Pussy Riot is out to topple the Russian government, says ‘Words Will Break Cement’ author Masha Gessen


Pussy Riot members, from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova attend a 2012 hearing. (Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images)

“Pussy Riot is not a band,” says journalist Masha Gessen. “Pussy Riot is a precise weapon, aimed directly at [Vladimir] Putin.”

People not carefully following the story could easily think Pussy Riot is just some punk rock group that ran afoul of Russian authorities. But though Pussy Riot plays concerts and releases music videos, it’s a protest collective that aims to highlight what it considers Russia’s slide into authoritarianism. Punk performances are their chosen mode of dissent.

In her new book, “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot,” Gessen explores how Pussy Riot’s three most famous members became such powerful and effective dissidents. And martyrs, to an extent: Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina ended up in Russian penal colonies after their arrests for a 2012 performance in a Moscow cathedral. (Yekaterina “Kat” Samutsevich’s sentence was suspended.)

“Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot” author Masha Gessen appears at Politics and Prose on Saturday. (Svenya Generalova)
“Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot” author Masha Gessen appears at Politics and Prose on Saturday. (Svenya Generalova)

Alyokhina, 25, seemed destined for activism. Raised by her mother and grandmother, she was encouraged to make her own decisions. As a young mother, she organized a grassroots effort to defend an old-growth forest. Later, in Moscow, she fell in with Pussy Riot.

Samutsevich, 31, was a lonely software designer, living at home with her domineering father, when she went back to school for photography. At a 2008 exhibit of her work documenting ersatz polling stations during the 2007 parliamentary elections, Samutsevich met Tolokonnikova and became her willing sidekick.

How Tolokonnikova, 24, came to activism is a mystery and a bit of a miracle, Gessen says. She grew up in Norilsk, a dismal, polluted mining town inside the Arctic circle. Though Tolokonnikova was a straight-A student, she rebelled against school authorities, declaring that her real education began at home, where she read scores of books by Russian philosophers and literary critics.

“Nadya has always fascinated me the most,” Gessen says. “Though I documented her backstory very closely, I still can’t say how somebody like that comes out of Norilsk.”

In the fall of 2011, the three women, plus several others who remain anonymous, formed Pussy Riot. They staged protest concerts at public places, where they shouted anti-Putin messages into toy microphones and created music videos from the footage. They wore neon colors and balaclavas.

Russian officials’ outsized reaction to the cathedral performance is a testament to how effective the women are at getting their message out, Gessen says. Their harsh punishment only served to spread the word that Russia had returned to Soviet-era oppression, she says.

“The authorities didn’t realize Pussy Riot was this well-spoken and this attractive,” Gessen says. “All they saw was a bunch of clowns jumping around and screaming in funny getups.”

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are out of prison, and Pussy Riot continues to bedevil Putin, staging protests at Sochi and publicizing the inhuman conditions at Russian prisons. So here’s a word of wisdom to any would-be Putins out there: Silly-looking punk bands may be more dangerous than they seem.

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sat., 6 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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