The Silencing of Critical Voices in Russia with Pyotr Verzilov

Pyotr Verzilov, Russian performance artist, political activist, and founder of the news website MediaZona, adresses the 5th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Extract from a September 2012 interview with President Vladimir Putin

Reporter: I would like to talk about the trial and jailing of ‘Pussy Riot’, that punk group that was banned. There has been much criticism that the sentence handed down was too strong, was too much and the whole case was just made too big a deal up. In fact it actually backfired and it’s brought more people to their cause with the publicity. With hindsight – sort of is a beautiful thing – but with hindsight do you think that the case could have been handled differently?

President Putin: Could you please translate the name of the band into Russian?

Reporter: Pussy Riot, the punk band. I don’t know what you call them in Russian, sir, maybe you could tell me.

President Putin: Can you translate the first word into Russian or maybe it would sound too obscene? Yes, I think you wouldn’t do it because it sounds too obscene even in English.

Reporter: Actually thought it was referring to a cat but maybe I’m missing a point here. But anyway, do you think that the case was handled wrongly in any way? Could some lessons…

President Putin: I know you understand it perfectly well. You don’t need to pretend you don’t get it. It’s just because these people made everyone say their band’s name too many times. It’s obscene but forget it. Here’s what I would like to say; I have always felt the punishment should be proportionate to the offense. I am not in a position now and would not like in any way to comment on the decision of a Russian court, but I would rather talk about the moral side of the story. 

First, in case you have never heard of it, a couple of years ago, one of the band’s members put up three effigies in one of Moscow’s big supermarkets with a sign saying that Jews, gays and migrant workers should be driven out of Moscow. I think the authorities should have looked into their activities back then. After that, they staged an orgy in a public place. Of course people are allowed to do whatever they want to do as long as it’s legal, but this kind of conduct in a public place should not go unnoticed by the authorities. Then they uploaded the video of that orgy on the internet. You know some fans of group sex say it’s better than one on one because like in any team you don’t need to hit the ball all the time. Again, it’s okay to do what you like privately, but I wouldn’t be that certain about uploading your acts on the internet; it could be the subject of legal assessment too. Then they turned up at a cathedral here in Moscow, causing unholy mayhem, and then went to another cathedral and caused mayhem there too. You know russians still have painful memories of the early years of soviet rule, when thousands of orthodox, muslim as well as the clergy from other religions, were persecuted. Soviet authorities brutally repressed the clergy. Many churches were destroyed.The attacks had a devastating effect on all our traditional religions and so in general, I think the state has to protect the feelings of believers. I will not comment on whether the verdict is well grounded and the sentence proportionate to the offense. These girls must have lawyers who defend their interests in court. They have the right to file an appeal and demand a new hearing but it’s up to them, it’s just a legal issue.

Reporter: Is it realistic at all you think they will get some sort of early release?

President Putin: I don’t know whether their lawyers have filed an appeal or not, I don’t follow the case that closely. If they appeal a higher court is empowered to take any decision. To be honest, I try to stay as far away from the case as possible. I know the details but I do not want to get into it. 

Pyotr Verzilov’s address to the 2013 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy

Pyotr Verzilov: How beautiful it is that the main motivation for President Putin’s explanation of why the action of Pussy Riot has been so harmful to the religious conscience of Russians is a reference to what he called “painful memories of Soviet rule.” That’s some wonderful self critique right there from President Putin because the whole Pussy Riot story has brought to Russians and people around the world just exactly this impression, painful memories of Soviet rule; painful memories of Russia’s totalitarian past and autocratic presence. These memories are so vivid now that we almost feel like there never was no Perestroika, no Gorbachev, no fall of the Soviet Union, and we have just been sleeping for the last three decades. Now you look outside and it’s Moscow 1976, once again, and you’re called a Canadian spy for speaking good English and you are sent to prison for doing a “cultural activity of the wrong kind.” 

These painful memories of Soviet rule are the exact reason why I have just made today’s most honorable audience to watch President Putin speak for four minutes in that interview. Because in today’s Russia you need the opinion of only one man on any issue; only one man’s opinion matters. 

President Putin was irritated by people clashing with the police in May in protest against his Presidential inauguration. So after having virtually no political prisoners in early 2012, we now have – after a year of Putin’s third term – up to 20 people facing jail sentences from 6 to 10 years in the brutal conditions of Russian prisons. Simply for appearing at a protest that President Putin didn’t really like. 

President Putin doesn’t like gay people. So now we have laws which forbid the “propaganda of the equality of homosexual and heterosexual relations.” Even though it must be understood that Russia is not a Sharia Law state, it as a country generally with a vibrant gay community. And basically the country’s greatest composer, Tchaikovsky, was openly gay. But nevertheless, it’s illegal to say that gays are equal to non-gays. You can get arrested for that. 

