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Photo Gallery: Pussy Riot Interrupted

Foto: Sergey Ponomarev/ ASSOCIATED PRESS

Manipulating Pussy Riot Letters Show Division in Punk Group

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."

Betrayal?

In court, she likened herself to the dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Like Feigin, who had marched at the front of anti-Putin demonstrations, she wanted a "political trial." The attorneys considered founding a Pussy Riot party and also sought to use the trial to settle scores with the Putin system. And the longer the trial went on, the more Pussy Riot -- charged with "hooliganism, motivated by religious hatred" -- became a symbol of the resistance to the Putin regime, at least abroad.

But then Samutsevich foiled the strategy. On Oct. 1, the first day of the appeal hearing, she informed her two co-defendants, on the drive to the courthouse, that she wanted to part ways with their shared attorneys. Samutsevich presented it as a minor issue, a mere "formality," as Tolokonnikova later wrote. Soon afterwards, in the courtroom, Stanislav Samutsevich, Yekaterina's father, made a last, futile attempt to dissuade his daughter from the "stupid idea" that would "divide your group" and "benefit your enemies."

At first the court turned a deaf ear to Samutsevich's request for a new attorney. But then a clerk whispered something to the judges, and after a brief pause they relented. It was as if they had received an order, and as if the judges were not in control of the trial but in fact someone behind the scenes.

The new attorney argued that Samutsevich had not taken part in the performance, because guards had overpowered her beforehand. Although this was already known, it now resulted in Samutsevich being released on probation on Oct. 10.

Exploiting the Pussy Riot Brand

Was it betrayal? In a letter to Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova questions whether Samutsevich's "conscience is truly clean." "I very much believe that the whole thing isn't just a present for Yekaterina, but a political trap." Alyokhina writes that she is so sad that she would get drunk if she had the chance. "I can't get the idea out of my head that Cat made a deal. The lies and the drama with the cops, that's what gets to me."

While her two friends were still having their discussion in prison, Samutsevich launched into a bout of mud-slinging on the outside that was almost as useful to the Kremlin as a confession of guilt. In remarks directed at the attorney, she said: "You said the whole time that we had done everything because of and against Putin. That's not true. We are feminists above all." She even filed a complaint with the bar association, sought to have the defense attorneys disbarred and accused them of trying to secure the trademarks for Pussy Riot behind the women's backs.

But the letters show that the two other incarcerated women gave a great deal of thought to the exploitation of the Pussy Riot brand. In one letter, Alyokhina wrote to Tolokonnikova: "We spent a lot of time discussing business with the lawyers. I think we have to do this. I don't think we'll be portrayed as political scum. Why do you think that this is junk? We will decide for ourselves who we want to sue. And the most important thing is that we can do good things with the money."

Tolokonnikova also wrote: "The whole thing is worthwhile if we manage to get everything done in secret, without media attention, and that Pussy Riot will make some dollars. If not, to hell with it. I don't want to ruin my reputation and that of Pussy Riot for a few dollars. I'd rather be so dirt-poor that I just sit around on my naked ass than not be able to look at myself in the mirror anymore."

Several months earlier, the imprisoned women had hired a Moscow firm to register Pussy Riot as a trademark. Ironically, the owner of the company is the wife of attorney Mark Feigin. The contract is dated April 5, 2012 and is signed by the three women. "My signature seems to be genuine," says Samutsevich, "but I've never seen the contract before."

Attorney Feigin, since fired by his clients, insists that the contract is genuine. He owns an apartment worth €5 million on Moscow's "golden mile," he says. "I don't need the money. At 20, Feigin fought for the Serbs in the Yugoslav civil war, at 22 he was a member of parliament, and at 28 he became the deputy mayor of Samara, a city on the Volga River. Then he joined the opposition. As far as the band and its members are concerned, he says, the Kremlin achieved its goal. "Pussy Riot's reputation in Russia has been destroyed."

Everything that's happening helps the government, says Feigin, including the dispute over money and contracts, the firing of the attorneys, the suspicions and the rumors of betrayal. Media organizations aligned with the Kremlin are using the accusations leveled by Samutsevich to discredit Pussy Riot. In a poll, more than three-quarters of Russians support the harsh sentences.

For Putin, the Pussy Riot scandal has been worthwhile, in three respects. On the eve of the presidential election, the band's performance in the cathedral mobilized his conservative supporters. It divided the opposition, partly because many of Putin's opponents saw the performance as the desecration of a church. And now Putin can successfully portray the West, which stylizes the women as icons of freedom, as decadent and anti-Russian. The fate of the two women in prison camps will also discourage copycats.

Harsh Conditions

Tolokonnikova is incarcerated in penal colony 14, in Mordovia, 400 kilometers southeast of Moscow. In a letter from the camp dated Nov. 7, she writes: "Today is my birthday and my first day in the brigade. I am trying to cheer up the prisoners. They are all so sad. I hope that I will succeed and that I won't become sad myself. Everyone accuses me of being naïve. I think naiveté is a powerful weapon."

Newspapers recently printed a photo of Tolokonnikova, the pretty one, looking haggard from life in the prison camp, trudging through the cold with a wool scarf wrapped around her head. She was transferred to the sick ward in early February, and she has complained about headaches for weeks. She is only allowed one hot shower a week. There is only cold water in the pipes on other days.

Alyokhina is even worse off. She is imprisoned at the Beresniki penal colony, a prison for 1,200 women in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. At outside temperatures of -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit), it's no more than 19 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Fahrenheit) inside. The women are ordered to get up at 5:30 a.m., and they spend their days sewing fur jackets. When human rights activists visited the penal colony in January, they noted that there were four toilets for 100 prisoners, and that two were broken.

The woman convicted of staging a performance with guitars and neon-colored stocking masks is serving her prison sentence in a division with felons. After being harassed by her fellow inmates, Alyokhina denounced two of them, a drug dealer and a murderer, with the prison warden. After that, one of the women said to her: "We will make your life a living hell."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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