On October 10 of last year, Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevich was unexpectedly released from jail. In an exercise of questionable journalistic extrapolation and sloppy reporting, Der Spiegel recently accused her of having brokered a deal with the Kremlin and betraying the group she co-founded two years ago. Samutsevich spoke to Exberliner’s Nelli Muminova.
Yekaterina Samutsevich (Katya) is one of the five balaclava-clad punkettes who stormed the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral on February 21 last year to sing a one-minute “punk prayer” imploring the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin only days before he was elected for a third term as president. Together with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadia) and Maria Alekhina (Masha), she was found guilty of premeditated “hooliganism” motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in a penal colony.
But after seven months’ detention, a new lawyer successfully appealed Samutsevich’s sentence, ensuring her immediate release. Since then, the 30-year-old Pussy has been enjoying a rather oppressive kind of ‘freedom’ between continual police surveillance and accusations of betrayal by a vindictive ex-lawyer.
Your ‘punk prayer’ was not Pussy Riot’s first action – I’m thinking of “Putin Z assal” (“Putin has Pissed Himself”) on Red Square. It was all pretty risky, especially during the presidential race. Were you aware of the possible reprisals?
In that moment, we didn’t care about the risk. We just followed our creative instinct. What we cared about was the elections, the future of our country and the cynical behavior of the Russian authorities. This time around, we chose a church because we wanted to be heard. If the authorities can use the Church for their propaganda, why can’t we do the same? And didn’t the Patriarch use the Christ the Saviour Cathedral to urge people to vote for Putin?
Ten days later on March 3, Masha and Nadia were arrested; soon afterwards, it was your turn. Why didn’t you try to escape?
When they arrested Masha and Nadia, I had no idea that it could end up in a prison sentence. Maybe a fine or 15 days for disrupting public order… so when I was summoned, I wasn’t really scared. But then the interrogation dragged on. Witnesses were called. I had to put a balaclava on and take it off, again and again. Finally they identified me and I spent the night in the police station. I thought of Masha and Nadia. I knew they were pressuring me to plead guilty, give evidence against the girls… but I felt strong. In the end, the investigator gave me a benevolent smile and said: “Samutsevich, Yekaterina, you’re under arrest. Remove your shoelaces…”
What was your first day in jail like?
The ward was filled with women accused of all kinds of crimes… I remember a pregnant gypsy sentenced to four-and-a-half years for drug trafficking; I felt sorry for her. When asked why I was there, I simply replied “hooliganism”, which was wise. When we watched the TV news, two inmates declared that if they met those “whores” they would strangle them with their bare hands.
So Pussy Riot weren’t popular among inmates?
Well, later I was transferred to a ward with women accused of white-collar crimes. They had no illusions about Putin, and I didn’t have to hide my name any longer. They were actually pleased to see their cellmate on TV!
Did you manage to keep contact with Nadia and Masha?
We kept in touch as much as possible. We agreed to not confess any guilt, even though the pressure was high; we were determined to fight to the bitter end.
What did your then-lawyers, Mark Feigin and Violetta Volkova, advise?
Feigin and Volkova said to not worry, that everything would be fine. They promised to visit us every day, but ended up visiting us less and less – maybe once every two weeks for five minutes. Before the hearings, they needed to interrogate witnesses and examine documents, but did nothing. The day before the trial, Feigin said that the case had taken a political turn and that he would consider a two-year sentence to be a ‘victory’. It was a complete shock. But we had no other way – we had to trust them.
On August 17, the three of you were sentenced to just that: two years. You were in a cage behind glass, assaulted by camera flashes, surrounded by German Shepherds and lots of men in camouflage. How do you look back on that day?
It felt like we were at the zoo, but the worst part was the poor performance of our lawyers. There was no real fight, no witnesses came – they waited in a cafe for the lawyer’s call, as we later found out. After the trial, Volkova suddenly disappeared. I heard on TV news that she and Feigin were in the US on an emergency trip… that’s when my dad and friends started to persuade me to change lawyers.
How did you bring this up with Masha and Nadia?
I had no contact with Nadia and Masha at that moment and had to rely on Volkova to pass them a letter in which I suggested the new lawyer idea. She never did, claiming she had been searched and the letter seized, which was an obvious lie… we later found a safer way to communicate! Feigin and Volkova did everything they could to discourage me; they even stopped my new lawyer in front of the prison gate and tried to convince her to drop it. But I had made my decision.
Your decision caused a split in the group. The others didn’t want to change lawyers, did they?
Nadia thought the most effective strategy would be to write a speech, to explain and they would understand. They didn’t want to get new lawyers, but they did support my decision. If they had not approved of it, I would have never dared. But the media manipulations started almost immediately; a flurry of extrapolations about a split in Pussy Riot…
In February, Der Spiegel published an article accusing you of betrayal, based on the conjecture that your cellmate, Irina Orlova, was a stool pigeon for the Kremlin who seduced and manipulated you.
Well, first, Irina Orlova is quite a ‘mature’ woman; she is 50. She really helped me a lot, especially during my hearings, because it was such a stressful time. Anyone familiar with Russian prisons knows it: it is a communal life and inmates care for one another like a family – regardless of sexual preferences!
But where did Der Spiegel get that lesbian story from?
As far as I know, Der Spiegel used allegations made by Olga Wozniak [not mentioned in the article], who was with us from October 1-10. Her motives and logic are not clear to me – let it remain on her conscience. But even if I had had a relationship with Irina Orlova, what would it prove? That I am the “weak one” because I’m a lesbian? Is that what Spiegel is driving at? Then it’s homophobic. And how do they know that Irina is a stool pigeon and Wozniak not?
Ultimately, Katya, did you strike some deal with the Kremlin in exchange for your release, as inferred in the Spiegel article and claimed by Feigin?
Of course not! I never confessed any guilt, never worsened the situation of the girls. All I did was change my lawyers, because I didn’t trust Volkova and Feigin anymore. And did I have the legal right to do so? Yes, I did! And should I make excuses for the decision? No, I shouldn’t.
Then how did your new lawyer manage to do what the old ones didn’t – get you out?
Irina Khrunova found a lot of violations and contradictions in my case and she changed the line of defence. She argued that I had not, legally speaking, committed the acts of hooliganism, simply because security guards had stopped me before I could. They had noticed my guitar and caught me…
Did you expect them to let you go free right out of the courtroom?
Absolutely not! We even joked about my trip to the detention camp… But probation is not freedom. I am under continual surveillance, my life strictly monitored. I guess it’s never been as safe for me in Moscow as it is now, even in the dark!
On March 8 you took part in a pro-Pussy Riot action in Moscow. Were you scared?
The rally was legal and I just had to be careful not to break any law, which would have been fatal in my situation. But what struck me is how much the country has changed. A year ago ordinary people could speak out without fear… now it’s all arrests, accusations, the Centre E (“Centre to combat extremism”), wiretapping. Things have degraded so quickly.
So, how do you explain the article in Der Spiegel?
It’s a media war. Russian authorities have all the leverage for manipulation – not only in Russia but also, unfortunately, in Europe. For me, this is another obvious attempt to discredit Pussy Riot. I intend to sue Der Spiegel for defamation. Of course it’s a lawyer’s issue, it takes money, but I’ll do it. If we can’t protect ourselves, our own reputation, how can we protect the rights of others in Russia, and continue our struggle?