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Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot - Masha Gessen “How did our performance, a small and somewhat absurd act to begin with, balloon into a full-fledged catastrophe?”

That’s the question this book struggles to answer. It largely succeeds.

If I sound as if I’m hedging a bit, it’s because I’m still in shock from the very end of this book. I didn’t realize it had been written while the convicted members of Pussy Riot were still in prison. Not only is there no mention of Putin’s oh-so-magnanimous pre-Olympics order to release them early (such a sweetie!), but the book very nearly ends with no resolution given of Nadya’s 26-day disappearance during her hunger strike. (A hasty postscript is added, updating the reader slightly on Nadya’s location and physical state as of December 2013.)

I was going to discuss the story this book tells: how several young women started a feminist punk band in Russia, which a British journalist accurately describes as “the land women’s rights forgot.” This is worth quoting Gessen at depressing length about:

The fact, though, was that feminism had never taken root in Russia. It had been part of Bolshevik ideology in the 1920s, when “revolutionary morality” replaced bourgeois morality, abolishing marriage and monogamy and introducing free love, communal children, and full gender equality. The USSR even introduced the world’s very first laws against sexual harassment in the workplace. But the egalitarian spirit did not last.

...Virtually all Soviet women held two full-time jobs – one for pay and one, at home, for nothing but hardship, which in light of constant food shortages, could be extreme – and this was called “full gender equality.” Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, the tradition of reviling and ridiculing feminism proved surprisingly resilient. A few feminist organizations that appeared in the late 1980s, on the glasnost-and-perestroika wave, either stayed small or disappeared. Feminism was an academic pursuit, and an unpopular one.


Small wonder, then, that Pussy Riot seems initially to have struggled with exactly what feminist activism should look like. An early action was to approach female police officers, ask them for simple directions, and “if the officer responded helpfully, one of the actors would go into paroxysms of gratitude, culminating in a kiss – on the lips, when possible.” These interactions were filmed, and the video clip went viral.

After this strange event, Pussy Riot decided to focus on punk rock-oriented actions. They came up with ferociously feminist lyrics, and found musicians to help them perform. They filmed themselves performing at playgrounds, at Metro stations, on top of an electric bus. They crafted lyrics for a performance outside a detention center, and the prisoners inside roared along with them. They staged a particularly daring performance in Red Square – Masha Gessen’s description of this is deeply entertaining.

But Pussy Riot was by no means the only group of people trying to shake things up in Russia. The so-called Snow Revolution of December 2011 was the beginning of a Russian protest movement, which Gessen did much more than just observe and report on:

Protest had gone mainstream in Russia, taking Pussy Riot with it. Creative direct action was not enough if everyone was doing it. And everyone was; there was even a clearinghouse for direct action now, with hundreds of people coming to weekly meetings to propose dozens of actions, find collaborators, and start to organize on the spot. (I started the Protest Workshop, as it was called, and facilitated its meetings from December 2011 through June 2012.) These included flashmobs on the Metro, performative acts of art, and small-scale, unsanctioned protests.

So: Why have we heard of Pussy Riot when most of us probably haven’t heard of any other activist Russian groups (or even of the Snow Revolution itself)?

If Pussy Riot hadn’t staged an action at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, few people outside of Russia would have heard of them. They did, and now people all over the world have an opinion of what they did, even when they don’t quite know what it was.

The cathedral was open, for the record. Many people I’ve spoken to were under the impression that Pussy Riot had to “break in” in order to stage their performance. They didn’t. They simply walked in.

They were also not brought up on the kind of charges they’d have faced in America. I don’t know enough about the law to say for sure, but I’m guessing it would be something like disturbing the peace, public nuisance – maybe even some kind of trespassing charge, since although the cathedral was open, it’s not as if Pussy Riot got permission to perform in there.

This is Russia, so they were charged with “hooliganism and hatred toward Orthodox believers.” And, this being Russia, the court managed, even while playing clips of the recording, to skip the refrain that calls for the Mother of God to “chase Putin out.” Instead, Pussy Riot was presented as having simply urged the Virgin Mary to “become a feminist.” Heaven forbid that this be seen by the Russian public as a political action.

As long as you weren’t one of the accused, the trial was hilarious in its way. The members of a feminist group were chided for having chosen to perform in a certain area of the cathedral, since “parishioners of the female sex cannot go up on the soleas.” The cleaning lady later blew that by admitting that yes, “she cleaned the soleas despite being female. The prosecutor grabbed his head with his hands. The judge directed the court marshals to remove anyone who laughed.”

The young women were also “accused” of performing “bodily movements that [a witness] called ‘devilish jerkings.’” This was accepted as part of the evidence of their “hatred toward Orthodox believers” until the defense attorneys asked what exactly devilish jerkings were. “How does the victim know how the devil jerks?” the lawyer asked with a straight face. “Has she seen the devil?”

“I am disallowing the question,” the judge replied. (The judge said that many times during the course of this trial. She wasn’t the kind of judge who worries too much about that pesky “innocent until proven guilty” nonsense.)

Another laughable-if-it’s-not-you-on-trial moment occurred when an altar man “testified that Pussy Riot had acted as though they were possessed”:

”Those who are possessed can act in a variety of ways,” he explained. “They can scream, thrash around on the floor, sometimes they jump.”

“Do they dance?” asked [a lawyer].

“Well, no.”


A security guard solemnly testified that he’d been so traumatized by the performance, he had to miss two months of work. I don’t know how Pussy Riot felt about this, but I’d take it as a huge compliment.

As I mentioned in an update, this book would be worth reading just for the closing statements of the members of Pussy Riot. Gessen’s writing is skillful and unobtrusive, but it can’t compete with this brilliant passion.

And that’s where we reach what I consider the sole flaw of this book. It begins with a visit to one of the prisoners. The prison sounds deeply unpleasant, but survivable. Only in the epilogue do we learn that the conditions there are nothing short of torture.

Nadya managed to write and release an open letter about this just before she declared a hunger strike. Prisoners are forced to work from 7:30 in the morning to twelve-thirty at night. They’re allowed to wash their hair once a week, but often even this is cancelled – and the plumbing is constantly breaking down, toilets as well as sinks and showers. The food is stale bread, watered-down milk, rancid millet, and rotten potatoes. “This summer, sacks of slimy black potato bulbs were brought to the prison in bulk. And they were fed to us.”

Any prisoner who complains will suffer for it doubly, because collective punishment is meted out – and prisoners are encouraged to beat troublemakers. The only violence that’s interfered with are suicide attempts.

This book, as I said, began with a visit to this prison, but makes no mention of the true horror of conditions there. I think the book should have started with Nadya’s letter. Her story, and that of Pussy Riot itself, should have been told in the shadow of the kind of punishment Russian dissenters can expect to face. (Soviet gulags: gone, but not forgotten!)

This book is short and engaging. Read it if you’re interested in global feminism, punk rock activism, Russia in general, and/or the plight of Russian women in particular.