One of the virtues of thuggish dictators is that their thuggishness makes their opponents look good even opponents who have glaring faults of their own. Masha Gessen's previous book, The Man Without a Face, argued that Vladimir Putin's thuggishness borders on psychopathy; in her current one she turns to a portrait of three of his female antagonists. These antagonists are callow, juvenile, and sometimes vulgar. But as if by alchemy, the juxtaposition with Putin makes them into heroes, and makes their publicity stunts into sublime acts of political defiance.
The dissidents Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, born in 1990, Maria Alyokhina, a year older, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, born in 1983 are founding members of a punk collective known as Pussy Riot. On February 21, 2012, clad in balaclavas and tights, they stood up in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior and lip-synched a song highly critical of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate and President Vladimir Putin. For maximum subversive effect, they chose a section of the church called the soleas, reserved for the (male) Orthodox priests. Their discordant chanson lasted forty seconds and earned them two years in a penal colony by way of reprisal.
Gessen's Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, is a fan letter in the form of a flattering partial biography of the three imprisoned women the most extensive of its kind in English. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, both mothers of small children, were released by presidential amnesty in December 2013, in a pre-Olympiad show of mercy; Samutsevich was given a suspended sentence. Gessen adores her subjects, and as a Russian-American feminist and anti- Putinist writer, she clearly views them roughly as they view themselves: victims of a corrupt system, martyrs in the cause of freedom. She meets their parents and traces their upbringings and education to find the origins of the rebellious streak that led them to stand up to Putin and to the Orthodox establishment that increasingly acts as a religio-fascist branch of his government.
Russia has a long tradition of punishing its dissidents before canonizing them. Gessen makes a strong case that the members of Pussy Riot will someday be seen squarely in that tradition, which has heretofore been dominated by austere, grave men with long prison beards. (See Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who provided Gessen's title.) Pussy Riot, by contrast, is young and female, and in its choice of expression it has been frivolous, even impish. In the early 2010s, it grew out of a previous group called Voina, or "War," which criticized the materialism of post- Soviet Russia through absurdist demonstrations such as throwing stray cats over the counter at a Moscow McDonald's. The group at first took the name Pisiya Riot, using a childish word for private parts (comparable to "wee-wee"). Rechristened Pussy Riot, members continued this pranksterish behavior by kissing cops on the street "a cop's face is communal property," explained Alyokhina and welding shut the doors of restaurants catering to oligarchs.
Even in the act that got them sent away, the basic vibe was silliness. At the Church, Pussy Riot's members wore such brightly colored masks and dresses that they looked more like a sexy hazmat crew than like a gang of criminals. And although their lyrics left no ambiguity about their views of Putin and the Church ("[Its] chief saint is the head of the KGB"), they hardly called for insurrection just brazen disrespect for the existing conservative, patriarchal (in both senses) social order. Nonetheless, the government treated the three women like hardened revolutionaries and convicted them in a show trial for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."
At its best, Gessen's book gives three memorable profiles in courage, as well as vivid examples of how principled activists can maintain steel nerves, even in the face of rape threats by police and the likelihood of long prison sentences. Words Will Break Cement is particularly sharp in the procedural detail of how Pussy Riot was denied justice in court. Moments of low comedy come when Orthodox witnesses take the stand and describe how they were "caused huge moral damage" that "will not go away" by the sight of Pussy Riot's guitars. "A regular guitar?" asks the prosecutor. "No," answers the victim, distressed. "An electric guitar."
But ultimately the question that haunts the reader is where Pussy Riot's members summoned their fortitude. Gessen's interviews with them and her rehearsal of their biographies and previous antics seem insufficient to explain their strength at trial. Tolokonnikova read out a long closing statement that Gessen quotes in full. Nothing we previously knew about Tolokonnikova can prepare us for that statement's decency, wisdom, and sadness at how little Russia has learned from the still-living memory of Stalin. "It is the entire Russian state system that is on trial here, a system that, to its own detriment, is so enamored of quoting its own cruelty toward the human being, its own indifference toward his honor and integrity," she said. "If the political system turns all its might against three girls who spent a mere thirty seconds performing in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, that means only that this political system is afraid of the truth."
