The tyranny of punk rock

Pussy Riot's venom for Vladimir Putin captivated the media and then set the fearless band on a course to prison

Masquerading Acolytes of Pussy Riot assume the same trademark headgear as the all-girl band before a 2007 rally. (Carl Court / Getty Images)

The award-winning BBC Four documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer opens with a quote from Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Apt words which could have been cribbed from the Russian punk-rock collective’s own manifesto. In March 2012, a month after their brazen guerilla performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, three of Pussy Riot’s members were arrested and two subsequently sentenced to two years in remote penal colonies. The Russian state, always on the alert to prevent hammer blows to its omnipotence, took a dim view of Pussy Riot’s “art” and instead condemned it as “hooliganism.” Theatrical protests of state power would not be tolerated.

But if an increasingly hardline Vladimir Putin imagined that banishing these putative hooligans would be the equivalent of out of sight, out of mind, he couldn’t have been more misguided. The judge rendered her verdict at the end of the miserable show trial. The journalists filed out of the kangaroo court. Word spread of the merciless conviction, and international support for the handcuffed girls flooded in. Pussy Riot became media darlings, a cause célèbre impossible to ignore. After all, it is one thing for reporters to come upon student protesters trolling Moscow’s streets, and quite another to discover young women in colorful balaclavas thrashing out tub-thumping punk rock. The latter is what lures the television camera.

And so what began as a protest against Putin’s tyrannical rule soon became a global phenomenon, the embodiment both of fighters for justice and victims of injustice. Amnesty International dubbed Pussy Riot prisoners of conscience. Yoko Ono gave them the LennonOno Grant for Peace award. Madonna played a Moscow stadium with the band’s name on her bare back. U2, Paul McCartney, and Bruce Springsteen were among more than 100 artists who put their names to an open letter calling for their release.

Those in the dark as to why the international media devoted so much coverage to Pussy Riot should look at what the group was setting out to do. The band made it clear that Mother Russia’s contemporary ills are the work of one man, the man at the top, and can only be remedied by his removal. Pussy Riot drew attention to Putin’s brand of oppression by skillfully drawing attention to themselves: the name, a clever juxtaposition of sex and outrage; the shrill and angry music; the garish, eye-catching clothes; the performances in very public places; the use of social networks to relay their message; and the articulate interviews in clandestine locations that mixed a sense of fun with a serious commitment to change. They were a striking image of cartoon characters with bite, a punk protest that eschews jaw-breaking violence for jaw-dropping shock tactics. Critics have mocked the music and in so doing have missed the point. Pussy Riot would be the first to confess their musical limitations. Their agitpop is intentional noise, a cacophony tantamount to a clarion call to sit up, take heed, and join the cause. It wasn’t music they mastered; it was the masses, or more important still, the media.

What has also turned heads is their stubborn insistence on doing things on their terms. They acknowledged and expressed gratitude for the international support and at the same time were quick to reject the West’s model of art. “We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets,” they told Radio Free Europe. This smacks partly of biting the hand that feeds them, but it also underscores their single-minded purpose and reluctance to compromise.

Perhaps what has endeared them most to the outside world is the very nature of the David-and-Goliath struggle in which they have so readily engaged. Everyone roots for the underdog. In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote that “One’s got to change the system, or one changes nothing.” There lurks the suspicion, indeed the hope, that Pussy Riot won’t back down against their oversized and ever-powerful foe, but instead will keep on chipping away until the iniquitous system that favors the mighty is changed for the greater good.

Among those championing their cause (and who has done her own bit to change the system) is the Russian and American author and journalist Masha Gessen. Born in Moscow, Gessen emigrated to the United States in her teens and returned to Russia a decade later. She is an activist for the rights of sexual minorities, has written on Russian affairs for many newspapers and political journals, and the most notable of her nonfiction books is her unflinching biographic portrait of Putin, The Man Without a Face (2012). Her latest book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, is an illuminating profile of the group, one that goes deeper than the news pages for unparalleled and long-term access to Pussy Riot’s key players.

