Show Hide image

Punk and disorderly

An interview with Pussy Riot's Yekaterina Samutsevich.

The young woman who saunters out of Kuznetsky Most Metro station in central Moscow might be a member of the world’s most notorious punk band but none of the pavement smokers and street hawkers milling around the station entrance gives her a second glance.

However, Yekaterina Samutsevich is no longer the anonymous activist who once hid her identity behind a lurid balaclava at the provocative performances that made her band, Pussy Riot, infamous. The trial last year in which Samutsevich and two of her band mates were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” has removed her protective disguise for ever.

“Of course it’s cool when you’re hiding. No one knows who you are and you can say whatever you think; of course this image had its magic,” Samutsevich says. Not that she is exactly trying to fade into the background; on this warm spring afternoon, she is a wearing a pink hoodie with a CND logo and bright orange jeans, and happily consents to having her photograph taken with a shaven-headed young admirer who approaches her in the middle of our conversation in a café.

Samutsevich’s sentence was suspended on appeal while her friends Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were sent to prison colonies to serve two-year jail terms. The 30-year-old might appear shy but her rhetoric is defiant. Her telephone is tapped, she believes, and her movements are under surveillance, but as soon as the others are released, Pussy Riot will rise again.

“Nothing is preventing us from putting on balaclavas again,” she insists. “[But] this is a new situation and we need to manoeuvre our way out of it.”

The two jailed women also remain committed to their cause and both have been refused parole in the past month due to their failure to “repent”. Tolokonnikova’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov, says that an official approached her after one parole hearing and asked: “‘After you’re released, do you plan to continue your involvement in politics?’ She replied, ‘Yes, of course.’ And the man said: ‘Well, you’re going to be coming back here again . . .’”

The performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in February 2012, which led to the convictions, came as tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the Russian capital for the first time in two decades. Samutsevich believes that the trial was a direct message to the new opposition: “Whoever criticises Putin and his authority should expect very strict punishment.”

Pussy Riot’s stunts may seem trivial to western eyes but the Russian authorities would have been thinking first of the role played by musicians and artists in the “colour revolutions” that overthrew governments in former communist countries – Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine – over the past decade. Pussy Riot – not a band in the conventional sense, as it does not record and sell music – grew out of Voina (“war”), an art-activist collective best known for painting a giant phallus on a bridge in St Petersburg and having sex in a Moscow museum.

These activists became the radical art wing of the movement that erupted when Vladimir Putin announced that he planned to return to the presidency. They are part of a broad alliance that runs from the socialist Sergei Udaltsov to the anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny, who is being prosecuted for embezzlement.

But Samutsevich believes that the “pathological reaction” to the opposition movement shows that Putin is still scared. “Nothing lasts for ever,” she says. “The main thing is to examine the enemy and then choose the strategy – and fight.”

Matthew Collin is the author of “The Time of the Rebels” (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians