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How to Get Your Mind Around Pussy Riot

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Members of political performance art collective Pussy Riot in Moscow's Red Square in 2012. Members of political performance art collective Pussy Riot in Moscow's Red Square in 2012. (Courtesy of Riverhead Books)

Pussy Riot is not a punk band. It's an anonymous collective of Russian political dissidents, open to all women, who don neon balaclavas and stage a variety of provocative public stunts that highlight hypocrisy, sexism, and cronyism in Russian government and society. 

But, as Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen explains, Pussy Riot gained notoriety as something very much resembling a punk band, and they enjoyed imagining what a modern "riot grrrl" act might sound like in Moscow, in the vein of Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney.

The result was a series of crescendoing public performances in Moscow in late 2011 and early 2012, culminating in a highly controversial performance of a song called "Punk Prayer" in the central cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church. The song includes the refrain, "Mother of God, chase Putin away!"

Nadezhda 'Nadya' Tolokonnikova and Maria "Masha" Alyokhina -- the co-organizers and creators of Pussy Riot -- were tried in what Gessen calls a "witch trial in the 21st century," and they were eventually sentenced to two years in hard labor camps. 

Nadya's final line in her closing testimony affirmed her belief, quoting the author of The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that "in the end, words will break cement."

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion Of Pussy Riot is Masha Gessen's account of Pussy Riot's creation, agitation, and incarceration, based on extensive and exclusive correspondence with Nadya and Maria. In a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Gessen explains the origins of Pussy Riot, puts them in their cultural (and musical) context, and highlights Nadya's and Maria's calls for a full boycott of the Sochi Olympic Games. 

Watch the trailer for the documentary film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer:

 

Guests:

Masha Gessen

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