Towards the end of the book, we come across a blink-and-you-miss-it footnote that reveals a pertinent truth. Gessen’s text quotes a Pussy Riot lyric: “Ban screaming, libel, going outside / And take Lukashenko to be your wife.” Lukashenko is tagged, numbered, inviting us to scroll down for elucidation. Gessen’s footnote reads: “Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, once known as ‘the last dictator in Europe’—until Putin himself reached dictator status.”

The footnote is worthy of mention for several reasons. First, unlike the others before and after it in the book, it comprises not only explanation but opinion. And second, that opinion is presented as incontestable fact, as irrefutable as the information that precedes it: Lukashenko, president of Belarus, is a dictator in Europe, but he is by no means alone because Putin has elevated himself into the same league.

Were Gessen a lesser writer we might take her to task over what feels like a slide into tendentiousness after nearly 200 pages of sharp-eyed analysis and cool-headed reporting. Yet Gessen is no hysterical hack but an acclaimed independent journalist, and her dig is no unsubstantiated snide remark. Both in this book and the others throughout her career, Gessen has consistently and persuasively supported her accusations and made her mud stick. For her, 21st-century Russia is a corrupt autocracy, with any flickers of dissent and appeals for democracy ruthlessly snuffed out by the tyrant at the top. The Man Without a Face was a no-holds-barred depiction of Gessen’s bête noire. Putin could have emerged as a crudely shaded one-dimensional bogeyman; instead, Gessen resisted caricature and fleshed him out, giving us warts-and-all flaws while also attempting to cut beneath the surface, get behind the mask, and work out what makes him tick.

That footnote explicates but at the same time confirms that Gessen’s Pussy Riot book is as much about the rotten state of Russia as it is about the band. The reaction to the group’s misdemeanor, their ludicrous trial, and their severe punishment all highlight a country continuing to erode its political freedoms as well as the unassailable might of Putin’s iron rule.

Gessen starts at the beginning, pre-Pussy Riot. She traces the lives of three girls, allotting them a chapter each: Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina ‘Kat’ Samutsevich. Chronologies, philosophies, agendas, and anecdotes come from interviews and correspondence. Gessen delves deep, inquiring about childhoods and social or political disaffection. Early grievances and rebellious streaks are divulged and assessed. All three open up, but only Kat provides Gessen unfettered access: Nadya and Maria at the time of writing were behind bars.

Running parallel with the girls’ accounts are those of their families, and they create a more comprehensive picture. Gessen tracks down Nadya’s reclusive father, Kat’s overweening father, and Maria’s chain-smoking mother, and she persuades all three to talk—albeit outside their respective homes, in neutral and anonymous settings. Equally informative are the flashback descriptions of recent Russian political unrest, from the series of 2006-2007 street protests that became known as the Marches of the Disagreeable to the later 2011-2013 Snow Revolution (during which Gessen herself founded the so-called Protest Workshop). The former helped launch Voina (‘War’), a political art group with Nadya, Maria, and Kat among its members, whose open-air displays attacked the venal Russian regime. The latter was the backdrop to the birth of Pussy Riot. Nadya, Maria, and Kat broke away from Voina and, enraged and goaded by Putin’s decision to run for presidency a third time, formed a protest movement that was more sophisticated, more striking, and, crucially, all-female.

Gessen recounts Pussy Riot’s origins and antics with palpable glee. “Now that the revolution had started,” she writes, “Pussy Riot would be heard.” Feminism and LGBT rights were high on the manifesto. Punk songs with anti-Putin lyrics were written and rehearsed in playgrounds. The decision to make videos brought with it a clear, identifiable image. And so the multicolored stockings, dresses, and balaclavas were born—the balaclavas deliberately neon to contrast the more sinister black equivalents worn by Russian special forces. Soon Pussy Riot was performing its mutinous protest hymns in public—in Metro stations, designer boutiques, even on the roof of a bus. They crashed a fashion show and appropriated a podium in Red Square. Suddenly the media was clamoring to cover them.

It is fascinating to watch how the band evolved. Rudderless pranksters blossom into focused activists. They make each act more spectacular than the last. Gessen reproduces the lyrics, exposing the progression of their message over time, from silly tirades about stinky socks to coherent rants about stinky polling booths. The rawness remained but with more channeled venom and those adolescent rough edges filed into sharper, more cutting planes.

