Pussy Riot's Yekaterina Samutsevich on protest, art, and freedom
Image courtesy Sean Comiskey via Eyes on Rights
On October 10, 2012, an appellate court in Moscow announced the conditional release of Pussy Riot’s Yekaterina Samutsevich, the punk rock dissident imprisoned alongside band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina for charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The “religious hatred” involved a musical protest, a “punk prayer” staged inside Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February, less than a month before Russia’s elections. Appealing to the Virgin Mary to banish Vladimir Putin, the performance artists called attention to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s explicit endorsement of Putin as “a miracle from God,” highlighting the entangled powers of church and state.
The government’s attempt to stifle the political criticism and the prosecution and court’s conflation of “blasphemous acts” with “a grave violation of public order” served to elevate Pussy Riot’s cause, launching the plight of the activists into the international spotlight. Solidarity protests swept through cities, celebrity artists like Madonna pledged support, and Amnesty International named the women “prisoners of conscience,” a designation shared by Russia’s famous political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Nevertheless, two of the band members—Masha and Nadya—remain incarcerated, sentenced to two-year terms at harsh prison camps.
Two days after her release, Katya gave an interview to the Russian radio station Echo of Moscow, a bastion of independent journalism increasingly coming under the control of Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of the partly state-owned natural gas company. Fielding the questions of some skeptical Russian listeners, Katya discusses Putin’s fueling of national resentments, the tactics of protest, and the future of Pussy Riot.
—Conversation published courtesy of Echo of Moscow, originally translated from the Russian by Olga Kokorina
Echo of Moscow: How did you feel when your case was separated [from the cases of Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova]?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: I have very conflicting feelings about our separation. I wasn’t expecting it at all. At first, I didn’t understand why the text that we were used to hearing—the verdict is unchanged—was suddenly different, why suddenly there were different words. We started listening closely and suddenly: “The verdict is changed, the punishment altered,” and then the words about the conditional release. For a few seconds I had no idea what it meant. And then all at once, there was an explosion of emotion. The girls embraced me and I understood that I was going to be free, outside, on the street.
Echo of Moscow: Have you explained the sense behind your action to people? It seems like the most frequently posed question is: why did they do it?
Now many people ask, “Had you known that this action would be considered a criminal act, would you have done it?” Yes, because we could not remain silent.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Yes, I think so. I think that the majority of people understand the idea behind the action very well.
Echo of Moscow: Could you explain it to our listeners? There are more than three hundred questions on our site, and I can see quite clearly that many people do not understand why you did it or what your motivation was.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: From the outset, we chose a particular course of action that became the underlying concept for the group: the illegal music performance. We appear suddenly at a pre-selected location, a place that has a specific political resonance for us. For example, before our action at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, we gave a performance at Lobnoye Mesto, the Place of Skulls, in Red Square. When we were there, we sang a song we’d written about social issues that interest us. At the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, we raised the issue of the connection between the power of the Russian orthodox church and the power of the State. This issue became very visible when Patriarch Kirill openly advised believers to vote for Putin and the Russia United party. It was too much, done in too open a manner. Of course, we wanted to react. There was no other way.
Now many people ask, “Had you known that this action would be considered a criminal act, would you have done it?” Yes, because we could not remain silent. At that moment, the insolence of power—Patriarch Kirill’s insolence—was boundless. The way I see it, he broadcasted a lie in which orthodox culture is used as propaganda by Putin and his regime for political ends.
Echo of Moscow: So in your view, the action is 100 percent political and it has provoked a “tectonic change,” as was often said when talking about Pussy Riot during your detention. And you surely didn’t expect things to turn out this way.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Obviously we didn’t see it coming. It’s possible that it didn’t come from us but from the issue we raised. This issue is a serious one in our society, for our government. It’s an old problem, but it remains very distressing and serious, as anyone can see.
The media constantly repeats that every part of the church congregation has been offended. Even in the text of the judicial verdict, they say that the social category of religious believers has been offended without exception. The powers that be have gone so far as to present an unreal situation, a situation that doesn’t exist.