But more than anything else, before this whole new wave of arrests started right at the beginning of President Putin’s third term, Putin was irritated by a group of five girls in a band with an obscene english name – as you just mentioned he really likes it – that drove him crazy by shedding light on a very wonderful relation that he gained with the Russian Orthodox Church, effectively turning it into a propaganda ministry to use for his Presidential campaign for the March 2012 elections. 

So though Vladimir Putin he doesn’t like girls singing in churches either, he might as well put several of them in prison. So one of the girls from this band that was sent to prison was my wife Nadya and President Putin decided it was reasonable enough to separate her for this song with her five-year-old daughter Gera, whom we see in this picture in a forest outside of Moscow. It doesn’t matter that the whole world will be shocked to find jailed a mother of a five-year-old girl and another mother of a five-year-old boy – the other girl who’s in prison right now also has a child – for an art action. “I will do that because we want to show that Russia does not look at rotten examples in the West,” probably thought President Putin. Instead the great Russia of today gets its inspiration in the religious courts of Iran and Saudi Arabia. These were the probable thoughts of President Putin. 

So, my wife Nadya and her bandmates ended up in a very, very bright show trial, which has basically defined the image of Russia to the outside world. President Putin, for some reason, wasn’t wary of putting on this massive – absolutely massive – show trial, which for the first time in Russia’s history, saw thousands of people around the courtroom, hundreds of journalists and practically riots happening around every court case. This has never happened. But for some reason, Putin thought that his irritation was enough to basically let all this happen. 

So after this massive court trial the girls led their last words and got their two-year sentences. A week later Putin praised them as being very, very fair on national television and he used this very cute Russian word “busichka” – that’s like the cute way of saying “two years.” Two of the girls were sent to remote prison camps, where my wife Nadya is forced to dress and look like this right now. This is a photo taken inside the camp. And the camps themselves look like this. So basically the Russian prison system right now poses a very interesting site because, [] all these camps were built during Soviet early days in the 30s and,well, their conditions were at first as brutal as in those North Korean camps you hear today. 

Now of course everything got a little bit softer; you don’t get beaten up for anything you do.  But still, as you see, the whole perspective, the regime and all the rest of the gulag attributes are there in place. And this situation of Russia being an absolutely new country 50 years later but having a prison system which did not change since Stalin’s days is a very, very interesting situation which accurately describes what’s happening in Russia’s politics right now. I want to quote a statement read by another girl who was sent to a different prison right now, Maria Alyokhina, who reflected on this issue a little bit. Masha says: “The prison really reflects the basic realities in Russia. We all know from regular life what it’s like to be forced, what it’s like to feel speechless and powerless. Inside the prison we are surrounded day night by orders and duties and it doesn’t really matter what we wear; an inmate’s jacket with a name tag or a prison guard’s uniform. All of us, the guards and the inmates feel the same; we all long for justice. The regime we have here in the prison camp, nobody likes it,” continues Masha, “not the inmates, not the guards. We sew, they guard us. We sew, they keep on guarding us. Not even the prison bosses like it. But Russia is built on a regime because its bureaucratic absurdist madness allows this country to exist the way it exists right now. If you take away this madness and try to make things more reasonable around here, the whole system will fall apart. So for committing very small crimes, women are forced to sew these cute pillows with smiles you just saw for five years in a row, and they get paid around a salary of eight to ten dollars a month for that.” 

And basically, this is the main problem with Vladimir Putin. He is so satisfied with the way things are in the country right now today because they completely fit into the ideas of his youth. And those ideals, they lie among the shadowing smoky hallways of KGB offices of the early 80s. Probably everyone can kind of recall these images from Soviet films. We have this absolutely gray reality, filled with bureaucrat spies and a very obedient population who is on the one side, afraid of everything but on the other side, has this incredible longing for commodities, for food, for the slightest glimpse of capitalist culture. So this is a lot of what Russia looks like today. 

So after gaining power in [the] early 2000s, Putin did everything he could to model Russia after the ideal days of his youth, of late 70s and early 80s. I think we can watch a couple of thoughts that Nadya has to say on that, my wife. This is a very special interview which was taken inside the prison and it was done by a journalist who has this very unique status of being a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council. So she is the only woman in Russia who is allowed to carry a cell phone inside the prison and actually take videos without having some terrible punishments brought upon her. 

Extract from Nadya Tolokonnikova’s interview from inside the prison

Reporter: I attended almost every single day of your trial at the Khamovniki Court. I often think of Judge Syrova. Do you?