Thanks to quick wits, faster feet, and a steady supply of untraceable cellphones, the group was able to stay ahead of the police. When they were caught, they got away with a reprimand. But as journalists increased their profile, the secret police started playing closer attention. Screamed chants of “Fuck the sexists fucking Putinists!” don’t go down well with authorities renowned for stifling their detractors. The final straw came after Pussy Riot pulled off what would be their most audacious act: the performance of their “punk prayer” in a Moscow Cathedral. The target this time was the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and his shameless advocacy of Putin and his regime. This time, success for Pussy Riot came at a price. As footage went viral, the band members were forced into hiding.

Portions of Gessen’s book read like they were lifted from a thriller. She devotes one chapter to the girls on the run, moving from one safe house to another while watching their backs. Then, with speed and force, a squad of men swoops in and arrests them. The next chapter details the court case that ensued. Both chapters make for grim, nerve-shredding reading, even when you know the verdict in advance. During the trial, every brutal cross-examination and spirited defense leads inexorably to an unjust fate. Nadya, Kat, and Maria sit behind Plexiglas as if to preserve the public from further pollution. Hearings drag on but a pattern is quickly established: “it would be a Soviet political trial repeated as farce.” It isn’t witnesses who testify against the girls but “victims” who were hurt and traumatized by the group’s blasphemy.

The trial actually becomes its most Kafkaesque when the girls learn that it wasn’t their political statements that caused the greatest offense but their sacrilegious pantomime. Gessen caps her gripping day-by-day account of the proceedings by bringing in the girls’ grievances. Why, Kat wonders, did Putin have to use the Orthodox religion and its aesthetics at all? Kat goes on to list the Putin project’s “failed hard-line politics,” including “the sinking of the Kursk submarine, the explosions that claimed the lives of civilians in broad daylight.” (In The Man Without a Face, Gessen also holds Putin accountable for two hostage crises—the Moscow theater siege of 2002 and the Beslan school crisis of 2004.) Nadya explains exactly why “Pussy Riot does opposition art”: “We staged our punk performances because the Russian state system is so rigid, so closed, so caste-based, and its politics so subservient to narrow corporate interests, that it pains us to breathe the very air in this country.”

Fusing Pussy Riot’s story with a study of the source of their protest—“the illegitimately elected parliament and the authoritarian rule of president Putin”—was a canny move on Gessen’s part. It adds more meat to what could have been a lean tale about a protest movement that was cut short just as it was gathering momentum. Along with the lyrics, Gessen also furnishes us with the girls’ long, unedited but nonetheless eloquent closing statements that drew applause from the courtroom and read like defiant Parthian shots.

Only two problems materialize. The first is Gessen’s impatience to cut to the chase and cover the band’s pièce de resistance in the Cathedral. More description and commentary on their earlier “work”—songs, videos, and their outrageous performances in illegal places—would have produced a more rounded picture. The second problem is, to be fair, not Gessen’s fault, but it still merits mention. The correspondence she prints from the penal colonies provides a wealth of information about conditions and the sanity of the inmates but a trace of cautiousness is discernible in each letter, a kind of self-editing, as only so much is able to get through the prison censors. (Of the 10 books permitted from outside, nine of Nadya’s choices are books by or about dissidents. Only the one non-dissident title, a philosophy book by Slavoj Žižek, gets past the censors and into her cell.)

These flaws are not significant enough to blight Gessen’s book. With rigorous research, keen observation, and a deft handling of facts she has established herself as an authority on modern-day Russian politics, culture, and curtailed human rights, and she has received awards and fellowships for her labors, both in journalism and in books.

With Nadya and Maria now released from prison after having served 21 months, Gessen has a timely book. Incarceration, it appears, was but a temporary ceasefire. Nadya made it clear she won’t be quieted easily after she and Maria were held briefly by police for allegedly stealing from a hotel. They walked out into a throng of media wearing their neon balaclavas. With their freedom granted, it will be intriguing to witness the next act of Pussy Riot’s brave and remarkable story.

Malcolm Forbes has written reviews and essays for the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, The National, The Australian, The Daily Beast, the Quarterly Conversation, and many other journals. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin.