If activism were an Olympic sport, Pussy Riot would have taken the gold for their 2012 punk prayer performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Central Moscow, asking, "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out, / Chase Putin out, chase Putin out..." They picked the perfect target, sent a clear message, and got so much global media attention, they deserved a perfect score.
Unfortunately, instead of standing atop a podium, three of the five landed in jail, tried and convicted for "hooliganism inspired by religious hatred". Yekaterina Samutsevich was given a suspended sentence on appeal, but Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina served nearly their complete two year sentences in penal colonies before they were released in the recent amnesty for prisoners-- Putin's gambit for improved P.R. just prior to the Sochi Olympics.
In her new book, "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot," journalist Masha Gessen transforms their now familiar story into an important exploration of rebellion itself, especially the role played by protest art and direct action when language no longer serves.
Unlike many progressive activists that see history as an arc with a pot of gold at the end of it, Gessen refreshingly asserts that it's a miracle Pussy Riot emerged at all. It's not enough to be an outcast to make protest art, "One also has to possess a sense that one can do something about it, the sense of being entitled to speak and to be heard." And the Russia that gave birth to Pussy Riot was placid with oil money, nearly mute in the face of an electoral system, judiciary, and media overwhelmingly controlled by Putin.
Trying to see what made them different, Gessen looked to their biographies and found the three jailed Pussy Riot members had quirky families, and more than one winter of discontent. They were curious, rebellious, avid readers, and despite the antifeminist culture, mostly encouraged by their families to speak their minds.
Nadya aspired to be a journalist before she was admitted at sixteen to the philosophy program at Moscow State University. She was disappointed by the other students which she quickly dismissed as mediocre and stupid, all except for Petya, a student a few years ahead who would become her boyfriend and collaborator.
Disgusted by Russian politics and society, the two didn't write radical treatises, or create new schools of philosophical thought, but joined another couple to form the art group, Voina (War),which took over public spaces like the subway to hold performances.
Gessen finds this unexpected move into art and direct action nearly inevitable, considering the legacy of the Soviet era that still echoes through everything from the surreal justice system to the glut of ex-KGB officers in lofty places from Putin to his pal, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the case of the two students, it was the Soviet impact on public rhetoric that made any other engagement impossible.
"Voina faced a challenge that perhaps exceeded challenges faced by any other artist in history: they wanted to confront a language of lies that had once been effectively confronted but had since been reconstructed and reinforced, discrediting the language of confrontation itself. There were no words left."
Gessen is onto something here, though it's not just Russians who have turned to performance art and direct action when language fails--for whatever reason. Queer Nation, the Lesbian Avengers held actions in public spaces. ACT-UP even disrupted a service at St. Patrick's Cathedral. And as Gessen herself noted, art and activism were blended in the Riot Grrrls. They, in part, inspired Pussy Riot when Nadya and other female members of Voina turned more and more towards feminism and LGBT issues.
The marginal always struggle to have a voice, find a mode of expression. It's often a radical act for us just to plant our bodies in public. As a writer, I suspect even Gessen had to consider how best to communicate the Pussy Riot story to an Anglo-American audience not only unfamiliar with Russian life and Russian politics, but often dismissive and sneering when confronted by performance art or direct action.
Her effective solution was to rely on anecdotes and details, make the world familiar. The prologue, for instance, begins with the simple phrase, "Gera wanted to pee." And Gessen describes what it's like for a four-year old girl, Gera, her dad, and granddad to go visit her now infamous mother, Nadya, in a Russian work camp. We see the squabbling, and irritation. The car of German journalists behind them. Then the penal colony with its endless rules for prisoners, and the rare visitors.
Details work the same way bodies do. When Gessen starts to write about Maria and Nadya's life in the penal colonies, details make their experience concrete, and keep the two from blurring into a generalized image of human misery. With "Words Will Break Cement" Gessen furthers the trend of what I'll call post-Soviet realists, like Yoani Sanchez in Cuba, who employ a similar strategy of understated description. Not only bearing witness to unforgivable conditions, the book illuminates the tools of resistance and social change.