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Jailed punk band Pussy Riot pushes free speech limits in Russia

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 9:51 AM EDT, Fri May 25, 2012
Three members of the Russian punk protest band Pussy Riot await trial.
Three members of the Russian punk protest band Pussy Riot await trial.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN talks with the husband of a member of Pussy Riot, a Russian punk band
  • Three band members were arrested in early May after a public performance
  • The band criticizes Russia's president and played an unauthorized show in a cathedral

Oslo, Norway (CNN) -- Here's a quick way to get arrested in modern Russia: Walk into a cathedral wearing a neon mask and carrying a guitar, stand on the pulpit and scream punk songs with lyrics like "Virgin Mary drive Putin away!"

Throw in a few more obscenities, and that's how three members of the punk band Pussy Riot ended up in Russian prison in early March, after criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin, who the group says is in bed with the Russian Orthodox Church and is unfairly cracking down on free speech.

Three of its members are still in prison and have been charged with "hooliganism," a crime that carries a maximum sentence of seven years, according to news reports.

Before that, the all-female, anonymous band had performed on top of a prison and on Red Square in Moscow, the capital. Their performances on YouTube attract hundreds of thousands of views. After the arrest, punk rockers in cities as far away as San Francisco put on public performances in solidarity with the group. Pussy Riot, in its own controversial way, has become a symbol of the protest movement in Russia.

"Everyone loves the Sex Pistols, and no one likes punk bands being arrested for singing," said Pyotr Verzilov, a collaborator with the band who talked with CNN at a recent human rights conference in Norway, where he was speaking on Pussy Riot's behalf.

The band has drawn comparisons to other Western punk bands, including the Ramones. "Unlike their British and American forerunners, however," writes Bloomberg Businessweek, "the Russian rockers have something very real to be angry about, starting with their own imprisonment."

Some say Putin is cracking down unfairly on the band at a time when protesters continue to gather in the capital; others that Pussy Riot defiled the church and should be punished. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called their cathedral performance blasphemy, according to RIA Novosti, the state-owned news agency.

A priest, writing in Russia Today, said that "to try to label such a performance in a church as a political protest doesn't make it any more acceptable."

Their detention has been extended by a Moscow court until June 24, according to that government-funded news organization.

For Verzilov, a 26-year-old who also is married to one of the arrested band members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, the ordeal is, of course, both political and personal. He had to figure out a way to tell their 4-year-old daughter why her mom is in prison.

Verzilov spoke with CNN about the personal challenges of being involved in politics in modern Russia, and about how his wife's punk band came into existence.

The following is an edited transcript:

CNN: Tell me about the idea behind the band.

Verzilov: Pussy Riot is this punk feminist band, which was formed by a collective of women who decided the best way to bring (forward) both political and feminist ideas in the context of present-day Putinist Russia was to do these unsanctioned punk performances with their faces covered. And at the same time bring on a very bright image, but avoid objectification of girls who take part in these events.

CNN: Describe what they look like when they perform.

Verzilov: Usually their performance looks like an unsanctioned sudden musical event. In a very strange place (that's) not suited for a musical performance.

They performed on top of a Moscow detention center. This is a prison where people were being arrested after the parliamentary elections were being held ... including myself.

They sometimes do these landmark performances in very heavily guarded spots, like the Red Square. After, they were detained by the federal security service of Russia. They did have time to play the song. The four minutes they needed to play the song.

And, obviously, their last and most famous performance was at the Christ the Savior Cathedral. A week later, three members got a criminal arrest.

CNN: What were they singing exactly that got them in trouble? Or was it where they were singing?

Verzilov: It's a very different thing what they were actually singing inside the cathedral and what got put into the video on the Internet.

What actually happened in the cathedral is five girls in dresses came into the cathedral, very modest looking. At some point they put on the masks. They go on to the pulpit and take out a guitar and start just singing a song, which was dedicated to bashing the close relationship of the church and the state in Russia.

Officially it's supposed to be separated by the constitution, but in recent months the Russian Orthodox Church has become like a supportive propaganda machine for the Kremlin. The patriarch, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, he is a man who enjoys the development of a very close political relationship with Putin. The text of the song was pointing out that Patriarchate doesn't believe in God but he believes in Putin.

CNN: Can you give me some of the lyrics?

Verzilov: The chorus is, "Virgin Mother Mary please drive Putin away. Drive Putin away."

CNN: Do you think that line is what got them arrested?

Verzilov: It's not this line. It's the whole image of Pussy Riot doing very bright political performances and the Russian media and the foreign media going just, "wow," and pointing so much attention at them. (That) is what really got into the heads of people close to Putin. They decided it was a good time to arrest these girls. It caused a huge scandal.

CNN: How long have they been in jail and what have they been charged with?

Verzilov: They have been arrested on March the 3, so it's been more than two months. They've been charged with Article 213 of the Russian criminal code: hooliganism.

The absolutely absurd thing in the Russian government is that you have the minister of justice in Russia saying he doubts the legality of the girls being arrested. He doubts this is the appropriate way for this case to be handled. It was very big in the news.

You have the person who is in change of the legal system for the country saying this is not legal, and the girls are still there.

CNN: Your wife was one of those arrested?

Verzilov: Yes.

CNN: This may sound like a naïve question, but how have you dealt with that?

