Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

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Overview

The heroic story of Pussy Riot, who resurrected the power of truth in a society built on lies

On February 21, 2012, five young women entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. In neon-colored dresses, tights, and balaclavas, they performed a “punk prayer” beseeching the “Mother of God” to “get rid of Putin.” They were quickly shut down by security, and in the weeks and months that followed, three of the women were arrested and tried, and two were sentenced to a remote...

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Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

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Overview

The heroic story of Pussy Riot, who resurrected the power of truth in a society built on lies

On February 21, 2012, five young women entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. In neon-colored dresses, tights, and balaclavas, they performed a “punk prayer” beseeching the “Mother of God” to “get rid of Putin.” They were quickly shut down by security, and in the weeks and months that followed, three of the women were arrested and tried, and two were sentenced to a remote prison colony. But the incident captured international headlines, and footage of it went viral. People across the globe recognized not only a fierce act of political confrontation but also an inspired work of art that, in a time and place saturated with lies, found a new way to speak the truth.

Masha Gessen’s riveting account tells how such a phenomenon came about. Drawing on her exclusive, extensive access to the members of Pussy Riot and their families and associates, she reconstructs the fascinating personal journeys that transformed a group of young women into artists with a shared vision, gave them the courage and imagination to express it unforgettably, and endowed them with the strength to endure the devastating loneliness and isolation that have been the price of their triumph.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Alexander Nazaryan
…urgent…damning…[Gessen] is not the first to tell Pussy Riot's story…But she tells it more thoroughly, her anger at Russia's "overwhelming mediocrity" scorching every page. She corresponded with the three jailed Pussy Riot members, visiting one in a prison camp, in addition to interviewing their families and activists. Much here will be new to the American reader. All of it is infuriating.
Publishers Weekly
★ 02/10/2014
Bestselling author Gessen (The Man Without a Face) chronicles the progression of Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Kat Samutsevich from their idealistic beginnings as young intellectuals to their arrest and prosecution for hooliganism as the punk rock collective Pussy Riot. The events are set in the background of Putin's Russia with its rigged elections, "bourgeois morality," and the corrupt Russian Orthodox Church that ignited a firestorm of protest. The author sets the stage with early Pussy Riot actions in Moscow Metro stations and the Red Square, before culminating in the notorious event, in which they used the performance art piece "Mother of God, Get Rid of Putin" as a form of protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. She details their frightening arrest and interrogation in which Samutsevich was threatened with rape and months of pretrial detention. What follows is a trial reminiscent of those from the Soviet era, with bumbling defense attorneys, pearl-clutching witnesses, a bomb threat, and a botched political action, while the defendants watched from within a clear Plexiglas aquarium. Readers visit the penal colony in Mordovia where Tolokonnikova's family travel 11 hours to sit with her for a mere two and a half. Interspersed throughout are Pussy Riot lyrics, correspondence with Gessen, friends and journalists, and the entirety of the closing statements at the trial. Gessen's manner of storytelling is exhilarating and cinematic and this important book will be the definitive text on Pussy Riot. (Jan.)
Library Journal
02/01/2014
Journalist Gessen (The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin) recounts the story of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist protest art group, three of whose members were arrested in March 2012 for their performance in a Moscow church. 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. The book is told from the point of view of the arrested band members, based on the author's interviews (Gessen is fluent in Russian), including of Nadya Tolokonnikova in-person in prison and Maria Alyokhina by letter. (Gessen also interviewed members of Pussy Riot who were not affected.) She touches on their philosophical and social ideologies leading up to the church performance and their thoughts during incarceration. Gessen quotes the artists' lyrics often to highlight the group's political/social criticism. She sheds light more generally, in the process, on underground protests and youth culture in today's Russia. Gessen is careful to note her personal involvement in covering the story. An epilog and postscript deal with the recent release of Nadya and Maria. VERDICT Recommended to readers in feminist studies, those following Putin's Russia, and all who study protest art.—Elizabeth Zeitz, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH
Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-05
A Russian-American journalist faces considerable challenges in telling the story of a punk band that most know only by its notorious name. While considering flight rather than facing trial for a performance within Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the members of Pussy Riot decided not to flee their homeland, since that option "was for serious people in real trouble, not for intellectual pranksters who presented themselves as silly young girls." Ultimately, they found themselves in serious trouble, bordering almost on torture: an extended pretrial imprisonment, a trial that left no doubt from the outset as to the verdict, and the two-year sentences that two of the defendants have been serving (a third challenged the verdict after switching lawyers and had her sentence suspended). Ultimately, in impact and consequences, Pussy Riot makes the Sex Pistols look as harmless as the Monkees by comparison. The problem with this illuminating book is that Gessen (The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, 2012) is both too close and not close enough. While she lacked access to the incarcerated members once worldwide attention justified a book such as this (likely to capitalize on the profile it helps raise, just as it analyzes how some involved have hopes of capitalizing), she does not provide the detail required by those readers who may not understand the intricacies and absurdities of the Russian legal system. The reporting of the trial is the most vivid, as the three articulate, intelligent defendants face diversionary charges of blasphemy in the church instead of the anti-Putin protest they were plainly making. "How did our performance, a small and somewhat absurd act to begin with, balloon into a full-fledged catastrophe?" asked one in a closing statement. "Obviously, this could not have happened in a healthy society." Losing in court, they emerged victorious in the eyes of the world, which awaits the next chapter in what could become a significant career. An uneven but revelatory introduction to the story, though certainly not the last word.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594632198
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/8/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 95,440
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of several books, most recently the national bestseller The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Newsweek, Slate, and many other publications, and has received numerous awards, most recently the 2013 Media for Liberty Award. She has served as the editor of several publications and as director of Radio Liberty’s Russia Service. She lives in New York.

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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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2014

    I haven't read this book, but I was struck by the title. Unfort

    I haven't read this book, but I was struck by the title. Unfortunately, the author doesn't seem to know the difference between cement and concrete. Nor, apparently, do her editors.

    That aside, the book looks quite promising.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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