My frustrations with Masha Gessen's Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot crystallise when I reach the beginning of chapter nine and discover that I have entered the story: "Two days before the trial began, the British newspaper the Guardian came out with a huge story," Gessen writes. "Pussy Riot aren't just the coolest revolutionaries you're ever likely to meet. They're also the nicest," gushed the writer, Carole Cadwalladr." Gessen quotes the piece, published here in the Observer New Review in July 2012, at length, noting that "her [ie my] editor had dispatched her in a fit of sudden inspiration". And recounts how thrilled Petya Verzilov, the husband of Nadya Tolokonnikova, is with it. "He sensed, correctly, that this was a first taste of true fame."
On the one hand, "gushing" aside, it's more than a bit flattering. This is a hotly anticipated book by one of Russia's most influential opposition journalists. On the other… well, I can't help thinking I've been taken slightly out of context. It's never explained that the women I met aren't the same as the ones she's spent the past eight chapters writing about – the three facing trial, Tolokonnikova and her cellmates Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, for committing "hooliganism" in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. But then Gessen barely acknowledges the other members of Pussy Riot at all. Maybe she has decided that they were just YouTube cannon fodder drafted in to bulk up the numbers, but it would be nice to have that explained. And backed up with the odd quote.
Am I nit-picking? Possibly. But how does Gessen know how I came to be in Moscow? It's a minor point but the unfortunate thing is that it consolidates my frustrations with the first eight chapters of the book: it's unclear where her information has come from. Whole swaths of the story are cited as facts when there's little attribution and almost no sourcing.
It's frustrating because there's no doubt that Gessen – a Russian-American journalist, who was sacked from the editorship of Russia's oldest magazine for refusing to cover an event featuring Putin – was the right person to write this book. She wrote a scathing and widely acclaimed biography of Putin, The Man Without a Face, and was a key member of opposition circles during the 2012 protests.
There's a mutual, deserved respect between Pussy Riot and her. Tolokonnikova agrees to write to her from jail, and at one point meets her during one of the few visiting sessions she's allowed. Samutsevich, who avoids jail, talks to her at length, as does Petya Verzilov. (Though it doesn't stop Gessen from accusing him of colluding with the lawyers to try and financially exploit Pussy Riot by trademarking the name. The accusation isn't sourced. And Verzilov isn't given a right to reply… so who knows?)
Despite the lack of access to two of her main characters, Gessen works with what she's got, and for the most part it's a pacy telling of what is an extraordinary story: how a bunch of young women took on the Kremlin by dancing around in coloured tights and dresses. And she's good on how these young activists, whose art showed a sophisticated understanding of social media, explicitly draw connections between themselves and the dissidents of the Soviet past. But then Russia's past weighs heavily all around. The trial at the heart of the book is a "Soviet political trial replayed as farce".
There are some wonderful details. She has access to the letters Alekhina writes to her friend Olya, and they're some of the best and most humane moments in the book. She immerses herself in the Russian penal code and wages war against the prison authorities. But she also tells Olya, after hours of repetitive sewing in the prison workshop: "It is a wondrous thing, to look out the window. Just to look out the window and nothing else. It is like all the noise in the world recedes and there is so much silence that it fills up my entire head."
Tolokonnikova's letters from prison are more "stilted". She doesn't want to wage a legal battle. She wants her sentence simply to pass. Gessen barely quotes from her letters. Tolokonnikova grew up in Norilsk, a former gulag in the Arctic Circle and now one of the most polluted places on earth. Her determination and autodidacticism won her a place in the philosophy department of Moscow State University at the age of 16, and she has a passion for expounding philosophical theory rather than focusing on personal details. Until last September when something snapped.
She went on hunger strike, and smuggled out an open letter to the world that told of her 16-17-hour days and brutal work regime, the "common hygiene room" shared by 800 prisoners where, when the pipes block, "urine gushes out or faeces go flying", and the absolute lack of humanity. She is now thankfully free, her sentence commuted by Putin ahead of the Winter Olympics. A fact that caused Granta to rush the book out early.
Words Will Break Cement is far from the last word on Pussy Riot. Not least because while being feted by Madonna and co last week will no doubt have been fun, it's what Pussy Riot choose to do next that will be interesting.