For singing these lyrics for 30 seconds in the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 2012, two young women were condemned to endure nearly two years of forced prison labor. A third participant who never even got to open her mouth was sentenced to three years on parole. Other participants and hangers on were never identified or charged. This was the art of Pussy Riot, the anonymous punk performance group, that has been chronicled by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen in Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.
To the Russian state, Pussy Riot itself was blasphemous, so the women were charged with blasphemy against the Church, an institution in bed with the state. Their trial, whose proceedings Gessen details exhaustively, was reminiscent of Soviet-era show trials.
There was vast international media coverage and many expressions of support from artists and human rights organizations, but the verdict was never in doubt.
The two women who were imprisoned served hard time. Maria became an effective jailhouse lawyer; Nadya sought anonymity among the general population, but eventually resorted to a hunger strike against the brutality of prison conditions. Both were released two months early as part of Vladimir Putin's pre-Olympic effort to quiet international criticism of the human rights climate in Russia.
Gessen's book is not easily comprehensible for a U.S. reader. I felt as if I could know all the words and still not be quite sure I had gotten the meaning. Rather than violate the women again by interpreting their art, their actions, their lives, and their pains in terms that are more readily understandable to us, Gessen transmits their own self-descriptions without much cultural mediation. In our easy apparent freedom, I feel pretty sure we don't quite get it. But I think those of us who are progressive have to recognize that we are on Pussy Riot's side insofar as we can understand their cause. Or maybe I should say insofar they can understand their cause. They have come up in, and choose to remain in, a place and time where life and action define more than self-conscious explanations.