"I see no reason to end Pussy Riot," a member tells Salon

As a documentary on the performance art group airs, one member talks about their trial and possible future protests

Published June 10, 2013 6:00PM (EDT)

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich of Pussy Riot             (AP/Misha Japaridze)
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich of Pussy Riot (AP/Misha Japaridze)

The Pussy Riot arrest seemed the perfect symbol for all that was wrong with Vladimir Putin's Russia.

The performance-art collective had been devoted to bringing to light the injustices in Russia and had continued doing so relatively unimpeded until a fateful protest in February 2012 at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The group's protest at the cathedral -- at a time during which no services were in session -- led to the arrest of three members. The three underwent trial in an "aquarium" in court, a glass cage through which they could be seen but through which, as performance artist Yekaterina Samutsevich told Salon via Skype, Pussy Riot could not hear the arguments against them.

Samutsevich is under a suspended sentence and remains in Moscow, while the two women with whom she appeared in court are in a penal colony. Others among Pussy Riot, who managed to evade arrest, visited the U.S. anonymously to promote the new documentary "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," airing tonight on HBO. We spoke to Samutsevich about why she's not leaving protesting behind, whether the Russian government had been seeking an excuse to arrest Pussy Riot, and what will happen during the Sochi Olympics.

In some ways, it seems that the attentions of the Russian government furthered the aims of Pussy Riot -- after all, you got a great deal of international attention after that. Do you view it as in any way a positive development for the cause?

That's only a superficial impression; it's not really like that. We're plenty capable of getting people attracted to our ideas and our cause without undergoing the criminal process. The criminal process was outside of the playing field of the government. And the trial drawing more attention to us, you could say, is logical, but in reality, we really were content to have our message spread more gradually, find people who were interested in our art and music. There was no interest in having this explosion set off; we were happy the way that we were. There were pluses and minuses.

It is provocative, though, to hold a performance-art piece at a church. Did you foresee that people would be as offended as they were by the actions portrayed in the film?

The whole thing should be put into context. The performance took place in a certain peak in the political developments, a peak in the relationship between church and state, and expressed our dissatisfaction with that. Within society, there was a lot of discussion about the new laws being advocated by the Moscow patriarchy, the so-called politics of morality. It was just a breaking point for us. It'd be incorrect to consider the events without that context. It was at that church, at that time, in Moscow and in Russian history.

Do you think there'll be protests at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, or that he's scared people off protesting when they see the consequences you faced?

Of course, there will be protests, and there already has been a lot of discussion about the corruption of deals and certain projects, but of course the government will react. It's a cover to avoid all of Russia's real problems. The government will either suppress the protests or ignore them as best they can.

Would you protest during the Olympics -- or, given all you've faced -- just in general?

Yes, of course, but I can't say what I will do or how I would do it.

Putin's power seems more entrenched than ever; what goals does Pussy Riot have in what seems like a fairly uphill battle?

The goals are the same as they've always been: promoting ideas of equality, feminism and art. Finding artistic forms for protest. What we've succeeded in is this: Our form of protest is very difficult to stop. Our videos can be seen all over the world, and they inspire people all over the world to stand up against the problems that exist in their countries. Even if the problems can't be stopped, our videos continue to be seen, and we hope they serve as an inspiration to people in their own countries fighting against dictatorial tendencies.

Explain the group's legal situation; your cohort is in New York promoting the film, while you're in Moscow. How were they able to leave the country, for instance?

The status of the group effort varies, and Nadia and Masha's was by far the worst, serving their sentences in the penal colony. My status -- though I am technically free, I cannot leave the country. Other members of the group are technically free, but anonymity is central to the group, so they're not promoting the film. They are in great danger. Today, I was asked if the other group members would be able to return to Russia, and there are complications. That was a risk they were willing to take.

Was it a difficult decision for you and fellow Pussy Riot members to appear in a documentary film, or to talk to journalists?

Because we're the only three ones who are known -- anonymity is an important element. There are certain precautions [other members] can take, like voice modification, to maintain that anonymity. It's a tricky balance to be struck.

How do you manage that balance? Are there things you won't do?

There are many things we turn down on a regular basis; one of the most common is legal music performances. Legal, paid music performances: We're offered them to this day and we always turn them down. It's just not what we're interested in. In addition, there's all sorts of commercial activities; we've been approached to make profit, and we're against that. We're also against any sort of public statement. What we specialize in are guerrilla performances.

Given all of the challenges you've all undergone, have you ever considered walking away from Pussy Riot?

No, I've never had that thought. I see no reason to end Pussy Riot, or oppositional activity in general.

One of the trial's most striking images was the glass box in which you and your cohort were imprisoned. Is that customary in the Russian legal system? What were your feelings while locked in there?

One of the things that should be said about the aquarium is that it doesn't have live acoustics. So discussion happens into microphones that are established, and they weren't working very well on some of the days of our trial. Also, the glass box has reflective properties, and people would fix their hair. They were looking at themselves, but we could see them.

Do you believe that had your protest taken place elsewhere -- anywhere but a church -- you would have remained free? Or was the government looking for reasons to persecute you?

We're not going to go into the minds of the people who started the legal process against us; it's very hard to say. What I do know is that we'd been on their radar for quite some time and they were looking for a way to punish us. Here, you have this perfect amalgamation of elements coming together -- on the one hand you had the politics of morality, and the myth that Orthodox believers are being persecutive in Russia, which isn't really true. That, combined with the performance, gave them the perfect excuse to go after us.

By Daniel D'Addario

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