On February 21, 2012 the band Pussy Riot performed what they called a “punk prayer” at a church in Moscow. This performance caused three members of the band to be arrested and footage of the incident, which consisted of members of the group performing in ski masks and brightly colored dresses, to be shown around the world. Many news outlets have also shown footage of the subsequent trial that sent members of the group to Russian penal colonies.
Pussy Riot remains an oddity to most people. The group has a memorable name and, particularly with their “punk prayer,” memorable, headline-making performances. In Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, author Masha Gessen explores what motivated the group in the first place and why they received such harsh sentences for what would probably be nothing more than a trespassing charge in the United States.
The members of Pussy Riot were inspired by movements such as the American riot grrrl bands of the early nineties. While presenting a seminar on radical feminist art, several future members of Pussy Riot were unable to find a Russian equivalent to the riot grrrl movement for the presentation. Undeterred, they simply recorded and used their own song. Not long after, Pussy Riot was formed.
Gessen does a good job helping readers get to know the members of the group. She also delves into recent and not-so-recent Russian/Soviet history to show the importance and controversy of Pussy Riot, including why their sentences remained so harsh despite international outcry. (When members of the group were finally released, most suspected it was due to the forthcoming Winter Olympics and a possible public relations issue for Russia.) The book gets bogged down a little when it gets to the group’s trial. However, this is a minor complaint about a book that has a lot to say about artistic expression and the state of things in Russia.