Book Review - Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

International attention is focused on Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympic Games this month, so Masha Gessen’s enlightening account of the detention and trial of feminist punk band Pussy Riot is timely.
In 2012, Maria Alyokhina, Kat Samutsevich and Nadya Tolokonnikova were sentenced to two years in a labour camp. They were accused of “hooliganism” and “hatred towards Orthodox believers” after staging a brief performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow aimed at drawing attention to the Russian Orthodox Church’s close ties to the Kremlin.

Throughout their trial they maintained that their “punk prayer” was a political protest and not anti-religious. In her defence statement Tolokonnikova argued: “Passion, openness and naivety exist on a higher ground than do hypocrisy, lying and false piety used to mask crimes. Top state officials go to church wearing the correct facial expression, but they lie, and in doing so they sin more than we ever did.” In court, the song’s lyrics were deliberately obscured so that anyone following the state media’s coverage would be unaware that it was a protest against Vladimir Putin.

The heavy-handed response of the authorities backfired. The feminists’ provocative act of resistance and subsequent trial served to draw global attention to Putin’s repressive rule and their harsh sentencing struck a chord with thousands of ordinary people around the world. Samutsevich was given a suspended sentence on appeal after her lawyer argued that she had not physically taken part in the action. Despite national protests and international calls for leniency Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova served time in appalling conditions (poignantly documented) in separate labour camps.

Gessen offers potted biographies of all three women, tracing the influences that led them into political activism. Central to Gessen’s book is her detailed record of the trial, which she compares to the dissident trials held between the 1960s and mid-1980s; they provided one of the few forums in the Soviet Union for public political debate. Gessen underlines the farcical elements of court procedure and how little has changed. Then, as now, the judge’s role was that of a “bureaucrat with a rubber stamp…[whose] job was to facilitate a smooth and speedy hearing…and to issue a preordained verdict”. The three defendants saw the importance of making bold political declarations they knew would be heard and Gessen includes full transcripts of their statements.

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were released from prison last December. Many believe the amnesty was intended to distract attention from the protests surrounding Russia’s hosting of the Games. The book’s title, from a quote by Solzhenitsyn used by Tolokonnikova  in her closing statement, is apt. Words Will Break Cement serves as a powerful indictment of the return to soviet-era tactics to silence dissent.

Originally published in The Tablet

PEN is using Winter Olympics to highlight the draconian restrictions placed on free expression in Russia in recent months. For further information on PEN’s ‘Out in the Cold Campaign’ visit: