Anne Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post and the author of “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956.”

What makes someone into a dissident? Why do some people give up everything — home, family, job — to embark on a career of protest? Or, to put it differently, why, on Feb. 21, 2012, did a group of young Russian women put on short dresses and colored tights, place neon-hued balaclavas over their faces, walk into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and mount the altar? And why — although they knew that their compatriots would be indifferent and that arrest might follow — did they begin to sing:

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Banish Putin

Banish Putin, Banish Putin!

In “Words Will Break Cement,” an investigation of the origins and motivations of Pussy Riot, the art-punk group that staged this famous performance, Masha Gessen set out to answer this question. She met several of the women in person and corresponded with two others, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhin, while they were in prison. She met some of their parents and husbands, in various stages of estrangement, and in one case a daughter.


“Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot” by Masha Gessen. (Riverhead)

Gessen’s book in fact begins with Tolokonnikova’s 4-year-old daughter, Gera, who was bored and fidgety on the 11-hour drive to Mordovia. She was on her way to visit her mother in a labor camp. Gessen sat with the family during that drive and during their four-hour visit, in a tiny rectangular room divided by a tall desk. The desk was manned by a prison officer who after some time agreed, reluctantly, to let a sulky Gera sit on her mother’s lap. The conversation ranged from Gera’s favorite foods to the nature of truth, the subversion of language and the ways in which the Russian political system is reflected in Russian prison regulations.

Later, at one of many tedious hearings on her prison conduct, Tolokonnikova expanded further on some of these themes. When guards accused her of refusing to participate in camp activities — including, incredibly, a prisoners’ “Miss Charm” contest — she made a speech: “I assert that it is the principles in accordance with which I conduct my life — feminist, anti-patriarchal, and aesthetically non-conformist principles — that are the basis for boycotting the Miss Charm contest.”

Her conversation alternates between mundane, profound and pretentious. Gessen, here as elsewhere in this excellent short account, doesn’t hesitate to show all these sides of her heroines’ lives. She takes them seriously but understands how odd they all seem in the idea-free zone that is Vladi­mir Putin’s Russia, and how peculiar their philosophical evolution. Having grown up without ideology, they struggled in different ways against boring schools, feckless parents, pervasive alcoholism. The 24-year-old Tolokonnikova grew up in the Arctic town of Norilsk, and her grandfather was a gulag guard; as a teenager, she taught herself existentialism. Another group member studied engineering and worked on nuclear submarines before quitting and drifting into art photography. Alyokhin, now 25, became an activist because she heard that a national park she loved was being handed over to developers: “I found two telephone numbers and addresses on the internet, packed a knapsack, and, straight from college, went to the offices of the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace.”

These three women and a handful of others wound up meeting in various Moscow apartments and art schools, where they eventually conceived the songs and “actions” that became the works of Pussy Riot, a group of one or two dozen women (the numbers change). They had no money, no backers. They were sustained in part by a feeling of camaraderie, though that was elusive: As the group constantly redefined itself, the members quarreled, disagreeing about legal and artistic tactics.

They also kept going because of what Gessen calls “Theory” with a capital T. In a country where the government controls the media, political parties are often fictitious and election campaigns are controlled theatrical productions, it can be hard to express political opposition. Pussy Riot decided to do so using the language of Western radical feminism: Unable to fight the system openly, they gained energy from their determination to fight it aesthetically, as conceptual artists and shock performers. If Red Square was a symbol of power, they would perform a song called “Putin Pissed Himself” there. If Putin wanted to co-opt the church as a form of support, then they would use the church as a site of protest, too.

Paradoxically, the regime helped spread their fame. Though the experience of prison was harrowing, though it took a huge toll on Gera, the long labor-camp sentences that Alyokhin and Tolokonnikova received for their cathedral performance made both women into international celebrities. After their release they went on an American tour, where they performed with Madonna and appeared on “The Colbert Report.”

As Gessen demonstrates, the experiences of trial and prison also gave these two women a much deeper education in political dissidence. While in prison, they encountered the Russian legal system and learned how to manipulate it. Gessen gives a particularly brilliant account of their trials, which followed very much in the tradition of the dissident show trials of the Soviet past. In an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the court, the accused would refuse to understand the charges or would question the nature of the accusation or of the criminality of her crime. Later, they issued protests from prison, conducted hunger strikes and in some cases tried to organize other inmates, just as the Soviet dissidents did once upon a time.

The question now is whether they can broaden their message — or if they even want to. Certainly Pussy Riot appeals to Western hipsters: These women will always be welcome at a certain kind of gathering in Moscow or in Manhattan. But there isn’t much evidence that they appeal to the Russian heartland. Until now, that wasn’t the point: Pussy Riot was conceived as an art collective, not a political movement, and most of its still-anonymous members want it to stay that way. Recently, several of them disowned Alyokhin and Tolokonnikova because they participated in an Amnesty International concert in New York. The group’s members could not become “institutionalized advocates of prisoners’ rights,” they wrote. True Pussy Riot performances could only be “illegal” and conducted in defiance of convention and institutions of all kinds.

Gessen doesn’t claim that Pussy Riot will ever move beyond these unconventional goals, and her book doesn’t hold up its members as any kind of ideal. But one senses her desire for the book’s two central heroines to evolve and to become real leaders, even if only to inspire others. In the epilogue, she describes another one of the group’s members who had been half-involved, who had stayed away from the cathedral performance and yet who was, when Gessen met her, fervently hoping that Alyokhin and Tolokonnikova would soon be released: She very much wanted to be part of something — anything — once again.

There are so many drifting, disillusioned young people in Russia, and so many of them are also waiting to be part of something. If only the “passion of Pussy Riot” could be somehow organized and directed, Gessen hints, then it might make a difference.

Anne Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post and the author of “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956.”

WORDS WILL BREAK CEMENT

The Passion of Pussy Riot

By Masha Gessen

Riverhead. 308 pp. Paperback, $16

Anne Applebaum writes a biweekly foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. She is also the Director of the Global Transitions Program at the Legatum Institute in London.