Verzilov: Another thing -- a very funny thing. When a man or a relative gets arrested, a husband or wife usually gets a chance to see him -- at least once in two weeks.

But in this case, the head of the Moscow police ... saw me giving some very harsh comments on television and he said this guy is not going to see his wife, because he's mentioned Putin in interviews.

CNN: So you haven't seen her at all?

Verzilov: No. I was denied to see Nadezhda. Basically the only people who see the girls are their lawyers. Of course it's been hard because, well, we have a daughter. And someone has to run the family. Nadezhda and I, we're very close, also professionally, right? In some marriages, you have the husband running his own life and the wife running her own life. We're very close in what we do, and we're basically best friends. We're very close.

CNN: How old is your daughter and what have you told her about this?

Verzilov: She's 4 years old. Things that are happening in Russia with the girls ... in a way, they're very fairy-tale-like. There's a bad guy sitting and deciding who should go to prison, who shouldn't and how the criminal case should go. We don't have an independent court, independent prosecution, independent police system. It's just one bad guy deciding how everybody should function. This is very much like a fairy-tale story that kids see in cartoons or in fairy-tales that are read to them. In this case it's very easy to explain.

When people ask she says, "Yeah, Putin sent my mother to prison."

CNN: Wow, so she understands what's happening?

Verzilov: Yes, she sees it. This case has gotten so much publicity because it is so black and white. No one has any doubts what's going on with them.

CNN: Is your daughter angry?

Verzilov: Well, she doesn't understand you can't defeat the bad guy immediately and release Nadezhda, you know. She has this fairy-tale outlook.

CNN: What are you trying to do to get your wife out of prison? Do you have any recourse?

Verzilov: The main plan is to put Putin in a position where it's too expensive to hold the girls anymore. It's already like the most publicized and the biggest criminal case in Russia. We have hopes the new French president, (Francois) Hollande, will personally tell Putin he doesn't know why they're doing this to Pussy Riot. We had the president of Estonia speak out. Out of leaders of countries, he's so far the only one, but a lot of other high-level diplomats have spoken on the case.

CNN: If they were convicted, what sort of sentence would they face?

Verzilov: Under this article, they can be charged with up to seven years in prison. It's from two to seven. There's also a fine that's possible under this article, but, of course, it's completely unknown what's going to happen to them. The investigator, the person who leads this case, doesn't really try to hide that it's a political case.

CNN: Are you speaking here in Oslo trying to raise awareness?

Verzilov: We're doing a big, public campaign in Russia. Mostly people have been trying to organize on their own. So there have been 20 or 30 big actions in support of Pussy Riot, around the world. I know of at least five in the States. ... Everyone loves the Sex Pistols, and no one likes punk bands being arrested for singing.

CNN: Give me the context for how all this began?

Verzilov: Pussy Riot is kind of this anonymous, closed secret project. The point of Pussy Riot is that it doesn't really matter who's behind the mask. Anyone can put on a mask and do songs, basically. It's like the Guy Fawkes mask. You had people in the UK saying the Guy Fawkes mask is last year's fashion -- now you have to wear the Pussy Riot mask.

So, in this sense, it's a very good analogy.

CNN: They were performing in these places that were difficult to get to -- on top of a prison or in Red Square. How did you set that up, logistically?

Verzilov: Logistically it's not really difficult if you want to get on top of a prison. It was a building standing on the corner of the prison territory, so they just got up a big ladder and had people to help them. They climbed up on top of the roof and they performed and then they were done, in five minutes. In Red Square, anyone can do anything on the Red Square. It's that you get arrested afterwards. And they did get arrested. They got a minor charge, a $30 penalty and that's it. A so-called administrative arrest.

CNN: What role have art and this band played in the anti-Putin protest movement?

Verzilov: Quite a big role. These actions provide visual language for public protest in Russia. So people see that political issues can be raised in a variety of very different ways. It's not only boring men in suits talking budget issues. It's young, very active aggressive, creative people -- artists -- raising these same political questions. So everyone has to do politics. This is the main issue. And everyone has to do politics in the way that is closest to you.

CNN: What do you think will happen with the protest movement?

Verzilov: Well, it definitely will grow. What we saw after May 6 -- when there was a violent crackdown on people protesting -- we saw people go out on the street the next day and the two days after that even more. So there were more people going out in Moscow and getting arrested and saying they can do what they want to.

CNN: What do you see as the outcome of that? Do you expect change?

Verzilov: Obviously the government will have to react in some way. You can disperse a 10,000 person demonstration with riot police. But you can't do nothing against a 100,000 people demonstration, and against thousands of people who are constantly on the streets.

CNN: For you, what's your reason for wanting to be involved politically?

Verzilov: Putin is returning Russia to one of the darkest Soviet years. And that's 1985. That's basically the height of Putin's youth and of his KGB career. You have this saying, I think it exists in English as well, "The darkest hour is before sunrise." Nineteen-eighty-five was the year before the perestroika, and it was much more brutal than the '60s and '70s. You had artists being sent to the army, you had people being arrested and the next year (Mikhail) Gorbachev came to power and the perestroika started. So while Putin sees Russia best at its 1985 level, we don't want that to happen. So we have to fight and resist against that.

People should get involved and try to do their own Pussy Riot stuff. This is what it's all about. It's an open concept that welcomes everyone to join in and do what they can.

CNN: So you want people to put on masks and stage their own concerts?

Verzilov: Exactly.

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