Manipulating Pussy Riot: Letters Show Division in Punk Group

By and in Moscow

Photo Gallery: Pussy Riot Interrupted Photos
AP

Three women from the Russian punk bank Pussy Riot secretly wrote each other letters while in pretrial detention. The letters show how state power was used to manipulate the trial and divide the punk band. And President Putin? He benefited from the scandal and tightened his grip on power.

In Russia, female prisoners who spy on their fellow inmates are referred to as Nassjedka, or mother hens. They continually badger their victims until they confess, give away secrets or betray their accomplices. In return, the informers hope for an early release or improved detention conditions.

One of these mother hens was also used to spy on imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. Her name is Irina Orlova, and she was housed in a cell with Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, the eldest of the three imprisoned Pussy Riot members, a computer programmer who once worked for an arms manufacturer. Investigators had identified Samutsevich as the weakest of the three women, partly because she is a lesbian and is therefore likely to be more fearful than the others of being housed in a prison camp, where other inmates often torment homosexuals.

Orlova, the mother hen, charmed Samutsevich. She cleaned up the 12-square-meter (130-square-foot) cell, combed the activist's hair and prepared food for her in the kitchenette, as one of her former attorneys recalls.

Playing Imprisoned Activists Against Each Other

It was apparently with Orlova's help that a team of informers and investigators were able to create suspicions among the activists and influence the trial that attracted worldwide attention last year. From the very beginning, Russian intelligence agents kept the band and those associated with it under observation, in an attempt to dismantle the Pussy Riot myth and play off the imprisoned activists against each other.

The methods the authorities used are described in letters the women sent to each other while in pretrial detention last fall. Their attorneys secretly carried the letters from one visitors' room to the next. The documents, which SPIEGEL has seen, depict the daily lives of the women in prison, as well as the efforts by one of the women, Maria Alyokhina, to organize a visit in the exercise room. But they also offer insights into the Pussy Riot case, which exemplifies the means by which President Vladimir Putin achieves his victories, revealing how his spy state manipulates trials and controls public opinion.

"Watch out for Irina," Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the band's 22-year-old spokeswoman, told Alyokhina, 24, who was in a cell on the floor underneath hers. She was referring to Orlova, who, as she wrote "I do not want Irina to have any chance to influence us." The letter is dated Oct. 13, three days after the appeal hearing, when Samutsevich was released on probation in a surprise development, while the two other women were sentenced to two years in a prison camp. The warning came too late. The intelligence agents had already successfully driven a wedge into the group.

"Is it possible that Yekaterina fell for it?" a distraught Alyokhina wrote back. In other words: Could it be that Yekaterina Samutsevich, her friend, had made a deal with the hated authorities?

The letters suggest that she did.

In 2009, Orlova was sentenced to five years in prison and sent to one of Russia's most notorious penal colonies for women. Convicted of fraud after cheating homeowners out of their property, she was someone who knew how to gain the confidence of her victims. This made her the ideal candidate for "Zentr E," a notorious special department at the Russian Interior Ministry. Though officially established for the "fight against extremism," its real objective is to take action against opponents of the Kremlin. "Zentr E is effectively a political police force, a reincarnation of the secret police of the czars," says opposition politician Ilya Yashin.

It wouldn't be the first time that Zentr E had turned its attention to Pussy Riot. The agents have been shadowing the band and its precursors, the street art group Voina, for years. At earlier Pussy Riot performances, a man who has since been exposed as a Zentr E agent was repeatedly seen among the onlookers. The secret police also monitored the women's telephone calls and emails, and brought them in for questioning. It is hard to imagine that the members of Pussy Riot were able to plan and begin the controversial performance at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, for which the three women were arrested almost a year ago, without observation. Could it be that in fact the government cleverly orchestrated the drama surrounding Pussy Riot?

In March 2012, Orlova was transferred from a Volga River province to Detention Center No. 6 in Moscow, a concrete box in the city's southeastern outskirts, nicknamed the Bastille. She was placed into cell 110, with Samutsevich.

Others Worried about Relationship

"The two were at loggerheads from March to June," Tolokonnikova wrote in one of her letters about the two women. "Then the operativniki got to Irina Orlova." Operativniki are members of the police and intelligence services. "After that, Cat even accepted the fact that Irina was practically spoon-feeding her." Cat is Yekaterina Samutsevich's nickname. Tolokonnikova also wrote that she was worried about the "mother-daughter relationship" between Orlova and Samutsevich.

Tolokonnikova is the political head of the band. While in prison, she wrote seven diaries full of personal and philosophical musings. The world's image of her is of a very attractive, petite girl with big eyes, wearing a blue T-shirt featuring a combative-looking fist, locked, like a hardened criminal, into a glass cage in the courtroom.

Her letters show that she was concerned about the unity of the feminist group, but also about losing the battle for public opinion. "I think in the prism of history. For that, I am willing to go through shit," she noted. "It has to do with my idealism, the good in me, but at the same time there is also something bad there."

Tolokonnikova didn't write what exactly she meant by that comment. Perhaps she was ruminating over the drawbacks of remaining true to her principles, which had resulted in her two-year prison sentence. Or perhaps it was her appetite for fame. "The girls certainly enjoyed all the hype," says her former attorney Mark Feigin. Before the trial, Tolokonnikova told him: "No admission of guilt, and no cooperation with the government and the investigators."

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