Words will break cement
The passion of pussy riot
Masha Gessen
Granta Book


Ironically enough Masha Greens previous book to this was a look at the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin and now in the ultimate irony she writes about a band taking on Russian Establishment.

For those with short term memory loss, Pussy Riot are a Russian punk band who decided to enter a Moscow cathedral and perform their punk prayer. Their performance was swift but the repercussions were vast. Hunted down by police 3 of the 5 were arrested and two sent to remote prison colonies. Their story got worldwide attention thanks in no doubt to social media.

Masha Green has decided it’s best we have some background to the people first.

Nadya is well educated, taught to appreciate rebellion and speak up for her beliefs from an early age. Nadya is the daughter of Andrei, from norilsk the worlds most northern large city. Nadya’s real name is Nadezda, Russian for hope. Nadya’s hope as a child was with her grandmother Vera, Russian for faith, as her birth parents couldn’t deal with being parents at the time. Her first foray into cultural terrorism was an art group called Voina, Russian for war. Voina organised flash art events. Events aimed at shaking an old and settled establishment. The people in Voina lived and debated together, commune like. The spirit brought differences and like all good radical groups a split was on the cards. Nadya then had a child.

Kat spent much of her childhood in medical institutions, away from her parents. She was an impeccable student with impeccable results, culminating in a masters in computer programming. She then got into photography and fell under Voinas wings. Their guerilla pranks continued. Other activists got to hear about their actions and looked for involvement. Feminist theory, Russian style developed and using music as an art for developed, Pussy Riot (or Pisya as it began), started. They were performance punks, playing guerilla gigs in open spaces basing their music on British skinhead bands and lyrics as in your face as possible. They picked a uniform image, day goo colours and balaclavas to cover their faces. In Ireland we have the rubber bandits using cut up plastic bags hiding their real identity, pussy riot were colourful guerilla artists.

Maria also came from a broken home and had an active life on the outskirts of Moscow’s activist circle. There was a lot of alcohol involved and being a mother helped focus things, however pranks were never far away,

For us living in Ireland and hearing the outcry amongst the protest movement when police stepped in and arrested people for sitting down in front of the Tanaistes Car it is hard to appreciate the difficulty in protest in countries like Russia. Being arrested is almost part of the protest itself and Pussy Riot never shirked from this.

“Death to the the Jails, Freedom to protest” they proclaimed, mostly in public open spaces. When the rest of the world was looking to occupy spaces and proclaiming to be the 99% Russian activists were working hard on trying to open up their world and the question of how to change the world or where to start began on Moscow’s streets. And when they sang in public, protesting at a system they viewed as repressive, they were in danger of being arrested. Every time. They knew it and still shouted.

As protests grew in Moscow and the establishment worked on breaking them pussy riot felt it inevitable to make an appearance in a church sending a statement to both the authorities and the Catholic Church. Poland were made, video cameras were prepared and they stormed the altar. But not for long.

The capture and hunt of the culprits seems more like a spy tale or espionage thriller, more suited to those endeavouring to overthrow the state by force of weapons rather than words. Finally pussy riot are caught and after being in hunger strike get put on trial for “committing an act of hooliganism, which is a rude disruption of the social order showing a clear disregard for society, committed for reasons of religious hatred toward a particular social group committed by a group of people as a result of conspiracy ”

In a supreme sense of irony during a trial of contradictions many world musicians came out in favour of this Russian punk band. People like Sting, paul mc cartney and U2 rallied on their behalf. The feeling was they just might make it through the trial bring found not guilty. On their final statements we three women all stood up proclaimed their innocence relating to the charges but still pressed home the point that the band are a political statement. Which certainly didn’t help set them free from a guilty verdict.

I’m not giving away any plot by letting you know the band were found guilty and given prison sentences. Words will break cement completed the take by talking about the bands incarceration post trial. It gives verbatim some of the transcripts and letters sent which, while painting the picture, can be a bit long winded in a 300 page book but it goes help paint that picture. If you were to draw out a picture of prison life it would be very much monochrome. Grey buildings cold and depressing under grey skies that never clear. Prison life is very much for punishment purposes. Rehabilitation doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. Like the Russian soldiers sent to the Siberian front Pusey riot were trying to highlight the awful conditions try were living under in prisons where “Collective punishment is employed: you complain about the lack of hot water and they turn it off altogether”

All in all a captivating story and a good enough read considering the author didn’t get a chance to talk to the party involved but had their complete permission to tell their story.


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