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Feb 092014
 

Most everyone has heard the faux-scandalous name. What has not been heard enough is that Pussy Riot are the purest and most potent expression of the punk-rock ethos ever.

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, by Masha Gessen. Riverhead Books, 308 pp., $16.00.

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By Milo Miles

On their current debut visit to the United States, two members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot have appeared on mainstream television shows, on stage at an enormous Amnesty International concert and featured in repeated write-ups for the New York Times. Most everyone has heard the faux-scandalous name. What has not been heard enough is that Pussy Riot are the purest and most potent expression of the punk-rock ethos ever. More unexpected, more out of left field, and more complete in outlook than the Ramones. More astutely and relentlessly and succinctly political (with far more dangerous opponents) than the Clash. And Pussy Riot endured a heroic fate the Sex Pistols could only envy: shortly after they became famous, they had not only stopped performing, the principals were sentenced to prison for years.

Fortunately, there are three sure-fire steps to grasp a Pussy Riot of your own. First, turn to You Tube and watch the original “Punk Prayer” performance/event/happening in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. This is the way most of the world outside of Russian discovered Pussy Riot in March, 2012. Now, of course, there’s more complete and varied video clips on You Tube.

The original video of the cathedral performance:

Discussion of the meaning of Pussy Riot that includes a cleaned-up, final version of the “Punk Prayer” performance and the “Red Square Video” (their art-as-art highlight)

News report that includes footage of lesser-known actions/performances:

Second, settle in for a careful viewing of the 90-minute documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin. That, too, can be swiped from You Tube or, starting February 11, you can go legit and get an official DVD release. Here is a discussion with the “Punk Prayer” documentary filmmakers.

The documentary sweeps you into a Moscow, and a Russia, only dimly glimpsed from time to time in the West. There is the facade of luscious consumerism with empty shelves behind it. A tone of grim, dull humming conformity that lifts only in fits as something like Pussy Riot breaks through with noise. A muffled and blinded populace afraid of anything new because it must be afraid of everything. A Red Kangaroo courtroom as farcical as any black-comedy writer could ask for that lifts only when you see the faces and hear the words of the three Pussy Riot members arrested for the “Punk Prayer” performance: Yekaterina Samutsevich (“Kat,” then 30), a pure-minded idealist, Maria Alyokhina (“Maria,” then 24) a driven intellectual seeker for justice with a hippie spirit, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (“Nadya,” then 23) an art-rebel and equality crusader. These are three of the most remarkable women you will see today. They are pushed around by their police and legal oppressors, but untouched by them. They are threatened and shouted down and finally condemned, but never silenced or forced into what Nadya has called “the sin of gloom.” Official accounts present them as social outcasts, but they seem the only living representatives of society on screen. If you’re breathing, the three will win your heart and mind and make you wish to know more.

That’s when, for step three, you begin reading Words Will Break Cement: the Passion of Pussy Riot by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen (fearing reprisals under the new anti-gay laws in Russia, Gessen has returned to the United States since the linked bio was written).

Gessen’s sharply observed reporting drops you into the even grubbier and more desperate parts of the unseen Russia which the documentary never reached. Much of the landscape and smaller cities outside Moscow seem barely to have emerged from the 19th century, some of them escaped only to be forever slimed by the industrial sludge of the modern era. The collapse of the Soviet system was like having prison walls coming down, but mostly chaos waited on the other side. Kat Samutsevich’s life was split from cautious upward mobility to endless uncertainty by the end of the U.S.S.R. The post-Soviet disruption and repression is all Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova can remember.

Author Masha Gessen

Author Masha Gessen — she provides plenty of rugged riches in her reporting on the trials and tribulations of Pussy Riot.

Gessen introduces the bright forces that made the three fight off the torpor, forces like Nadya’s artsy, free-spirit (if often absent) father Andrei Tolokonnikov, the dissident poet-artist Dimitri Prigov who personaly affected Naday and participated in an event with the Pussy Riot precursor performance-art group Voina (“War”). Gessen even helps by pointing out failed alternative-art projects, such as the duo the Blue Noses. And she underscores that the protests of Voina were too based in theory and abstraction to slam the message home. That’s when Kat, Nadya, Maria and a rotating cast of about eight other women decided to put on the neon-bright skirts, the homemade balaclavas and lift the arms, legs and electric guitars. As Nadya put it in her statement to the courtroom: “We were seeking true sincerity and simplicity and we found them in the holy-fool aesthetic of punk performance.”

There are more rugged riches in Words Will Break Cement. Scenes from and descriptions of life in the prison camps are harrowing as one would expect (Nadya was sent to one of the roughest) and certainly explain why Maria and Nadya are now more interested in reforming the rights of prisoners than staging music disruptions. (Maria’s small child Nikita was given to understand that her mother’s crime was going into the savior’s castle and singing a loud song, which is forbidden.) Gessen includes a vital explanation of why the vague, lingering sense that the Russian Orthodox Church is a progressive force in the country is absolutely false and how it has all but merged with the new-Tsarist system. You even come away with a heightened appreciation how difficult it is to set up and stage effective “spontaneous” political protest acts (let alone record them on video) with the police state watching.

Endorsed and embraced by Madonna, Steven Colbert and Amnestry International, Nadya and Maria have more freedom and power than ever in their lives. Although they are officially no longer members of Pussy Riot (am I wrong or do the pronouncements of the anonymous remaining members sound a shade jealous?) and I suspect they have abandoned songwriting activism, they are ringleaders to the core and will be heard from for many tomorrows. A glorious part of the punk-rock ethos is that, in the end, you do not need music to fight on.


Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.

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