Everything you wanted to know about Pussy Riot

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+

Pussy_Riot_by_Igor_Mukhin (600x405)

Pussy Riot. Photo by Igor Mukhin

Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are at this moment the most famous punks in the world. Yet while images of these two women have been ubiquitous in the news media since they were on trial in the summer of 2012, and the details of their “Punk Prayer” performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour have been endlessly rehashed, little has been written about the feminist collective’s origins in Moscow’s small and overlapping conceptual art and activist scenes.

In Words Will Break Cement, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen fills in the picture, offering an in-depth account of the band’s beginnings, their guerrilla performances around Moscow and their later encounters with the law. Using a variety of methods and sources, including short biographies of the three band members that faced trial, courtroom transcripts, interviews with other band members and their families, the group’s lyrics and letters from Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina from jail, Gessen presents a vivid account of Pussy Riot’s origins and actions, and their broader contexts. This is an illuminating biography of a group of inspired performers, and Gessen also successfully uses Pussy Riot as a lens through which to view and understand the authoritarianism of Putin’s Russia, building on her 2012 book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

A recurring theme in Gessen’s description of the formation of Pussy Riot is the extent to which the small Muscovite art scene from which they sprang was isolated, and largely reflected the inward-looking tendency shared by the rest of the country. This helps to explain why the band’s performances were considered to be so shocking. Yet in an apparent contradiction, Gessen also points to important international influences on the band, particularly on Tolokonnikova, who was deeply engaged with contemporary western theory and philosophy. Gessen writes that from a musical and artistic perspective, the group drew on influences from outside Russia with the goal of being “as accessible as the Guerrilla Girls and as irreverent as Bikini Kill” in an effort “to compensate for Russia’s lack of a feminist movement, a body of social theory, or a Riot Grrrl legacy.” This proved to be a potent mixture that resulted in explosive performances.

words-will-break-cement-9781594632198b (400x600)Gessen’s descriptions of the many illegal performances that Pussy Riot carried out in Moscow for a few months, spanning the end of 2011 and early 2012, are the most thrilling pages of the book. These short concerts all took place on unsanctioned stages, including a metro station, a platform in Red Square and on a roof facing a detention centre where protesters arrested in demonstrations were held. Appropriating music from old punk groups, Pussy Riot added their own lyrics protesting Putin and advocating rights for women, queers and political prisoners, performed quickly, then disappeared into the night. By posting videos of their actions on their website, the band became a public symbol of the massive protest movement that erupted in Russia at the end of 2011.

Up to this point, Pussy Riot’s story might be the same as that of any audacious young band: They quickly found a unique style and a devoted following, and Gessen conveys the excitement that surrounded them. But after following the group’s heady rise and increasingly daring performances, the second half of Words Will Break Cement focuses largely on the experiences of the three women tried for hooliganism in the Russian judicial and penal systems. Having been present for most of the trial, Gessen offers a depth of insight that was often lacking in western reporting of the case, reflecting on its many similarities to the show trials of Soviet dissidents and emphasizing the terrible conditions faced by the defendants who often were deprived of food and sleep during the course of the trial. She goes on to provide descriptions of their lives in inhumane penal colonies following their conviction. The book concludes before their release.

Words Will Break Cement is the first of many books that will surely appear about Pussy Riot, but Gessen’s volume will likely remain among the most in-depth and incisive. Gessen certainly contributes to the cult of celebrity surrounding the jailed members of Pussy Riot, something that the remaining anonymous members of the band have denounced. Nevertheless, her broad perspective on Russian society and politics means that she is well-positioned to contextualize the story of how this obscure feminist art collective made international headlines. Gessen’s book is a stirring portrayal of oppositional art in action. ■

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen, 2014, 320 pp. $18 paperback (Riverhead)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+

24 Replies to "Everything you wanted to know about Pussy Riot"

Leave a reply