A Russian-American journalist faces considerable challenges in telling the story of a punk band that most know only by its notorious name.
While considering flight rather than facing trial for a performance within Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the members of Pussy Riot decided not to flee their homeland, since that option “was for serious people in real trouble, not for intellectual pranksters who presented themselves as silly young girls.” Ultimately, they found themselves in serious trouble, bordering almost on torture: an extended pretrial imprisonment, a trial that left no doubt from the outset as to the verdict, and the two-year sentences that two of the defendants have been serving (a third challenged the verdict after switching lawyers and had her sentence suspended). Ultimately, in impact and consequences, Pussy Riot makes the Sex Pistols look as harmless as the Monkees by comparison. The problem with this illuminating book is that Gessen (The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, 2012) is both too close and not close enough. While she lacked access to the incarcerated members once worldwide attention justified a book such as this (likely to capitalize on the profile it helps raise, just as it analyzes how some involved have hopes of capitalizing), she does not provide the detail required by those readers who may not understand the intricacies and absurdities of the Russian legal system. The reporting of the trial is the most vivid, as the three articulate, intelligent defendants face diversionary charges of blasphemy in the church instead of the anti-Putin protest they were plainly making. “How did our performance, a small and somewhat absurd act to begin with, balloon into a full-fledged catastrophe?” asked one in a closing statement. “Obviously, this could not have happened in a healthy society.” Losing in court, they emerged victorious in the eyes of the world, which awaits the next chapter in what could become a significant career.
An uneven but revelatory introduction to the story, though certainly not the last word.