Words Will Break Cement (Book Review)

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and activist who is known for her outspoken critiques of Putin and Trump. In Words Will Break Cement, Gessen writes about the Russian protest punk activist group Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot is known for staging unauthorised and provocative performances in public places which they filmed as music videos and posted on the Internet. Pussy Riot is most known for an action they took in Christ the Savior Cathedral.

This action sent three members of the group- Nadya, Kat and Maria, to await trial in jail for “hooliganism.” At the trial, in Nadiya’s closing statements she explains her views:

“Rigidity is always the opposite of the search for truth. And in this case, at this trial, we see people who are trying to find some sort of truth on one side and, on the other side, people who want to shackle those who seek the truth. To be human is to err; humans are imperfect. Humans are always striving for wisdom, but it is always elusive. This is exactly how philosophy came to be. This is exactly why a philosopher is a person who loves wisdom and strives for it, but can never possess it. This is exactly what makes him think and act as he does. And this is exactly what moved us to enter the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.”

Gessen writes about the different approaches Maria and Nadya took in prison, while still working together:

“Maria was choosing the role of the person who fights the court on legal grounds and Nadya was refusing to recognize the court as such and choosing to use it only for the pulpit it offered. They were doing what Pussy Riot had always done: illuminating the issues and proposing a conceptual framework for discussing them. As is often the case with great art, most people did not understand what they were doing. But eventually, Nadya and Maria knew, they would.”

Gessen kept up correspondances with Nadya while she was serving her prison sentence, and attempted to discover when and where Nadya developed her rebellious attitude for change. It seemed it had almost always been a part of her:

“One time [Nadya] was asked to write an explanatory note to the school principle. Instead of the standard acknowledgement of wrongdoing and assurances for reform, Nadya wrote a paragraph on the importance of ‘crisis, watershed moments’ in the development of young people. ‘I have devoted myself to creating such critical moments,’ she wrote. ‘And I do this solely out of concern for the school, so that it may develop faster and better.”

Prior to forming Pussy Riot, Nadia was a part of the art group Voina (meaning war in Russian). Voina practiced public protest art- videos of which can be found online for all to access. In one of their pieces, someone dressed up as a priest with a cop hat, filled a grocery cart with food and then left without paying to demonstrate that both priests and cops were robbers.

“Shoplifting was an essential part of the Voina ethos. They rejected consumption; more to the point, they had no money but liked to eat well and often- so they raised stealing food to an art form,” Gessen writes.

Another time, Voina hid out on the side of a highway where traffic policemen were stopping cars with the intention to take bribes:

“Once the cop had his potential victim with the window rolled down, Voina emerged from the shadows, impersonating the cop’s family. Kat would be wearing a housecoat and carrying a platter of chicken on it… Nadya played a pouty teenager. All of them implored the cop to extract a larger amount. ‘Five hundred is not enough! Look at the number of mouths we have to feed! Get more!’ The cops, mortified, would try to tell the drivers that the group was not their real family.”

Years after the predominately male led Voina broke apart, some of the female members of the former Voina formed Pussy Riot, and the rest is history. Pussy Riot members Nadya and Maria were released after two years, and immediately dove back into creating art. They recently released a video pertaining to the 2016 American election after they were recently released from their two year prison sentence

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