What Katya did next
Freed Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevich talks to The St. Petersburg Times about the events of 2012.
Published: January 23, 2013 (Issue # 1743)
sergey chernov / spt
Yekaterina Samutsevich at the roundtable in St. Petersburg last week.
Twelve months after feminist punk collective Pussy Riot’s “Putin Has Pissed Himself” breakthrough protest performance on Red Square, group member Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was freed by an appeal court in October, came to St. Petersburg to take part in a roundtable organized by the Center for Independent Social Research.
Called “Class, Gender, Politics: Russia After Pussy Riot,” it was dedicated to the imprisoned group member Maria Alyokhina, whose appeal was heard — and rejected — last week in Berezniki in the Perm Krai, some 2,000 kilometers away.
On Sunday, Samutsevich, 30, spoke to The St. Petersburg Times via Skype about events surrounding Pussy Riot and Russia in general throughout the past year.
Q: What are your impressions of your visit to St. Petersburg?
A: I came to take part in the roundtable, but the actual reason was that the roundtable was dedicated to Maria Alyokhina and a court hearing about a postponement of her sentence that was taking place that day. That’s why I decided to support Masha by coming to St. Petersburg and talking about her and problems of media coverage of our case.
I liked the roundtable a lot, I liked the Center for Independent Social Research, very intelligent and sincere people work there. I haven’t spoken to such people for a long time, and I was pleased that they supported us and invited me. There were many specialists on gender issues at the roundtable; there was even a specialist on the problems of female prisons there. I really appreciated this professional approach to the topic.
As for St. Petersburg, it was a sunny day when I arrived, so that put me in a good mood. Especially when I just arrived, because I had hopes that Masha could be released. But obviously, as soon as I learned that Masha’s postponement appeal had been rejected, my mood got a lot worse. I found out when the roundtable had already started, so probably wasn’t very cheerful during it, but I had good reason to be upset.
Q: Pussy Riot last gave an interview to The St. Petersburg Times a year ago — just after the “Putin Has Pissed Himself” performance on Red Square and a month before the first two members of the group were arrested. The protest movement was still at its peak, but you were unhappy that it had turned into sanctioned rallies and said that the Kremlin was not afraid of them. Would you say this tendency has prevailed and the protest movement has subsided?
A: Well, not everything has subsided, because people see what is happening. The authorities attempt to present the situation like this: There was an opposition, it made some weak moves, but failed to make a critical point in a convincing way, so people didn’t choose the opposition but chose Putin again.
But obviously, thinking people who follow the situation see an entirely different picture. There was an opposition and still is. The other thing is that the authorities have started to take a definite political stance. They saw a certain threat and decided to attack the problem from different sides to cut away the ground from under opposition-minded citizens.
They resorted to repressive measures — such as our arrests for virtually nothing, and those of the May 6 protesters — and distortion of the situation in the media at the same time. Libel against various political figures as well as the situation in general came from the television the whole time. The authorities reduced the entire opposition to two or three people and attacked them, often using libel. In reality the opposition is not two or three people, but a great number of citizens who are unhappy about the situation in the country and are ready to change the system.
It doesn’t mean that there’s no opposition, it does exist — but now we have to take the authorities’ strategy into account, analyze it and build some new line of struggle.
Q: Propaganda against Pussy Riot frequently contained accusations of things actually done not by Pussy Riot, but done in the past by the Voina art group, including a stunt in which a woman stole a chicken from a supermarket by concealing it in her vagina, or, as Putin told Angela Merkel, hanging an “effigy of a Jew” in a store. Questions about those performances at the roundtable showed that this strategy even worked with informed people, didn’t it?
A: The information about the chicken and the “effigy of a Jew” was obviously targeted at people not informed about what had happened in action art and Russian art in general during the 2000s. It’s aimed at people who are not interested in such things and who — if they happen to see some video or documentation [of such things] — are simply shocked, and simply won’t understand anything. That’s what it was calculated for — for this shock stemming from a lack of understanding.
The authorities did everything to collect such “strange” information, which was in reality false. Because yes, these things did happen, but they were different and connected to entirely different people. It relied on the effect that people would hear snatches of it in passing and would not try to get to the bottom of it or analyze in a detailed way.
They hear about [Voina’s] performance at the Biological Museum [in which the group staged an orgy] or about a chicken stunt and think that Pussy Riot are perverted girls who have sex in public and then go to the cathedral and desecrate the ambon and soleas [restricted sections of Orthodox churches]. It’s targeted at a lack of understanding, a lack of information and lack of critical thinking, and maybe a lack of analysis of the authorities’ strategy.
Q: How do you respond to criticism that the punk prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior presented a chance for the authorities to split society?
A: In reality, what existed before was revealed here; we didn’t produce anything new, it simply became visible. People have been divided over many issues for a long time, especially along the lines of conservative values and contemporary art in such forms as action art or media art. This division has existed for a long time and has been created artificially by our authorities’ cultural policy.
There’s practically no education in the field of art. That’s why there are so few artists. They’re either self-taught, or come from the Rodchenko School. It’s good that it exists in Moscow, but it still doesn’t produce many young artists, and the kind of art that would be open and visible is scarce. That’s why people don’t fully understand what they are seeing when they see work by Pussy Riot.
Of course, the authorities have done a lot to present contemporary art, especially action art, as hooliganism. The opinion that this is not art but some ordinary hooligans who are destroying values is constantly being implanted, with other points of view suppressed and going unheard. That’s where this misbalance around contemporary art, especially political art comes from. This division of opinions is the result.