Echo of Moscow: Can we say that your action was a success?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Yes, of course. Much more than that.
Echo of Moscow: Have you discussed the effect the action produced with other members of the group?
Even my cellmates supported me.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: We discussed it the next day. We saw people’s reactions on the internet, and obviously saw that the reactions were extremely varied. Many people did not understand what it was. Very quickly, in the first days after the action, we saw attempts by those in power to portray our actions as sabotaging religious values. We saw attempts at disinformation, attempts to portray our actions as those of atheists, something put on by militant atheists. That’s clearly false. We continued to explain ourselves right up to our arrest. We were less active after that.
It’s a consequence of the political context. The media constantly repeats that every part of the church congregation has been offended. Even in the text of the judicial verdict, they say that the social category of religious believers has been offended without exception. The powers that be have gone so far as to present an unreal situation, a situation that doesn’t exist.
Many religious people support us, and their letters are proof. I received letters from religious people when I was under house arrest, and they supported us and understood the meaning of our actions. Before our arrest many believers told us, “we understand the meaning of what you did.” On the other hand, they said they did not understand the behavior of Patriarch Kirill, which discredited religion and the church.
Echo of Moscow: Did you receive many letters when you were under house arrest?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: I don’t know how many because there’s censorship in jail and I surely didn’t get them all. I received many letters that were censored—entire paragraphs cut out with scissors.
Echo of Moscow: A listener asks if you felt the wide range of support.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: We felt it intensely. Even my cellmates supported me. At first they were suspicious; they didn’t understand the meaning of our actions. But when we talked about it and I told them about our group and objectives, they came around to support us. During the trial, they tried to take care of me. They made food to eat and kept the plates hot until my return. They did everything they could to make me feel comfortable.
Echo of Moscow: And the guards who worked at the jail?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Different in each case. Some sympathized, while others made it clear that they didn’t like what we did and they didn’t care for the popularity that landed on our heads.
Echo of Moscow: Are you happy to be a public figure now?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: To tell you the truth, I myself don’t feel this popularity. I haven’t even been free for two days, under conditional liberty. I can’t tell you if it pleases me or not. In principle, I don’t like the fact that people are talking about us like stars. I don’t have a big head, I don’t sign autographs, and I don’t want any of that. The fact that people film me—yes, I understand that it’s important for people to see me. Film me if you want, but it changes nothing about my behavior.
Echo of Moscow: Doesn’t this celebrity contradict Pussy Riot’s ideology? If I understand it correctly, a member of Pussy Riot is a woman in balaclava. She guards her anonymity.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: It’s true that the trial has dealt a blow to the concept of the group by revealing our faces, three young women with their own lives and families. For us, this situation is problematic. We are going to work to find equilibrium between anonymity and uncovered faces.
Echo of Moscow: Is the group’s future still a priority for you? Or is your priority now to sort out the problems with the tribunal, with the goal of being declared innocent? Because you are still convicted of a crime.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: The priority is to free Masha and Nadya and undo the injustice. I think we will take the case to the European Court. But, at the same time, the group cannot stop its actions. All of us want to continue to do what is necessary.
Echo of Moscow: Talking about the future of the group, Pussy Riot has become a kind of brand. There will surely be a commercial evolution. How will you manage that? Will you combat that?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: The problem is widespread: in contemporary art you have the commercialization of work. When an artist exposes his work openly and the work is copied or resold, it becomes a commercial object. The problem contradicts the idea behind our group. We are against commercialization, and we don’t want Pussy Riot to become a brand.
But to tell you the truth, I don’t know. What should we do if someone wants to make vodka under the name Pussy Riot? We don’t want to restrain people or be aggressive, if people want to sell T-shirts or other things. But we don’t sell anything and never will. We are still a group with no commercial goal.
Echo of Moscow: Who advised you to change lawyers?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: No one. I made the decision myself.
Echo of Moscow: So all the rumors about a conflict with your lawyer Volkova…
Yekaterina Samutsevich: There wasn’t a conflict or problem. None of that happened.
