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Book REview

‘Words Will Break Cement’ by Masha Gessen

Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot at a recent  Amnesty International Concert in New York.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for CBGB

Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot at a recent Amnesty International Concert in New York.

Two years ago, five young women strolled into Moscow’s massive Cathedral of Christ the Savior and all hell broke loose.

Sporting dresses with loudly clashing tights and balaclavas, the women took to the soleas — a major no-no in itself — and launched into a number titled “Mother of God, Get Rid of Putin.” One pulled out a guitar and was ushered off by security before she could play a note. Another bounced in place as a speaker blared a prerecorded punk track. They high-kicked and mock genuflected, shouting and screaming into the cathedral’s arches, their voices hanging in the air as guards dragged them through the exits.

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At the trial six months later, where the three apprehended members of the activist performance-art collective Pussy Riot would be convicted of “hooliganism,” with two of them later facing two-year sentences in penal colonies, the candle-tender at the cathedral, Lyubov Sokologorskaya, couldn’t bring herself to repeat for the judge what she’d heard them sing that day. She could only describe the girls’ “devilish jerkings.”

The traumatized candle-tender hasn’t been the only one who has struggled to clearly articulate the message of Pussy Riot. From an American standpoint, it’s tempting to view them simply as Web-savvy, anti-authoritarian troublemakers with a feminist edge and a bone to pick with Putin — and while all of that may be true, the punk lens ends up being more reductive than helpful.

Despite ample and equal portions of fame and infamy following their most well-known protest action at the Cathedral (which made them international stars of YouTube), and the attention paid to their prosecution, sentencing, and amnesty by the media, the Twitterverse, and celebrities from Madonna to Sting, to Americans, the message behind Pussy Riot’s disruptions reliably gets lost in the noise and the neon — not to mention the Russian.

Just this past week in Sochi, Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova told reporters that wherever she and her cohorts went in the Olympic host town, they were trailed not by “journalists, but people who are following us and track our every move, and look for any excuse to detain us.”

And indeed, they were detained several times over several days; one attempted performance ended with Cossack militia members smashing the group’s guitar and attacking band members with whips. If it’s unclear to Americans what they’re rallying against, it appears to be crystal clear to Russian authorities.

Sometimes dry but always detailed, Masha Gessen’s history of founding Pussy Riot members Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich provides some crucial context for understanding the motives and means of the group. Offering back stories of those three members largely understood to embody Pussy Riot (despite the collective’s extended anonymous membership), “Words Will Break Cement” also details the roots of their activist antics.

Individual chapters dip into the childhoods of the three girls, and we see how early encounters with art inspire their first bubblings of rebellion. Gessen gives special attention to Tolokonnikova’s early work as part of art activist group Voina (“War’).

Before Tolokonnikova was rallying masked girls into chaotic performances in Red Square, she was releasing stray cats over the counter at McDonald’s, and staging and filming public group sex in a biology museum. Gessen’s account helpfully highlights the lineage of art and protest that gave rise to Pussy Riot, connecting the Moscow Conceptualists of the 1970s right through the March of the Disagreeables protests in 2006-2007.

Though Gessen has relatively limited access to the three — along with the girls’ family members, she interviews Samutsevich, and corresponds through prison censors with Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina — it does little to mute their voices. Pussy Riot took whatever scant opportunities they were given to make serious statements in court, and the way each carefully dismantles the behavior of the Putin regime and the Russian justice system makes for some of the book’s most gripping material.

The book is at its best when it allows Pussy Riot to speak for itself, via statements recited into the public record, excerpts from letters sent to Gessen and friends from behind the walls of detention centers, and, of special value, their lyrics.

It’s in the book’s longest chapter, without the distortion and reverb of the cathedral, that the trial of Pussy Riot reveals itself as perhaps the group’s most effective performance. We see them attempt, over and over, to engage a cynical system, disingenuously bent on painting the three as driven by “religious hatred and enmity” rather than political animus. And we see the three women turn a Plexiglass enclosure into an international stage.

As watchable as Pussy Riot makes their spectacles — and Gessen takes us along as they nearly set a fashion show ablaze, perform as a masked gang in Red Square, and set off fire extinguishers in luxury boutiques — it has been the government’s response to their actions that has drawn the watch of the world.

And while their mix of vernaculars — the punk bite of the Riot Grrls, the masked pranksterism of Guerrilla Girls, the provocative actions of Femen — may seem familiar to us, it’s important to see Pussy Riot as more than a raucous mob of protest-art references. Pussy Riot is what art endangered looks like; their songs are salvos; their hits are strikes.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.
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