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Originally published Sunday, May 11, 2014 at 6:15 AM

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‘Words Will Break Cement’: they’ll land you in prison, too

Masha Gessen’s book “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot” tells the story of the Russian punk-rock band whose members took on the repressive regime of Vladimir Putin.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot’

by Masha Gessen

Riverhead, 308 pp., $16

When videos of young women in bright dresses and face masks, playing punk music and shouting political slogans in strategic public spaces in Russia, first began appearing on the Internet, they seemed to come out of nowhere. Punk performance art? Feminists? Flash mobs? In the land of Vladimir Putin?! While Russia has a storied history of dissident artists — as Masha Gessen points out in her fascinating insider account of the rise of Pussy Riot, “Words Will Break Cement” — it has zero rep for gender activism and cutting-edge music.

Then again, Pussy Riot was proving Newton’s Third Law of Physics: For every repressive and silencing action of Russia’s president, the once anonymous, amorphous collective performed an equal and opposite action of loud assertion. Or as Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova said in her passionate, philosophical closing argument at her trial for hooliganism in 2012, quoted in full in this book, “We have not lied for a second, we have not lied for one single moment during this trial. Whereas the opposite side lies excessively, and people sense this. People sense the truth. Truth really does have an ontological, an existential advantage over lies.”

As Russia waves sabers at the Ukraine and considers a new cultural policy that explicitly rejects multiculturalism and tolerance, the young women of Pussy Riot increasingly seem not like radicals but prophets. “Words Will Break Cement” (the title comes from a paraphrase of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, also taken from Tolokonnikova’s closing statement) details for the first time how Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina (Katya) Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and others formed the group. A series of actions led to the protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, their subsequent arrest, and the globally televised show trial that made them a cause célèbre.

Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who has previously written a book about Putin, had deep access to most of the principals of this story, although Nadya and Maria were in prison, so Gessen had to rely on letters from them to her and others. She’s a thoughtful and elegant writer who is clearly sympathetic to the women’s cause and impressed by their heroism, but also appropriately skeptical at times. She describes well Pussy Riot’s historical, literary, political and artistic contexts in Russian culture, but has little feel for their roots in punk music or Third Wave feminism. Occasionally, her account gets bogged down in the minutiae of the courtroom drama. But her biographical sketches of the three Riot girls who went on trial — the beautiful, brilliant ideologue Nadya; the hippieish, sisterly dreamer Maria; the quiet but tough tomboy Katya — are vivid and empathic. “But Nadya was determined to accomplish something for which she had never before striven: she wanted, desperately, to be understood,” Gessen writes about Tolokonnikova’s closing statement.

The book ends before the prisoners’ sudden release in December, just as Nadya — who had disappeared without a trace into Russia’s tough gulag system for 26 days — was finally found in a tuberculosis hospital, being treated for effects of a hunger strike. These days she and Alyokhina rub shoulders with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert. Without this glamorous turn of events in sight, “Words Will Break Cement” documents how committed Pussy Riot were to their goal of resisting Putin’s rule and how deep went their degradation during the almost two years they were in jail. While they have been freed, the punk prayer they sent out remains unanswered.

Evelyn McDonnell’s most recent book is “Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.” She teaches journalism at Loyola Marymount University.

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