by Sean Guillory
Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova & Masha Alyokhina on The Colbert Report
Pussy Riot are now global celebrities. Their cause has been featured in articles, profiles, books and films.
Since the amnesty of Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina (the third member, Kat Samusevich, was given a suspended sentence on
appeal) in late December, they've been appearing at news conferences, posing for fashion shoots and travelled to an award ceremony
Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot,
by the Russian-American journalist
Often it seems that Gessen was inside their heads. She almost was. She interviewed their families, friends and lawyers. They gave her letters and legal documents. Gessen sat through most of the trial sessions, and combed through the transcripts of those she didn't. This is Gessen at her best. Shorn of the conspiracy theory of her inferior study of Putin, The Man Without a Face, Words Will Break Cement is a refreshing, passionate and intimate portrayal of Pussy Riot.
In the opening pages she chronicles a family visit to IK-14, the prison colony where Nadya was housed after her conviction. 'Gera wanted to pee,' are Gessen's opening words. Gera, Nadya's fouryear- old daughter, had spent 11 hours in a car with her father Petya, grandfather Andrei and Gessen. 'Gera, you cannot pee every five minutes!' Petya shoots back.
'When was the last time you saw your mom?' Gessen asks Gera when they have a few minutes alone. 'I don't remember anymore,' she shrugs. 'Why is your mom in jail?' 'I don't even know,' the child shrugs again. 'Who put her there?' Gera shrugs again, 'Putin.' A cramped car, impatient passengers, a family squabble, a child's confusion -- Gessen views these as essential pieces in their complex story.
Pussy Riot's origins lie in Voina, or War, a radical art collective. But their true midwife was the protests of
Pussy Riot quickly gained notoriety in
Pussy Riot's actions come across as impromptu. In reality, they were meticulously planned and rehearsed. Nadya, Maria and Kat didn't like taking risks and dreaded arrest. But their performances were nonetheless daring spectacles. As a group they stressed anonymity and used pseudonyms in case of arrest. They were lucky. Despite a few detentions, they were never charged or jailed.
The 'punk prayer' in the
Nadya and Kat pointed to a group of artists who were given suspended sentences for showing art critical of the Church. Plus, they assumed, the times were different. They were wrong.
Their arrest and trial made them global celebrities. At home, a thin layer of Russian society supported them. Overall, however, they received little sympathy from the Russian public. In a Levada poll conducted in
This in no way diminishes the force of their critique of Putinism, nor the fortitude and poise they showed during their trial and imprisonment. Gessen makes a comparison with the show trials of Soviet dissidents. She explains that in dissident trials the defendant refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court while the defence played the legal game to get their sentence reduced. But in Pussy Riot's case, the roles were reversed. Nadya, Maria and Kat's lawyers made political speeches, Gessen writes, while they conducted themselves, especially Maria, as lawyers. Gessen spares few words in criticizing Pussy Riot's lawyers
Two-year sentences did not quell Nadya's and Maria's voices. Each challenged their respective prisons by fighting not just for their rights, but that of all the colony's prisoners.
Maria won important concessions and became so troublesome that she was transferred out of the Berezniki colony to one with better conditions in
Pussy Riot is now a dead project. Any future action will be contrived. Their last video fell flat. Kat is out of the limelight, and Nadya and Maria are starting a prison rights organization, though several already exist in
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Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina