept a low profile.

Gessen fills in the blanks with detailed reminiscences from the members’ relatives and friends, and she traces their routes to radicalism — Kat through a passion for photography and an awareness of election fraud, Maria through a pragmatic and deeply felt environmentalism, Nadya through Western critical theory and Russian poetry.

Gessen is not just asking how these women came to form Pussy Riot, or how they came to be punished so severely for making protest art. She’s also asking what makes great political art, and proposing that art and truth-telling have the power to defeat oppressive regimes (as the title, a quote from Nadya paraphrasing Solzhenitsyn, suggests). Pussy Riot’s actions often looked and sounded adolescent and slapdash, as most of the best punk rock always has. Gessen implies that these qualities may be particularly well suited to countering entrenched doublespeak.

“In really scary societies,” she writes, “all public conversation is an exercise in using words to mean their opposites.” Confronting these lies can be, she suggests, the most effective way to fight back.

The book’s account of the Pussy Riot trial reads like absurdist drama. To prove the women’s supposed anti-Orthodox hatred, the prosecution discusses their hem lengths and the speed with which they crossed themselves. A witness, having described their “devilish jerkings,” is asked on cross-examination, “How does the victim know how the devil jerks?” Maria and Nadya are sent to penal colonies, whereupon absurdity yields to plain cruelty: They are fed rotten food, housed in filth, and forced to sew in sweatshops for 12 to 16 hours a day.

Maria’s campaigns to defend inmates’ rights in her colony find some success, but Nadya’s efforts only cause her fellow prisoners to ostracize her; one guard hints threateningly that she might get killed. By the end of the book, Nadya has been transferred to a prison hospital in Siberia, gravely ill after weeks on a hunger strike to bring attention to the colony’s inhumane conditions. The statement she smuggled out before being hospitalized is, as Gessen wrote in Slate, “probably the most detailed and searing expose of Russian prison conditions since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago.’”

If journalism is the rough draft of history, then books rushed into print to keep up with events — as this one was — constitute an early and provisional edit. Still, “Words Will Break Cement” is the fullest account so far of the Pussy Riot story, richer and more deeply informed than last year’s workmanlike HBO documentary “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.”

Gessen’s extensive knowledge of Russian art, literature and political dissent helps contextualize the group’s work and its persecution in a way that has rarely been seen until now. She ably illustrates the influence of Moscow Conceptualist poetry and contemporary protest movements on Pussy Riot’s combination of aesthetics and politics, and she argues for their case as a troubling return of Soviet-style show trials.

How Pussy Riot will affect Russian politics in the future is an open question. But the group has already succeeded in dramatizing the very repression they were seeking to expose. In addition, their time in prison has changed them from brash Internet stars into thoughtful, strategic organizers. Their story is a moving object lesson in the power of art — perhaps especially messy and exuberant art — to rise above repression and have the last, cement-breaking word.

Marcus is the author of "Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution."


Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

Masha Gessen
Riverhead: 320 pp., $16 paper