Q: It was clear that all the Pussy Riot performances annoyed the Kremlin, especially the Red Square one. Was the punk prayer simply used as an excuse to stop the group’s activities and make an example of it?
A: Well, yes, I think the group’s entire work caused annoyance starting from its first performances, because — as it was said at the Zamoskvoretsky Court — they contained “calls to extremism, to overthrow the regime,” and so on.
They were annoyed about everything. Either it simply came to a boiling point, or the people from the special services who were in charge of monitoring us were given orders to open a criminal investigation and arrest us.
Q: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were arrested on March 3, 2012, on the eve of Putin’s re-election, leading to speculation that the arrests were a present for him. Do you think it was his personal revenge for your anti-Putin performances?
A: Actually, it’s not that simple. When we talk about the situation in Russia, we are not just talking about Putin. The powers that be are not one person, even if he’s the president and the top man. In reality, we are dealing with the whole system that is in power in Russia, and there are many political forces at play.
Putin as one person has simply become the symbol of the system and it’s only natural that the system protects itself, that’s why it reacts in such an aggressive way to any damage done to this symbol, to what it sees as an insult to him, even if in reality it’s just a critical statement.
Q: But didn’t he speak almost sensually about the two-year sentences using the diminutive word “dvushechka” [for the two-year prison sentence handed to the women] and sounding as if it was indeed a personal matter for him?
A: Yes, sure. I think he has a certain image, a certain role, and this image is pretty strange now, let’s put it that way. It’s analyzed by the Western press, because many are surprised by his behavior. Because a head of state shouldn’t behave like this. They are always on guard, they watch their words — both what they say and how they say it — how they dress, how they sit, it’s literally like that. And allowing themselves to say such things, in such a tone, and tell lies in a conversation with the leader of another country, like in the conversation with Angela Merkel, is simply impermissible.
There are many versions: It may be a deliberate anti-Western move, to demonstrate such a disdainful, utterly contemptuous attitude toward the rest of the world, or maybe something is happening to him, maybe he’s simply going insane. It’s like [former Russian leader Boris] Yeltsin, who used to get drunk and behave in a weird way.
Everybody is analyzing why he behaves like that, and what he said, but the authorities’ actual strategy — for instance, the reform of education — is not analyzed well enough. So it could be a deceptive move as well. Perhaps instead of paying so much attention to this inappropriate behavior, we should bear it in mind and pay more attention to things that are actually happening now.
Q: What’s happening with the ban on Pussy Riot’s videos?
A: The Moscow City Court will hear my appeal on Jan. 24, as well as my second complaint about the refusal of the court to acknowledge me as an interested party. I don’t know the order in which they will be heard, but there’s a hope that maybe the court will send the case back for reconsideration. It’s another stage of the struggle. Then, if they reject it, it’ll go immediately as an appendix to our complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, because it violates the right of freedom of speech and the right of freedom of expression guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. It violates the rights of three people: Nadya, Masha and me.
Q: How did international support affect the Pussy Riot situation?
A: Such support could not fail to have an effect, it was very strong. But the influence was multi-faceted, it can’t be said that it brought great benefits, that everybody was ecstatic because of such support. Obviously, the authorities started to react and create their own media campaign. The stronger support was, the stronger the resistance of the media that serve the authorities. And so a kind of media war began. There is a confrontation of different ideas: The idea of freedom of speech, which is turned upside down in Russian media that speak about a threat to traditional values. There’s a permanent struggle going on, and that’s OK.
But the support showed that Pussy Riot was not a bunch of freaks who had done some stuff that no-one could understand. It became clear that it is art, that it’s very articulate art, it’s political art, it’s feminist art. This was understood by a majority in the West.
Then there was understanding about the situation in Russia. Because Putin and the other people who represent power say that we have democracy and freedom of speech. It turned out that that is not true, that it is all lies. That Russia had huge problems with freedom of speech, with human rights.
Q: What’s your opinion about “Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer,” a feature-length documentary shown at the Sundance Film Festival last week?
A: I’ve seen a rough cut of the film, but what I saw was filmed in a quality, good way. As far as I understood, its makers tried to present the situation as objectively as they could, that is, to include and show opinions from different sides. But to be honest, it seemed to me that mostly, opinions had been collected that if not quite against us, were definitely not for us. I speak with a lot of people who support us ideologically — who don’t simply pity us as young women, but support our ideas. I think there’s quite a few such people in Russia, but this documentary makes it seem that the situation is entirely different — that everybody is against us. That even our relatives misunderstand us, or don’t fully understand us.
Q: In a recent interview with the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles, you said that it’s difficult to continue as Pussy Riot under the current conditions and invited people to repeat what the group had done, which was interpreted by some as an announcement that Pussy Riot is disbanding. Is that the case?
A: Well, it definitely wasn’t a statement about disbanding the group, because otherwise I would have put it in a different way, like: “The group is disbanded, it doesn’t exist anymore.” Of course it exists, and the group members exist too. But I meant that it is difficult to continue in the same way as before the arrest, because the situation for us, the actual members of the group, has changed radically.
And then I meant that Pussy Riot has shown what can be done within a cultural form of protest. As creators of the group, we had a very strong desire to have people not watching us in silence as we deal with the difficult trial. It would be worthwhile to try and do the same thing that we did, or to somehow use what we had offered to the people.