Read in tandem with Gessen's Putin book, Words Will Break Cement would indeed seem to suggest that anti-Putinism is its own source of strength, and that oppression can prematurely impart wisdom to the young and ennoble the frivolous. Pussy Riot's movement started silly but was forced to into a position of dignity and principle by its tremendously undignified and unprincipled opponent. Tolokonnikova's speech delivered, I am impressed to say, by a twenty-two-year-old is a great deal more sophisticated than throwing cats at fry cooks, and it is sure to outlast any words uttered by the man who had hoped to render her silent.
Graeme Wood is a staff editor at The Atlantic. His articles and reviews have appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, Good magazine, andThe American.
Reviewer: Graeme Wood
Read an Excerpt
“It is worth noting,” Nadya said, lecturing at a conference, “that punk feminist art is being produced in Russia today. Here is an example,” she continued, improvising. “The Pisya Riot collective works in a great variety of genres, including both visual and musical compositions.”
Pisya is a kid’s word for genitals of either sex; it is most like “wee-wee” or “pee-pee.”
Being a fictional group, Pisya Riot could not write its own music. Neither of the real-life members of the phantom group could; Nadya had taken music lessons as a child and had not done well, and Kat had no musical background. So they borrowed a track from the British punk group Cockney Rejects and used a handheld Dictaphone to record their lyrics over the sampling:
You are sick and tired of stinky socks,
Your daddy’s stinky socks.
Your entire life will be stinky socks.
Your mother is all in dirty dishes,
Stinky food remains in dirty dishes.
Using refried chicken to wash the floor,
Your mother lives in a prison.
In prison she’s washing pots like a sucker.
No freedom to be had in prison.
Life from hell where man is the master.
Come out in the street and free the women!
Suck on your own stinky socks,
Don’t forget to scratch your ass while you’re at it,
Burp, spit, drink, shit,
While we happily become lesbians!
Envy your own stupid penis
Or your drinking buddy’s huge dick,
Or the guy on TV’s huge dick,
While shit piles up and rises to the ceiling.
Become a feminist, become a feminist
Peace to the world and death to the men.
Become a feminist, kill the sexist!
Kill the sexist and wash off his blood.
Become a feminist, kill the sexist!
Kill the sexist and wash off his blood.
They found they liked being Pisya Riot. Maybe they even really wanted to be Pisya Riot. To become a punk rock group, though, they would need musicians. They thought of N, a woman Nadya’s age who had come to Voina, an art group to which Nadya and her husband, Petya, had belonged. Nadya sought her out. N found Nadya changed: “In Voina, she had been this chubby-cheeked child, and now her cheeks had thinned and her voice took on a certainty. She had chosen her issues, and she may even have chosen them at random, but now she was serious and her topics were LGBT and feminism. And the choice had changed her: she no longer saw herself as an appendage to Petya and [fellow Voina member] Vorotnikov, even if she had once been a willing appendage. It had still limited her. When you are with someone, you are not flying through the cosmos, because your soul always has its home in another person—you may need it sometimes, but it is limiting and it keeps you from taking flight. Nadya got this at some point and took flight.” Pisya Riot, on the other hand, seemed to N almost pure silliness, but she envied whatever it was Nadya felt. She took on the music.
They would need other participants too, but that did not seem like a big issue; what they had in mind could be done by three or five or seven or eleven people, and there were friends and students to be recruited. They also needed a stage. At first, playgrounds, with their platforms and slides, looked pretty good. They had recorded “Kill the Sexist” at a playground. It was raining. It was also night time, which meant there were no children at the playground, but there were beer-drinking and cigarette-smoking young people, who grew concerned when they heard young women screaming their heads off about stinky socks.
They said, “What happened? Did someone hurt you? Do you need help? ”
Nadya and Kat had said, “Don’t worry, we are just making a record.” But now that they were planning on making videos, they needed a different stage, something more spectacular. One day, as they got off the Metro, they spotted it: some stations had towers made of scaffolding, with platforms at the very top, for changing light bulbs or painting ceilings, or performing punk rock, perhaps. Moscow Metro stations are, for the most part, grand architectural affairs, all marble and granite and ostentatiously spanning arches and dramatic lighting; they look like classical concert halls, and the crude scaffolding towers, viewed from the right angle, look very much like a punk affront of a stage.