Nadya Tolokonnikova: No, I don’t. Not at all, she’s the kind of gray page for me.

Reporter: Hold on, this “gray page” did put you away for two years.

Nadya Tolokonnikova: That’s ok.

Reporter: This “gray page” is out there, free, and you are in here.

Nadya Tolokonnikova: And Jesus Christ died.

Reporter: So you don’t feel any anger or malice towards her?

Nadya Tolokonnikova: Not at all, I don’t feel any anger towards Judge Syrova. I’m not really angry with anyone. I have some desire for justice and I am hurt that sometimes it doesn’t happen. But anger is not the feeling I have right now.

Reporter: Nadezhda, and in this situation – what would be the justice for you?

Nadya Tolokonnikova: Justice is built up from every second and every moment of life. But if we are talking about the courts, then justice will definitely be a complete absence of criminal conviction. I don’t believe that our actions had anything criminal about them, as we don’t have any religious hatred or enmity I think it’s very obvious.

Reporter: Do you regret what you have done back then, in the cathedral?

Nadya Tolokonnikova: No, I don’t. How can you regret something like this?!

[Continued] Pyotr Verzilov’s address 

The collision between members of Pussy Riot and the Russian state, which is embodied right now in the image of Vladimir Putin, is not a legal collision. It is not even a political collision if you consider politics as rivalry between groups with opposing viewpoints fighting for political power. Instead, it is a very serious moral and ethical conflict between two viewpoints. One viewpoint glorifies conservative Stalinism and believes that corruption is the bloodline of the nation and a God’s gift. The other viewpoint, which is shared by at least two young women in Russian prison camps right now, says that virtually nothing in present-day Russia must stay the same for this country to survive and stop levitating towards its darkest days; everything in Russia has to change. To jump back from the fate of Russia to the fate of two members of Pussy Riot in prison camps right now, it must be said that the campaign to free the girls is entering into an extremely important stage these weeks. 

The girls’ sentence ends in March 2014; it’s not that long, it’s two years. They were arrested in March 2012 and they got a two-year sentence. And right now, both Maria and my wife, Nadezhda, they’ve served half of their sentence, and under Russian law that allows you to appeal for early release, like a conditional release halfway. So in March, probably again with enormous public attention, special court trials will be staged in local courts near the prison camps, which will decide whether the girls will be let go or not. Obviously we have no doubt who exactly will be deciding their fate; the same man who at the beginning of this presentation so lovingly spoke about the name of the band because everything associated with Pussy Riot is his personal decision. 

But in any case, since basically this March will be the last chance for the girls to win a legal battle and to come out after serving one year, not two years, this is a very important month and in a few weeks we’ll be launching a big public campaign to put enormous pressure on the Russian government, personally on Vladimir Putin and on Russian authorities to utilize Russian law and get the girls free. And obviously, all of you can also join this fight. Those of you who work in official organizations, you know very well how to pressure, how to use the not-so-big arsenal you have to pressure Putin and the Russian government. While those of you who are citizens, activists, students, people who are worried by this case, you can stage a creative action by yourself, you can find a way to support the girls. There was also an address of a website on-screen moments ago, I think the website has a lot of information about how you can join this action and demand freedom for the two girls that are in prison camps right now. 

Everybody must understand that we must not allow this battle to be lost at any level because Russia should not slide toward its darker past when some of its citizens put so much on the line to strive for a creative future. So please get out, find a way to get involved and do whatever it is you think is suitable to bring attention and pressure to this case.

I would like to end today’s message with a special line from Nadya which was recorded just yesterday, especially for this forum, for today’s Summit. It was done by phone so excuse the quality but it has some thoughts that are worrying Nadya in these past two days. So here we go, a message from prison camp number 14 in the Russian town of Partsa from Nadya Tolokonnikova.

Extract from Nadya Tolokonnikova’s message from prison to the 2013 Geneva Summit

Nadya Tolokonnikova: Where thought and creative discovery is forcefully marginalized. People are born, they grow up, work and die without even starting to live.  Because leaving means searching for the truth and creating. In the big, massive common-people, Russia with its silent majority, you are not supposed to do that because critique of thought is punishable in Russia. True creativity, like true philosophy, always means transformation of the world. The state in Russia is always a conservative, always a strict supervisor. The state represses those who seek the truth, like it repressed religious dissidents in the 17th century. And kills cultural workers, like they were killed by Soviet leaders and bureaucrats. Where’s the exit from this circle? That is all.

Pyotr Verzilov: Thank you.

Speakers and Participants

Pyotr Verzilov

Russian performance artist, husband of imprisoned Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, member of the Pussy Riot feminist rock band


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