He’s With the Band

An interview with the first man of Pussy Riot.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages
SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages
SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Since the March arrest of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, following their "Punk Prayer" at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, Tolokonnikova's husband Pyotr Verzilov has acted as the group's de facto media spokesman.

Verzilov and Tolokonnikova first rose to prominence as members of the radical performance art collective Voina, staging stunts like holding an orgy at a Moscow biology museum to protest the election of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, throwing cats over the counter at McDonald's, and painting a "giant galactic space penis" on a St. Petersburg drawbridge.

This week, Verzilov is taking a different type of political action, holding meetings on Capitol Hill with supporters of the Magnitsky Act -- a proposed law that would allow the U.S. to sanction Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. On Friday, he will accept the Amnesty International Prisoners of Conscience award, presented by Yoko Ono, on Pussy Riot's behalf.

Since the March arrest of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, following their "Punk Prayer" at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr Verzilov has acted as the group’s de facto media spokesman.

Verzilov and Tolokonnikova first rose to prominence as members of the radical performance art collective Voina, staging stunts like holding an orgy at a Moscow biology museum to protest the election of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, throwing cats over the counter at McDonald’s, and painting a "giant galactic space penis" on a St. Petersburg drawbridge.

This week, Verzilov is taking a different type of political action, holding meetings on Capitol Hill with supporters of the Magnitsky Act — a proposed law that would allow the U.S. to sanction Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. On Friday, he will accept the Amnesty International Prisoners of Conscience award, presented by Yoko Ono, on Pussy Riot’s behalf.

Verzilov is traveling in the United States in the company of the couple’s four-year-old daughter Gara and three of the band’s attorneys, two of whom have been placed under investigation themselves since taking up the case. On Wednesday, he sat down with FP at Amnesty International’s Washington office to discuss the latest on the case, the challenges of reaching the Russian public, and why no one should take Medvedev very seriously.

Foreign Policy: Can you tell me a little bit about your goals for this trip?

Pyotr Verzilov: Basically, our main goal is to have an extension of the list which will accompany the Magnitsky Act — the list of the people who cannot travel to the United States, open bank accounts, or basically do business with the United States — to people connected with the Pussy Riot case. In our opinion, this is the only thing which influences Russian authorities or members of the law enforcement in any way. Obviously, they’re well prepared for various proclamations letters, memorandums, and demonstrations, and signs of outrage of any kind. But the one thing they are not okay with is having their bank accounts frozen, with losing the ability to travel to the West, with losing their respected status and the possibility of a pleasurable lifestyle. In their minds, this is closely connected to the West and not with Russia.

One thing that a lot of people don’t understand about Russia and Russian authorities is that all these people — whatever the patriotism they show in their language — they see their lifestyle as something very closely connected to the West. Obviously, most Russian bureaucrats are heavily rooted in corruption, and all their funds, their children’s education, their vacations, everything is spent in nice places like the south of France. Their children get an education in the U.K., and other places. So the worst nightmare for all these people is to not have ability to continue this lifestyle in the West. And so the Putinist Russian elite is gravely scared of getting on the Magnitsky list, because in their eyes this will basically cut them off from the outside world. So this is exactly why Putin’s government has been reacting so nervously to this list, and why they oppose it as fiercely as they can. So, this is the question we bring up in all our meetings with U.S. officials: We want to press for people not only related to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, but also to the jailing of the three Pussy Riot girls to appear on this list.

FP: Are there particular officials you have in mind?

PV: Yes, there is a list of around 30 officials which includes Judge [Marina] Syrova, three other judges related to the extension of the girls’ prison sentences, plus investigators, prosecutors, and a bunch of other officials who are formally connected to their jailing which have carried out formal decisions, signed documents, gave direct and recorded orders related to the girls’ imprisonment.

FP: How much contact do you have with Nadia and the others? Are you able to keep in touch with them?

PV: On Monday, our daughter Gara had her first meeting with Nadia in six months, because this is the first time she was able to get into the prison. For the first five months of Nadia and the girls’ arrest, I did not have any contact with her except for the small glimpses we could exchange while she was brought to court. This was because the former head of Moscow police and the now minister of the interior of Russia, Gen. [Vladimir] Kolokoltsev, after the girls arrest back in March, heard me give an interview where I spoke harshly of Putin, and he said, " no way this man is going to get a meeting with his wife." So for the first five months, I was officially denied five times to see Nadia. But in the last month I got three meetings with her.

FP: How are they being treated?

PV: Well, they’re being treated okay — or as okay as you can be in the gulag conditions of a Russian prison — meaning there are no physical brutalities against them, something very usual in Russian prisons. They are under 24-hour surveillance by prison authorities. They’re kept in a special wing of the prison. Usually in this prison, Pre-Trial Detention Center Number 6, in southern Moscow, you’d be kept in a cell with about 50 people. In their case they’re kept in 4-person cells, and under a lot of attention.