They performed a number of reconnaissance missions and identified several stations where the towers were particularly tall and well placed, which is to say, placed close to the center of the hall. Then they began rehearsing. If they were going to be a feminist punk rock group, they were going to have to have instruments—Kat picked up a bass—and they were going to have to climb up the tower and unpack their instruments and mics and amplifier and take up positions fast, faster than the Metro police knew what was happening.
They practiced at playgrounds.
As they rehearsed, it became clear they needed staging and visuals and costumes. “Because if we just got up there and started screaming, everyone would think we were stupid,” Kat explained to me. “Stupid chicks just standing there screaming.”
First they came up with wearing balaclavas, which would make them anonymous—but not like Russian special forces, who kept their identities hidden behind black knit face masks with slits for the eyes and mouth, but like the opposite of that: their balaclavas would be neon-colored. Then they would need dresses and multicolored stockings, to show that the whole getup was intentional. Bright, exaggerated makeup showed surprisingly well through the slits in the balaclavas. And the pillow—the pillow appeared because parliament members had begun talking about banning abortion and Putin kept talking about Russia’s so-called demographic problem, by which he meant that Russian women were not getting pregnant often enough, and so Nadya stuck a pillow under her green dress. And then she tried taking it out during the screaming, or the singing, and ripping it open. The feathers created a sort of snow effect, in addition to the birth effect and the abortion effect. That worked.
They spent a month filming their first clip. There was one time they climbed atop a Moscow electric bus and performed—it turned out the feather-letting worked outdoors as well—but mostly they filmed at Metro stations, as many as fifteen of them in all. A couple of times, they got detained. Once, Tasya, who was filming, got beaten up by police. This was before many Russians came to think of being beaten up by police as a regular part of their existence. There was the time when the police tried to beat up Petya, and Nadya wedged herself between him and them and literally shielded him with her body, and there was probably no one, not even Nadya, who appreciated the beauty of her doing this after screaming about stinky socks and penis envy.
And there was the time when the police called Kat’s father, Stanislav Samutsevich. “They would not let me see them,” he recalled. “They were in a holding pen. I had a conversation with two interesting young men. They talked to me about contemporary art and activism. I asked them who they were, and they said, ‘We are art critics in civilian clothing.’ “ It was an unfunny joke that Stanislav Samutsevich did not get: “art critic in civilian clothing” was a term used to denote KGB agents whose job it was to inform on dissidents in the Soviet Union; just like their predecessors in the 1970s, Pisya Riot had developed a following among these “art critics” before the broader public ever heard of them. That is, the secret police had literally started following them around—there were more of them with each consecutive taping.
Stanislav Samutsevich would not have known, or wanted to know, anything about dissidents in the Soviet Union, or about those whose job it had been to spy on them or jail them. “So I shared with them my views on contemporary art.” What were they? “Well, I am an old man.” The ones in civilian clothing were more knowledgeable about contemporary art. “The girls had really wreaked havoc there and the police didn’t know what to do with them. Then a big police vehicle came for them and Yekaterina told me to go home. She came home later, on the last train. I had a talk with her after that, but I am a dinosaur and I don’t understand anything about anything, so that was the last time she ever told me anything.” From that point on, Stanislav Samutsevich learned about performances from the media—or from police. He did try to protect the girls from themselves. “One time they were in the hallway, painting posters of some sort, and I came out and said to them, ‘Look, you’ve already been to the police station once, and no one knows how things could end.’ Nadya stopped coming over to the house after that.”
After that particular detention, the media got wind of the tower climbing and the screaming and the feathers flying in the Metro. They assumed Voina was back in action. Petya and Nadya were invited to the studios of the lone independent cable television channel. They denied it had been a Voina action. They said they had been detained while attending a performance of a new, different art group. They said it was called Pussy Riot.
