On Feb. 21, 2012, a group of Russian female performance artists slipped into Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to stage “A Punk Prayer,” beseeching “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out” and to protest the impending re-election of Vladimir Putin to his third term as president. The group chose the cathedral for the action because the church supported the Russian regime and symbolized the luxury and commercialism of the era. Playing dowon the political, anti-Putin nature of the action, the authorities portrayed it as a blasphemous and disrespectful act against believers, and for those crimes, three women were each sentenced to two years each in prison.
In Words Will Break Cement, Masha Gessen investigates the origins of the act and the women’s experiences with the Russian criminal justice system. After emigrating to the United States from the Soviet Union as a young teen in 1981, Gessen went back to her homeland 10 years later and became an accomplished journalist and L.G.B.T. activist. Her understanding of the Russian language and culture, close following of political developments, talent as a journalist and sensitivity to issues of human rights and justice uniquely position Gessen to tell this story.
At the outset, readers learn about the three young women—Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina (Kat) Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina. Self-taught in literary criticism and philosophy, Nadya earned admission to the philosophy department at Moscow State University, where she joined a co-ed group of performance artists. In time, Nadya became more interested in feminist and L.G.B.T. causes and formed an all-female music group that ultimately called itself Pussy Riot. Another member was Kat Samutsevich, who studied computer programming, took a job at a defense research institute and quit her post after becoming disgusted with corruption in the industry and frustrated with her daily work life. Thereafter, Kat became interested in photography and politics, which led her into the same artistic circles as Nadya and brought them together in early performance art actions.
Maria joined them later. An activist in the environmental movement as a youth, she studied journalism and hoped to change the world; Pussy Riot gave Maria that venue. While there were other members of the group, these three went on trial in 2012, and Nadya and Maria were ultimately forced to serve time. Released just prior to the Sochi Olympics, the group has reconvened and has been trying to focus attention on authoritarianism, nationalism, patriarchy and homophobia in Russia. They see Putin’s conservative coalition—those in support of the Russian Orthodox church, Russian nationalism and traditional gender roles and norms—as his new bulwark, and their aim is to expose the nature of his rule.
For observers of Russian politics, the strength of this book is in its coverage of the trial. Here, Gessen’s translation of the actual transcripts and commentary on them is invaluable. What the behavior of the judge and the lawyers reveals is what many have known—these courts are charged with providing the politically desired outcome, and they will stoop as low as they must to obey those in power. The statements of the women are, in addition, remarkable because of their sophistication, despite the relative youth of the speakers and the exhausting and debilitating conditions under which they had to compose them. They are also courageous. The activists never shrank from taking on the regime and its contradictions.
As the speakers and Gessen remind the reader, these trials are similar to proceedings in both tsarist and Soviet times. In particular, the comparison that is most fitting is with the dissident trials of the 1970s. In fact, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s words, which Nadya slightly edited and voiced at her trial, became Gessen’s title. The Nobel Prize winner wrote, “So the word is more sincere than concrete? So the word is not a trifle? Then may noble people begin to grow, and their word will break cement.”
During her turn, Maria excoriated the Russian educational system for churning out unthinking automatons who give in and follow the regime, having lost their ability to think critically and see the lies the system is purveying. Kat took on the church itself and how it had lost its way, becoming a tool of Putin’s rule. Like the others, she asserted that the group’s action exposed the truth about contemporary Russia and that veracity would ultimately undermine the system. This theme has been central to the resistance of autocracy for centuries; regarding anti-Communism, it is perhaps best associated with the work of Vaclav Havel who exhorted others to refuse to “live the lie.”
Ultimately, two were incarcerated; Kat had her sentence suspended. While Nadya endured hazing and was breaking under the impossible prison work requirements, Maria became energized and fought for eight-hour work days and other decent prison conditions. The book ends with Nadya’s going on a hunger strike, which earned her a move to a more humane facility, and Maria’s legal efforts securing significant improvements in prison conditions for her peers.
There is much to recommend in this book; it shows the triumph of the human spirit, gives us hope in the idealism and creativity of youth and uncovers more unseemly details of Putin’s rule. It is also valuable for highlighting historical similarities. While some analysts today seem to see the 1930s as the appropriate analogy, Gessen suggests that a better comparison is with the Brezhnev era, a time of corruption, leadership ego, popular acquiescence and economic decline. Given that the regime’s structural weaknesses and moral bankruptcy are clear to some Russians, as the 2011-12 protests revealed, speaking out and undermining the new, conservative formula for legitimacy are important. Words will break cement, and Pussy Riot and Gessen have brought an effective hammer down on the concrete. But given Putin’s recent nationalist efforts, even more words from people who know the truth are going to have to follow to crack this authoritarian edifice.