But some small and nasty things happen. For example, Nadia got a formal reprimand for keeping personal notes, which the prison administration recorded as illegal. And another girl, Katya Samutsevich, she got a reprisal for having her bed undone at 10:30 p.m. when the official bedtime is 10 p.m. So that was also recorded as basically a violation of prison rules. And this is done so that in the future when the girls apply for release before the end of their sentence the court will have formal reasons to refuse that on the grounds that prison rules have been violated.

FP: What was your reaction to Prime Minister Medvedev’s recent statements about the case, in which he suggested that maybe they should be released early?

PV: Well, unlike the Western media — where we saw a couple of headlines reading "Pussy Riot to be freed, says prime minister" — in Russia, the media reacted very calmly to this. As [one U.S. official] put it to us, "Nobody listens to this not-so-famous Russian blogger." This is who Medvedev is, and although he was president last year, he’s probably not higher than number 10 or number 12 in Russia’s political system. His opinions do not have heavy influence on the situation in Russia. So you know he’s kind of taking the good cop position in this whole game. And we doubt that anything will change between now and the appeal on the girls’ case, which goes to Moscow city court on Oct. 1.

FP: So you still anticipate they’ll serve their full sentences?

PV: Yes, we think they’ll serve their full sentence. Maybe, on Oct. 1, the Moscow city court will slightly change their sentence, take off three or six months off the two-year sentence, but nothing will change significantly.

FP: What about your legal status, are you able to travel freely in Russia?

PV: Yes, although I was arrested with Nadia on March 3rd. We were arrested not by police but by special FSB agents with a very sophisticated look and expensive suits and their guns open. So it was very theatrical arrest by 30 agents in a quiet Moscow back alley. But yeah, after that for some time I was in the status of "witness," and then rumors were that they were about to arrest me as well. But after that they dropped the idea and basically no legal action was brought against me.

FP: Are there plans for any further artistic actions or protests by either Pussy Riot or Voina?

PV: Well, yeah, Pussy Riot is continuing their activities. The group released a new song on the day of the verdict and they’ve done a special address for MTV which got quite a bit of publicity in the United States and abroad with the burning of the Putin portrait. So the group does continue its activities and they have big plans.

FP: What’s the latest on the members of Pussy Riot that have fled Russia? Are they accounted for? Do you know where they’ve ended up?

PV: The policy of the group is not to talk about them in any way. Probably, they have plans to return to the country somehow, sometime, but basically they’ve decided just to not appear abroad, because other members of Pussy Riot continue their activities back in Russia.

FP: Do you think the international attention this case has received has been helpful in putting pressure on the Russian government?

PV: Obviously, it has been really helpful in putting pressure on Putin personally and on the government. They didn’t expect that — Madonna and Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I doubt that Putin would have expected that the first question which British Prime Minister David Cameron would ask him after he came to the U.K. for the first time in three or four years would be "What’s happening with Pussy Riot?" When the case is one of the top issues in the world for the international community that makes them think twice about the decisions they make. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to make them and they still make them — they just realize that the whole world is watching.

FP: Do you think it will be possible to win over skeptical Russians who see you as insulting the Russian state and the Orthodox Church? A large portion of the population doesn’t approve of what you’re doing. How do you sell this not just to an international audience but to a conservative Russian public?

PV: The main problem is that the so-called conservative Russian public is very heavily influenced by federal television. So Russia — the part of Russia which does not read the Internet, which does not even have Internet access, and does not read liberal press — is really very heavily influenced by the major three federal channels we have in Russia: Channel 1, Channel Rossiya, and NTV. All three of these channels, in primetime slots, have had a number of programs which portrayed Pussy Riot as some horrible, criminal, revolutionary-connected group, which has the aim of tearing Russia apart, controlled by CIA and MI6, and has links to [exiled Russian tycoon and Putin opponent] Boris Berezovsky. All these horrible and crazy stories are being told about Pussy Riot with a heavily anti-religious context, and when people believe that Berezovsky, the CIA, and MI6 control everything, and that the main goal of these organizations is to destroy Russia’s Orthodox faith and its traditional values, it’s very hard to talk to people.

FP: So how can you overcome that?

PV: Obviously, we’re very limited by the amount of media which can be reached. People who have Internet access, who hear some things other than these three channels and who mostly live in big cities, they heavily support Pussy Riot and they’re very much against the case. To reach out to other people, you basically just have to go out find other media possibilities — it is very hard. Basically it’s a question of personal connections and various types of personal outreach.

There are some respected cultural figures in Russia, such as the country’s most popular rock singer, Yuri Shevchuk of the band DDT — he’s taken also a heavily pro-Pussy Riot position. And a lot of Russians listen to him, so the support of these people obviously helps the message get out, but so far it has been really hard to reach out to people who are influenced by pro-Kremlin propaganda.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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