Words Will Break Cement by Masha Gessen

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In her memoir The Pharmacist’s Mate, Amy Fusselman describes an AC/DC concert at Madison Square Garden as a religious experience:

And that’s the thing right there, that makes me believe in everything that makes no sense. When Angus Young plays the opening chords to “Hell’s Bells,” we know that something is here in the Garden that wasn’t here before, something huge and inexplicable, and it is not the giant, papier-mâchépapier-mache bell that drops from the ceiling. It is a presence, and even though it seems associated with Angus Young, it is not Angus Young.

And it is like a joke, almost, that . . . when we hear this gargantuan thing arriving, this giant presence, this god . . . we see only this shadow, this Angus Young fidgeting in his red velvet shorts, when we know as sure as we are standing here that a freaking king has come.

It’s not just heavy metal. The power of transcendent spectacle extends to punk rock, faith, and political resistance. When Pussy Riot performed their “Punk Prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, they combined all three. “Mother of God, Chase Putin Out” sounded like a Russian Orthodox choir being interrupted by Bikini Kill. Their bright party dresses and balaclavas, which made them look like cartoon superheroes, branded their protest as performance art. Their song begged the Virgin to chase Putin from the Russian Orthodox Church, which his propaganda had fashioned into an instrument of state power.

The performance drew more international attention to Putin’s oppressive rule than the years of protests leading up to it. Nadezdha Tolokonnikov, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina seemed to have summoned the presence of something larger than themselves.

In Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, Masha Gessen puts the wonder of this achievement at the center of Pussy Riot’s story. She writes:

Here is what I was trying to figure out: How a miracle happens. A great work of art –– something that makes people pay attention, return to the work again and again, and reexamine their assumptions, something that infuriates, hurts, and confronts –– a great work of art is always a miracle.

Gessen offers a riveting account of Pussy Riot’s birth as an opposition artists’ collective, the protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the show trial staged by Putin’s government, Samutsevich’s release on appeal, and Alyokhina’s and Tolokonnikov’s imprisonment in the Berezniki and Mordovia penal colonies. She is a sharp observer of people and events, and she tells Pussy Riot’s story in a lively style that is somehow casual, precise, and powerful all at once. She has written a terrific book, a compelling story of three creative women who courageously attacked a repressive regime by disrupting the spectacle of it propaganda.

Words Will Break Cement is so good because, in addition to possessing an accessible and understated literary style, Gessen really knows her subject. (Her excellent personal reporting on Moscow’s anti-Putin protests, on the New York TimesLatitude blog, is also well worth reading). She renders every detail of Pussy Riot’s story with great skill and understanding.

To dwell on a few of those details, the popular YouTube video translates the first chorus of “Punk Prayer” as, “Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit ,” which renders the lyric a mere sacrilege. Gessen’s “Shit, shit, Holy shit!” is more punchy, and makes the lyric ironic. Even her title for “Punk Prayer” (“Mother of God, Chase Putin Out” instead of “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away”) has more bite.

Gessen quotes Tolokonnikov’s, Samutsevich’s and Alyokhina’s closing statements from the transcript of the trial, rather than from their later edited versions, which gives them a more immediate feel. She casts the story against the backdrop of Moscow’s growing resistance to Putin’s rule, and provides well-chosen and helpful explanatory footnotes.

As for larger themes, the task of every political biography is to place its subject in historical context. Gessen doesn’t describe the women of Pussy Riot as political saviors, but their story naturally makes the reader wonder if they are. Maybe Gessen just polished the edges of her tale to throw its implications into relief, but it is possible to read her brief history of Pussy Riot as a retelling of the passion play referenced in her title.

Tolokonnikov, Samutsevich, and Alyokhina are thoroughly human in the early chapters. Gessen captures their ideals, flaws, ambitions, and contradictions. She makes them complete characters. By the time of their trial, however, they have become icons, and Moscow and its legal system a modern day Judea. Pussy Riot’s closing statements are captivating in their eloquence. Thankfully, Tolokonnikov does not become a martyr, although Gessen’s account of her ordeals in the Mordovia penal colony will make you fear for her and Pussy Riot’s safety if they imprisoned again. (There is a chilling passage in which a drop-out from the group recalls her realization that, for Pussy Riot, being arrested and detained wasn’t a setback, it was a goal, a feature of their lifestyle.)

As for Pussy Riot’s legacy, Samutsevich and Tolokonnikov recently out-shined Stephen Colbert on his show, and shared the Barclays Center stage with Madonna, but Maria Alyokhina put it best in her closing statement:

I am not afraid of lies and fictions and of poorly coded deception in the verdict of this so-called court, because all you can do is take away my so-called freedom, the only sort that exists in the Russian Federation. But no one can take away my inner freedom. It lives in my words and it will survive thanks to the public nature of my statements, which will be heard and read by thousands. This freedom is already multiplying, thanks to every caring person who hears us in this country. Thanks to everyone who has found splinters of this trial in themselves, as Franz Kafka and Guy Debord once did. I believe that openness and public speech and hunger for the truth will make us all a little bit freer.

We will see this yet.

Sean Carman has contributed to four McSweeney's humor anthologies, and has been a contestant in Literary Death Match, a finalist in NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest, and a winner of The New Yorker's weekly Twitter contest. His story "A Hard Rain. A Really, Really Hard Rain" was a runner-up in the Out of the Storm News Bad Writing About the Weather Contest. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works as an environmental lawyer. More from this author →