Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

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, now twenty-four, Maria Alyokhina, twenty-five, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, thirty-one -- 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 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.

 

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