Echo of Moscow: You are content with the way that Violetta Volkova defended you before the court?
Art is integral to a political citizen. We aren’t talking about powerful elitist politics but rather citizen politics.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: I’m not the one to judge. I’m not a jurist. To tell the truth, I have not had the time to decide about the work of our lawyers or anyone else. The trial was crazy. They got us out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and we didn’t stop until midnight. We were either in the courtroom or the holding area. We were constantly in a state of stress.
Echo of Moscow: Did you understand when she spoke on your behalf about what it was that you did or did not do?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Yes, I understood.
Echo of Moscow: You were satisfied?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: In principle, yes.
Echo of Moscow: And your new lawyer? After her arguments, you are free.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Her legal arguments for my appeal were utterly brilliant. I did not expect this result. Khroumova Irina Vladimirovna, my new lawyer, has a faultless political reputation. That was important for me in choosing her. She was known as the lawyer in the Khodorkovski case and that was very important for me.
Echo of Moscow: Are you up to date on what Khodorkovski has said about your case? He explained what’s it’s like to be dragged around like that.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: He wrote me a letter and I wrote back. So we had a correspondence.
Echo of Moscow: Was that important for you?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Very important. Khodorkovski is a well-known person among political prisoners. His situation is very different than ours, but it is part of the repression that the government directs against Russian citizens who dare to criticize power.
Echo of Moscow: You don’t want to make politics rather than art?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: It’s already politics.
Our country always separates politics and art. It is really amazing that art cannot be political, since art raises the same questions: the problems of society, of people, of culture. These are political questions. Art is integral to a political citizen. We aren’t talking about powerful elitist politics but rather citizen politics.
Echo of Moscow: Do you feel close to the wave of protests we are witnessing these days? The demonstrations, elections to the Coordinating Counsel of the Opposition. The opposition today is very diversified. There exists a more or less radical opposition. Do you intend to join any of them? Or is it more correct to say that Pussy Riot is an autonomous group that follows its own path?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Pussy Riot has its own form, its own place. We’re different than other demonstrations. But we support all forms of protest. We have chosen the form of “illegal concerts.” Others choose to demonstrate or be part of organizations of other events.
Echo of Moscow: You don’t want to join any of them?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: As a citizen I am aligned with every demonstration. I support all the movements; they’re all important to me. What happened on the 5th and 6th of December last year was very exciting. But for our part we have continued to work within our group. We have continued our activities.
Echo of Moscow: Your father spoke during one of the demonstrations. Were you aware of that? What effect did it have on you?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: I just learned about his appearance at a demonstration. He has told me about his interviews, about what he said, whether he could speak on my behalf. I didn’t know about the speech at the demonstration. But it makes me very happy. It’s marvelous.
Echo of Moscow: Do you think that the story of your arrest and trial has changed your father?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Very much so. The first time we met after the action, he was sad, asking me, “You went straight to the Cathedral. Why did you do that? What was the point of that?” And little by little, he started to change his mind. Today he says, yes, the regime is too aggressive and the trial was illegal. He started talking like this long before he said a word in public. He had been, unhappily, like so many citizens in our country, a sort of passive observer who watches television and believes everything he hears. Today, he has a more active position.
I’m not afraid at all. For the last two days I walked around the city and took the metro. No one was aggressive towards me. People looked at me, they recognized me. But I didn’t feel any aggression.
Echo of Moscow: Nevertheless, certain people feel that all of this is just the fashion. Protest is in fashion, to go to Bolotnaia Square is in fashion, and supporting Pussy Riot is a fashion, too. And the fashion will soon change.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: I have the impression that this is the opinion the government wants to impose on people, their way of opposing the situation. I think that when a person goes somewhere, she reflects, she thinks about where she is going and why, because she is using her time and energy. It’s a conscious choice. I don’t go to a demonstration because it’s cool. It isn’t at all cool to go to demonstrations today. The forces of order are nearby. They can beat you up. The demonstration on May 6th proved that. Nowadays, many people find themselves behind bars solely because they went to a public demonstration.
