In “The Man Without a Face,” Masha Gessen took on Russian President Vladimir Putin in a book that pulled no punches.
Now, in her new book, Words Will Break Cement, Gessen takes up the cause of a few of Putin’s victims, the performance artists Pussy Riot. Two members of the protest band were jailed for almost two years. Their crime? They tried to stage a performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.
That is, on Feb. 21, 2012, five members of Pussy Riot, dressed in bright miniskirts and neon balaclavas, managed about 20 seconds of a punk-music prayer that beseeched the Orthodox Church to free itself from Putin’s influence (the church leadership supported Putin in his election bid) before they were stopped by church security officials. The next month, three of the group’s members were arrested, and subsequently convicted of “hooliganism” (which, at the trial, turned out to mean that their interrupted performance had shocked a few coerced eyewitnesses).
Late last year, the jailed Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were granted amnesty, as Putin, the women speculated, wanted to free himself of international attention on them during the Sochi Winter Olympics.
In “Words Will Break Cement,” Russian-American journalist Gessen sets out to answer what Maria (Gessen refers to the heroines by their first names or nicknames) asked at her August 2012 trial: “How did our performance, a small and somewhat absurd act to begin with, balloon into a full-fledged catastrophe?” The answer, according to Gessen, lies in the Putin government’s nostalgia for Soviet-era political imprisonment.
Pussy Riot never pretended to speak for mainstream Russia. As a feminist punk rock protest group, Pussy Riot advocates for feminism and gay rights and against Putin’s brand of authoritarianism.
“If they wanted to show something radical, feminist, independent, street-based, and Russian, they would have to make it up,” writes Gessen, because the country has not embraced feminism, despite the independence and self-sufficiency of Russian women.
However, art is messy and experimental, and Nadya and Maria, admitting they botched the message, have since apologized for offending Orthodox believers at their aborted cathedral protest.
But if the group has sometimes clashed with its fellow countrymen, Pussy Riot has also done Russians a great service by bringing to the attention of the entire world the strong-arm tactics of the Russian government. Before and during their trial, the members of Pussy Riot were denied due process even as the bewildered judges, seeming to look over their shoulders at Putin’s office for directions, repeatedly and hastily fumbled the handling of legal procedures. Gessen calls it “a Soviet political trial repeated as farce.”
Nadya, the most conspicuous member of Pussy Riot (at least partly because of her movie-star looks), declared during the trial, “We have more freedom than the people who are sitting opposite us ... because we can say what we want and we do say what we want. Whereas the people over there, they say only that which political censorship allows them to say.”
One of the women, Yekaterina “Kat” Samutsevich was paroled; Nadya and Maria, meanwhile, staged various protests while in prison, including hunger strikes to call attention to illegal penal practices. According to news reports since their release, they both aim to bring to light the systematic violations of human rights in Russian prisons and to continue calling for the release of political prisoners.
A nervy advocate with a forceful voice herself, Gessen, who moved to the United States from Russia as a teenager, has lived in Russia for the past two decades. Now, fearing Putin’s retribution and facing his new anti-gay laws (she is a lesbian with children), she has returned to live in New York.
The only structural fault of “Words Will Break Cement” – a compelling and eloquent account of current events – is Gessen’s decision to provide the young women’s life stories before she documents the trial. The three heroines distinguish themselves only when push comes to shove, that is, during the August 2012 trial, glorious and astounding portions of which Gessen has had transcribed.
My suggestion? Read Part 2 (“Prayer and Response”), then Part 3 (“Punishment”); then, if you’re interested in portraits of the artists as girls and students, read Part 1 (“Becoming Pussy Riot”).
Although the title declaration, “Words will break cement,” comes from Solzhenitsyn, the most important and consequential of Soviet dissidents, it’s hard to believe that he – who embraced the Orthodox Church after his 1994 return to Russia from exile – would have been wholeheartedly admiring of the young women. But they are admirable and brave for all that, wonderful in their belief in Russia’s common sense and hardy soul, even as they confront the country’s Goliaths. In the end, the members of Pussy Riot are like all effective protesters: naive, idealistic, and – bless them! – heroic.
Bob Blaisdell is a frequent contributor to the Monitor’s books section.