By now, you know: On February 21, 2012, five women in colorful dresses and masks entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow to stage a "punk prayer." Three of the women were arrested, tried, and sentenced to two years in prison. Russian prison.
I kept careful tabs on the events (one of my first Stranger pieces was on Pussy Riot), but still craved information. These faraway stories and sterile news reports were so disconnected from what I really wanted to know. Who are these women? Masha Gessen's Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot wastes no time in answering that question, intimately detailing the rise of Pussy Riot by profiling each member and the events that led to their crusade.
Pussy Riot's founder, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadya), was an obsessively studious child. Her somewhat immature father, Andrei—who tells Gessen things like "I am an expert in the upbringing of girls"—encouraged her to be more rebellious. Teenage Nadya took up radical activism in university, like when five couples videotaped themselves having sex in the Biology Museum (Nadya was nine months pregnant at the time; her daughter Gera was born four days later).
Pussy Rioter Yekaterina Samutsevich (Kat) met Nadya through an exhibition portraying Kat's attempts to vote—she and a friend photographed themselves trying to cast votes at a psychiatric unit falsely listed as a polling station. Nadya's quest for self- education eventually landed on feminist theory. She and Kat joined forces and concluded that actions should be less arty and more... fun, as "accessible as the Guerrilla Girls, as irreverent as Bikini Kill." Since, as Gessen points out, Russia essentially has no legacy of 20th-century feminism, they had to make it up. An all-female group first calling themselves the Pisya Riot collective ("pisya" is a child's word for genitals, similar to "wee-wee") before settling on Pussy Riot, Nadya decided that they should be a "punk band."
The background Gessen provides is fascinating, especially when she focuses on Pussy Riot's refreshed concept of "punk," and how they found a stylized rebellion to solidify their image and publicize what they were so angry about. Pussy Riot are not the first to protest Russia's corruption, and far from the first to be thrown in jail, but they might be the first to capture the world's attention. Gessen agrees Pussy Riot were well-branded, and intentionally so. As the "punk band" added members, song lyrics, and instruments, they agreed that visuals and costumes were needed to avoid the appearance that they were merely "stupid chicks just standing there screaming," as Kat put it. The group, now fully neon, called for the end of Putin's reign and the beginning of a feminist revolution. Maria Alyokhina—a young mother and soft-spoken hippie type—joined, and at this point, the story becomes familiar and the infamous "punk prayer" is not far off.
The second half of Words Will Break Cement is denser. Gessen dutifully describes page after page of pure frustration in the form of meaningless jail paperwork (down to the right to wash their hair or eat heated food), the government's sudden coats of paint and minor prison improvements when a "high-profile" inmate would be filmed, and the Alice in Wonderland–esque trial itself, which you really have to read to believe. Pussy Riot's inexperienced defense fumbled hugely while the judges and witnesses interacted in what can only be described as a grade-school interpretation of a court hearing.
Witness: They began to don masks with slits in the eyes and mouth. I was caused further anxiety by the fact that a guitar was being taken out.
Judge: A regular guitar?
Witness: No no no, not a regular guitar. It was an electric guitar.
Judge: Please describe their bodily movements.
Witness: As far as I'm concerned, these were devilish jerkings.
After the unusually rushed verdict, Gessen's communication with Pussy Riot was hindered by the rotten whims of the Russian prison system, causing many of their letters to be vague for fear of further punishment. By each woman's account, though, the system is a grossly unethical nightmare at worst and very, very sad at best. Near the end of the book, Gessen prints what she considers to be Nadya's best piece of writing: an honest, furious account of the horrors she and her fellow inmates faced in the penal colony. They're forced to work under largely illegal conditions, even by Russian standards, and hygiene and shame are used to control women who regularly turn against each other.
Last month, the two members of Pussy Riot who were still imprisoned—Nadya and Maria—were freed, two months shy of their sentence (they are labeling this act of "amnesty" a publicity stunt for Putin to save face before Russia's upcoming Olympic Games). And I'm still thinking about punk. It may have lost its original shape—punk's definition, if there ever was one, is stretched to the point of sagging—but Gessen's account reminded me what we still need punk for: its inability to sit and quietly wait for justice to chug through some faulty, fucked up system.