What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
Praise for WORDS WILL BREAK CEMENT: THE PASSION OF PUSSY RIOT
“Urgent … damning … Much here will be new to the American reader. All of it is infuriating.” –Alexander Nazaryan, The New York Times
“Remarkable…Masha Gessen [is] one of the most important activists and journalists Russia has known in a generation… disquieting, moving, and closely reported.” –David Remnick, The New Yorker
“The fullest account so far of the Pussy Riot story… 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.” –Sara Marcus, Los Angeles Times
"Valuable for its insights into the modern cultural history of Russia, with all its idealistic muddles, dead-ends and false starts … ideal for those curious about the country behind the Games.” –The Economist
“What makes someone into a dissident? Why do some people give up everything — home, family, job — to embark on a career of protest? … Gessen set out to answer this question … in this excellent short account.” –The Washington Post
“A compulsively readable book that explains in unflinching terms the tragedy that is modern Russia…Words Will Break Cement is an instant classic, destined to take its place with Solzhenitsyn’s writings about the Gulag... one comes away…marveling at the courage of the Pussy Riot members making a stand against tyranny while demonstrating the willingness to pay a steep price” –New York Journal of Books
“Riveting… [Gessen] is a sharp observer of people and events, and she tells Pussy Riot’s story in a lively style that is somehow casual, precise, and powerful all at once. She has written a terrific book, a compelling story of three creative women who courageously attacked a repressive regime by disrupting the spectacle of its propaganda.” –The Rumpus
"The significance of Words Will Break Cement...is its demonstration that Pussy Riot's rambunctious confrontations with the authorities are the result of several years of growing frustration with Putin's rule...The genius of Pussy Riot...has been to employ guerilla street theater and a sense of humor along with unbridled profanity–all the better to skewer the pretensions of power and privilege Putin insists are his due...Words Will Break Cement makes clear that Pussy Riot is more than just a small group of disorderly anarchists." –New York Times Book Review
“Masha Gessen’s history of founding Pussy Riot members Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich provides some crucial context for understanding the motives and means of the group…Gessen’s account helpfully highlights the lineage of art and protest that gave rise to Pussy Riot.. Pussy Riot is what art endangered looks like; their songs are salvos; their hits are strikes.” ––Boston Globe
“[A] fascinating insider account … As Russia waves sabers at the Ukraine and considers a new cultural policy that explicitly rejects multiculturalism and tolerance, the young women of Pussy Riot increasingly seem not like radicals but prophets. … Vivid and empathic.” –Seattle Times
“A compelling and eloquent account of current events.” –The Christian Science Monitor
“Gessen offers a lively and sympathetic portrait of the three women at the center of the storm… keenly observed and often moving.” – The Guardian
“[An] angry, clear and intimate look at the women behind Pussy Riot.” – The Sunday Times
"Compelling and highly readable. It’s an artist biography, a meditation on revolutionary art and gender politics, an absurdist courtroom drama and defiant commentary on the cultural climate of Gessen’s homeland — a place for which the author obviously has enduring love and concern.” –Eugene Weekly
“Pussy Riot is a global cause célèbre, and now Gessen—prickly, frank, precise, and sharply witty—provides the first in-depth look at this story-in-progress”–Booklist (starred review)
"Based on interviews with Pussy Riot members (including those arrested and others in the group), their families, friends, and attorneys, Gessen puts their protest and arrests in the context of post-Soviet, Putin-era Russia’s culture and society… Recommended to readers in feminist studies, those following Putin’s Russia, and all who study protest art.” –Library Journal
Praise for THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE: THE UNLIKELY RISE OF VLADIMIR PUTIN
“Gessen has shown remarkable courage… [An] unflinching indictment of the most powerful man in Russia.” –The Wall Street Journal
“[Gessen] shines a piercing light into every dark corner of Putin’s story… Fascinating, hard-hitting reading.” –Foreign Affairs
“Illuminating… It is with [the] explosive revelations that Gessen truly excels… An electrifying read from what can only be described as an incredibly brave writer.” –Columbia Journalism Review
“Part psychological profile, part conspiracy study. As a Moscow native who has written perceptively for both Russian and Western publications, Gessen knows the cultures and pathologies of Russia… [and has] a delicious command of the English language… A fiercely independent journalist… Gessen’s armchair psychoanalysis of Putin is speculative. But it is a clever and sometimes convincing speculation, based on a close reading of Putin’s own inadvertently revealing accounts of his life, and on interviews with people who knew Putin before he mattered.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Absorbing.” –The New Yorker
“Powerful and gracefully written.” –The San Francisco Chronicle