'We Are Standing Our Ground': Meeting with Pussy Riot Members in Hiding

By in Moscow

Part 2: Putin Capitalizes on Controversy

Samutsevich also says the accusation that Pussy Riot is now trying to capitalize on its fame is false. Last Monday, Tolokonnikova's former attorneys held a press conference in Moscow and presented a document that seemed to show that the members of Pussy Riot had given their permission for the registration of a company to market the group's name. It even included the notarized signatures of Samutsevich and the two others.

"But we reject any form of commercialization," says Samutsevich. "The attorneys came to the pretrial detention center and surreptitiously obtained the blank signatures." According to Samutsevich, the attorney had claimed that they needed the signatures for formalities during the subsequent course of the proceedings.

But the worst slander came from Putin himself, says Samutsevich. In a meeting at the Kremlin in mid-November, he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the activists were anti-Semitic. He was referring to an event in September 2008, one that Samutsevich herself attended.

The choppy video of the event depicts a group that preceded Pussy Riot, Voina ("War"). In the film, Voina crudely imitates the execution of three migrant workers from Central Asia and two homosexuals, wearing hot pants and feather boas. It was intended as a campaign against xenophobia and homophobia, and perhaps it was tasteless. But, says Samutsevich, "we didn't portray a Jew."

It's unclear whether Putin was given the wrong information by his aides. It is clear, however, that he has benefited from the polemics in Russia.

Many Russians are receptive to propaganda that demonizes Pussy Riot. In a film depicting another Voina campaign that is often shown on television, a young woman in a supermarket shoves a frozen chicken between her legs in protest of excessive consumption. It's the sort of performance that makes it easy for Putin's propaganda experts to portray the artist-activists as eccentric oddballs -- and the entire opposition along with them.

Is There an Informant?

It's a battle of David against Goliath, a few women challenging the power of the Kremlin and its media organizations. And perhaps another biblical figure also plays a role in the drama surrounding Pussy Riot: Judas. "When we entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, I had the feeling that someone had already leaked the entire event," says Samutsevich.

The women had planned to shoot a provocative video in the area surrounding the altar. It was Tuesday, Feb. 21, and the cathedral was mostly empty. But to Samutsevich, it seemed as though the cathedral guards had been waiting for them. She also thinks it's strange that a member of a radical Orthodox church group was in the cathedral on the day of the performance, even though there was no mass being read and nothing else was going on.

The radical Christian group has only a few dozen active supporters throughout Moscow. But the man's testimony would later play an important role in the trial, when he said that the performance had offended his religious feelings. The judgment against the women who had been apprehended was based on the man's statements.

Was the whole thing staged by Putin's omnipresent intelligence agents? The campaign against Pussy Riot helped Putin mobilize his conservative voter base directly before the presidential election.

The affair also split the opposition, whose rigidly nationalistic wing didn't like it when Pussy Riot disparaged Patriarch Kirill, the religious head of the Russian Orthodox Church, as a pig in the sanctuary.

Even the patriarch himself, viewed critically by the Kremlin as a rival over moral leadership in the country, has now been damaged. When a heated debate erupted in the church over whether the women should be punished or forgiven, Kirill vacillated back and forth, and his popularity suffered greatly as a result.

Accusations Called Ridiculous

Putin, however, benefited from the affair, partly from the suspicions it generated about the opposition that are now serving to destroy it, a situation typical in surveillance states. Prominent Putin critic Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister, even believes that Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova's husband, is working for the intelligence service.

Milov describes an odd appearance by Verzilov and Tolokonnikova at an anti-Putin demonstration in April 2007, when the couple had incited the crowd to attack police officers. According to Milov, marshals grabbed the couple and turned them over to uniformed police officers, fearing that they could trigger an escalation.

But suddenly, says Milov, men turned up in civilian clothes, apparently government officials. They then spoke to their uniformed colleagues and "prevented the provocateurs from being arrested."

Verzilov calls the accusation ridiculous.

It's become dark in the apartment being shared by several Pussy Riot members. Samutsevich slips on a parka and walks to the post office in downtown Moscow. She wants to send her friend Tolokonnikova a telegram at the penal colony with the latest news and some words of encouragement.

Some youths recognize Samutsevich in the subway. During the trial, images of her and the two others were broadcast on TV almost every day as they sat in a glass cage in the courtroom.

The young people stare at the Pussy Riot woman with big eyes, as if she were an evil spirit.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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