Prisoner in the Urals
An interview Pyotr Verzilov, a Russian-Canadian artist and activist, the unofficial spokesperson of the band Pussy Riot. Verzilov is married to Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Interviewer: Ola Cichowlas
Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina (Masha) declared the end of her 11-day hunger strike in June. It is being said that she has “defeated the Russian prison system”. What exactly does this mean?
The main ideas of the Russian prison system – the philosophy, the way the prison authorities think at all levels – is to never give in to the demands of prisoners. And when this does happen, it’s always a big failure for them. So they look for every way possible not to give in to demands – the prisoner has to be in a non-dignified position. If you demand something, you don’t have the right to get it. But, in this case, it happened. Masha put forward a set of demands, and on the 12th day they were suddenly met. They were met in a very grotesque way – the prison authorities gave her a special tour around the prison – during the course of which they demonstrated all the ways in which they were met. This is very absurd. So in our imagination, there was some sort of political decision made in Moscow.
What exactly were the demands?
First of all, she demanded the removal of padlocks which were placed where the women live. They really made the regime much tighter. For example, when women went to work, when they wanted to go to the prison pharmacy, they had to sometimes wait up to 2 or 3 hours. The timing of the placement of these padlocks was awkwardly timed to Masha’s parole hearings and the demands she made in court. Her initial demands when she began the hunger strike consisted of her receiving the right of personal presence in court, which was denied. When the court ended, she diverted her attention to these strict prison rules which were put in place suddenly and weren’t there before. Secondly, the movement of the women was really restricted, they had to be supervised by special prison officials wherever they went. Masha always had a special security person who was constantly following and monitoring her every movement. She also had some small demands with regard to movement between prison blocks.
So the demands also affected other prisoners?
Masha doesn’t really care that much about these rules. Obviously her position is really special and she would never normally be placed in a situation where she would have to wait two hours to go to bed. But these rules were placed so that other women would see that the various aggressive public movements, loud court hearings and other things that Masha does, all have a negative influence on them. The prison authorities used this usual tactic: when they want to make someone’s situation worse, they influence the other prisoners who in return act negatively towards you. So she was actually fighting for others.
How does she spend her free time?
Masha had absolutely no free time when she was in the so-called obshiy otryad (common room). You work and when you return you are living with 60 women and have some chores to do; you can wash and then it’s time for bed. But when she was moved to the hospital, she had time to read, think and write. She read Aristophanes and some books on political theory.
How did Masha react to Paul McCartney’s letter to the Russian authorities in support of Pussy Riot when she started her hunger strike?
It was great that there was support. She realised that this gets a lot of coverage. And it was obviously great that Paul McCartney mentioned the city of Berezniki, where Masha is being held, and the number of her prison – VK-28 – and other small things in his letter. Masha reacted very well to this.
There has been a lot of studies on how the reform of the Russian legal system has been consistently put off since the Yeltsin years. How dysfunctional is the Russian judicial system?
It is extremely dysfunctional; although it is also sometimes surprising. For example, I managed to win a court case against Masha’s prison in order to be able to engage with her inside the prison. I have special papers commissioned to me by a human rights organisation, which according to Russian law give me the right to offer legal help to prisoners – to people who have been convicted – and to visit them in the same conditions as lawyers visit them. However, I was denied this. So I went to court and a Moscow judge said that it was illegal not to give me the right to engage with Masha. After that, I came back here with this court decision. So, in some cases, the system does work. However, every judicial system is tested at its most important cases. There are a huge number of cases where there is direct political involvement on various levels and obviously nobody doubts that Russian courts are very well-controlled. They are centralised and are not very well-controlled by the regional authorities, although they are very well-controlled by the federal authorities. One of the policies of Vladislav Surkov (the Kremlin’s former main ideologist – editor’s note) was that working bodies in the presidential administration hand-picked the judges in every Russian region so that they would have smooth control of the judicial body across the country.
Where does that leave the role of lawyers, and what is their role in cases which are effectively controlled from above?
You have to put up a very absurd legal fight. Your goal is to not just make public statements but to embarrass the legal system as much as you can in legal terms; so, basically, to underline the illegal nature of the decision. Thus, the work of a lawyer becomes even more important than it would be in a system with functioning courts. In a system with functioning courts you can kind of hope that the judge will decide, no matter how professional the lawyer is. Whereas here, you have to depend on the professionalism of the lawyer to pin-point the illegal nature of the decision.
Do many people in Russia support Moscow’s decision to jail Pussy Riot?
A lot of people I have talked to have mixed feelings. The people I’ve talked to in Berezniki, where there are people who witness the police escorts around the court and the city, and those who work inside the prisons, say that what Pussy Riot did wasn’t right, but neither was jailing them. That’s the most popular opinion I’m usually confronted with. And the recent Levada Center poll has said that currently, nine months after the conviction, more Russians are against the prison conviction than for it.
There is a general feeling in Russia that if you’re pro-Pussy Riot, then you’re against the Russian Orthodox Church. What is your feeling on the Orthodox Church and its relationship with the Kremlin?
It’s just a formal body inside Russia’s power-line system, which has goals, tactics, and methods that are definitely settled by the Kremlin. So I don’t see the Orthodox Church as an independent, spiritual body or something like that. It is very comfortable in being a propaganda ministry to Putin.
Do you think people are disillusioned by this?
I don’t think people really care; because the political choices that Patriarch Kiril makes at the top in Moscow are not really felt in congregations around the country.
How often do you speak to your wife?
I speak to her every two days. But I only see her once in every two or three months. However, Nadia’s prison in Mordovia has the feeling of a KGB prison, whereas Masha’s prison is just your average Russian prison. In a KGB-style prison, they look at you with a slight smile. There have been three loud political cases in this prison in the last 10 years: Svetlana Bakhmina, the former Yukos lawyer, Evgenia Khasis, who was an accomplice in the shooting of the journalist Anastasia Babulova, and the Pussy Riot case. All three cases were sent to the IK-14 penal colony in Mordovia. Nadia received a bit more attention than the rest of the girls, so they chose this particular prison for her.
What do you think will happen when the members of Pussy Riot leave prison?
It’s hard to say. Although they have eight and half months until March 2014 (when Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are due to be released – editor’s note), its difficult to tell what will happen. Russian politics changes by the month. A year ago, before the May 6th riots in Moscow, internal politics and law enforcement politics were very different. The position of the opposition was different. So, things do change. The girls get a lot of information inside prison: Phone calls, newspapers, letters. They have prison emails, so they are up to date.
How much does your daughter know about the situation?
She knows everything. She tells the other children in kindergarten that Vladimir Putin has sent Nadia to prison, and that she’s in a special castle far away. Russia’s political system and law enforcement system is very understandable for children, because it’s fairy-tale based. It doesn’t have the complications of a mature legal system. So you have this bad Putin who jails people who don’t like him. Children watch cartoons – especially Russian or Soviet cartoons, but also Disney cartoons – which always have a story about an evil king who imprisons people in a castle; and it’s exactly like that.
Pyotr Verzilov is a Russian-Canadian artist and activist who came to wider prominence as the unofficial spokesperson of the band Pussy Riot when they were arrested and jailed by the Russian state in 2012. Verzilov is married to Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.
Ola Cichowlas is a British-Polish freelance journalist, living between London, Warsaw and Perm. She covers Russian regional politics and the arts in provincial Russia.