Echo of Moscow: Has the international reaction been important for you?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: It’s very important because it represents solidarity: a worldwide cultural solidarity and from people in show business. They reacted, found out about our work and the idea behind the group. Everything was out in the open and they supported us. It really buoyed us during the trial.
The last day of arguments during the trial was the day we learned that Madonna had gotten involved, writing Pussy Riot on her body. That gave us a lot of energy! The atmosphere in the hearing room was heavy. It was silent and people weren’t listening to us. Every time you’re trying to say something, they cut you off. They ignore you. Then one of our lawyers played the Madonna video. You could really feel the contrast between the international support and the ambiance in the courtroom. We were really inspired by that.
Echo of Moscow: How do you explain this hurricane of support? Or perhaps not a hurricane, but hundreds of cataclysms at the same time.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: There are many factors. We have given this a good deal of thought. Certainly there are many people who are attracted by the idea of the group, by the ideas we support and transmit. The idea of freedom for women, it’s a feminist idea, isn’t it? The idea of equality between people, equality between the sexes. It’s because we have created this character of a young woman in a balaclava, this strange person who isn’t very feminine, who is above all androgynous. On one hand, the image of a young woman in a dress, and on the other, the balaclava. That’s what’s striking.
Echo of Moscow: This wasn’t the first action taken by Pussy Riot. You’ve made other clips, but they did not have this success. Do you think that the trial has played a role in catalyzing things for you?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Of course the trial and our other actions contributed to what has come about. If that was our first action, it would be hard for people to understand the idea behind the group. We are faithful to the form we have chosen. People saw our action at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral first and then they saw the other things we had done. People realized that this has been our activity over a long period of time. They understood the meaning of what we’re doing. They understood that it had nothing to do with religion, that it had nothing to do with incitement to religious hatred, and that all our actions are purely political actions.
Echo of Moscow: How do you explain the government agreeing to the trial? Without their intending to, the government has turned you into celebrities, thanks to the trial, the verdict, and the citation of decrees from the Council of Trullo.
Yekaterina Samutsevich: My sense is that they weren’t expecting this. I think they tried to make a trial that would scare us off. They did not expect the reaction, the global public support. This has been very surprising for the government.
Echo of Moscow: Do you feel that right now you are wearing something like a martyr’s halo? Are you happy about the way all this is going?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: A martyr’s halo? I don’t feel that in the slightest. I feel that we have support, certainly. The people sympathize with us, they know what it’s like to be in prison, what it’s like to be in isolation. Many people have sent us food, clothing, letters of support. It shows that people understand the situation we’re in, that it is necessary not only to speak of support but also to help us physically.
Echo of Moscow: What about your future projects? I imagine you are bound by the conditions attached to your freedom?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: I still don’t have all the details of my situation. I have to stay in touch with the relevant authorities. I’m required to check in every month and not disturb the public order, as they call it.
Echo of Moscow: Will it be difficult for you, Yekaterina, not to disturb public order?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: I imagine it will be. I’m not one of those people who stay at home, never doing anything and never going out. Of course I want to continue my activities with Pussy Riot. But I have to pay attention. I have to be more clever. You have to remember that our phones are tapped, our mail is read. They can shadow me a few steps behind, and all that has to be taken into account now.
Echo of Moscow: But you won’t stop?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Not at all.
Echo of Moscow: And you aren’t afraid that your conditional liberty will be withdrawn and you’ll have to return to jail?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: I’m not afraid at all.
Echo of Moscow: We have thirty seconds left. What would you like to add? What message do you want to send to our viewers and listeners?
Yekaterina Samutsevich: Above all to those who still have the idea that our action was aimed at religious beliefs: it isn’t true. We didn’t want to injure anyone. We respect all religions and believers. Our action was purely political. We tried to draw attention to issues in society, to the issue of the connection between the power of the Orthodox Church and the power of the State. I think that we were successful. Society is now aware of the problem, and the rest of the world is too. The trial revealed power’s disproportionate reaction. It showed that our government lacks the wisdom to respond in a decent manner.