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Pussy Riot Talk About the Fight to Get Them Out of Prison

The feminist punks could be released as early as tomorrow.

by Milene Larsson
18 December 2013, 6:10pm

Pussy Riot's Katia Samutsevich (photo by Olga Kravets)

While most of the civilised world is upset about the Russian establishment's treatment of dissidents, so far Vladimir Putin has deflected pretty much all of the flak coming his way with his macho iron fist. Not even finding himself in the eye of the Sochi Olympics media storm has forced him to budge.

But yesterday, that depressing situation appeared to get a bit brighter when preliminary approval was granted to an amnesty bill that could see his balaclava-clad antagonisers Pussy Riot freed from prison. The two feminist punks currently locked up in their homeland – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina – could be released as early as tomorrow, though it could technically take up to six months for the bill to come into effect. Also, the two girls are due to be freed in March anyway, but when Russian politicians display any kind of mercy – the country's parliament passed the Putin-backed bill by 446 votes to 0 – I guess it tends to make headlines.

The lengthy Pussy Riot trial has been heavily criticised for breaking several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. The evidence against the group included claims that their feminism is incompatible with Orthodox religion and so they're instigating hatred. The main flaw here is that the band didn't stage their anti-Putin “Punk Prayer” protest in February 2012 to offend religious people. They protested against a Russian state that they feel borders on the theocratic, and their punishment is proof that the legislative offspring of the cosy Church-State relationship is bad news for anyone who doesn’t conform to Russia’s nationalist, Orthodox family-orientated values.

Locking Pussy Riot up for singing in a church was clearly a calculated way to teach anti-Putin protesters a lesson, and finding public support for such a lesson isn't tough in Russia's media climate. Putin recently shut down the state media agency Ria Novosti to replace it with a more supportive propaganda machine. But, as karma tends to have it, using Pussy Riot to set an example has backfired on Putin. The girls quickly rose to international attention and, inconveniently for Russia's leader, every detail of their trial, jail terms and anticipated release is being closely scrutinised.

Analysis of the amnesty bill – which should also free the 30 Greenpeace activists currently lost in the Russian prison system – will now centre around Putin's motivations for not just allowing this to happen, but actively encouraging it. The President ostensibly proposed the amnesty to celebrate the coming into force of the country's post-Soviet constitution but many believe he has ulterior motives. Could the bill be Putin trying to lessen the media blow that seems inevitable post the Pussy Riot members’ March release? Or is it an attempt to dab away at some ugly stains on Russia’s human rights record ahead of Sochi?

Either way, it’s a tiny, comfortable step that will inevitably stir up some positive PR for Russia, without improving much for long-term political prisoners like former oligarch and opposition supporter Mikhail Khodorkovsky. So far, the bill only applies to mothers (both incarcerated Pussy Riot members are mothers), pregnant women, the elderly and soldiers jailed for minor crimes, as well as – crucially – anyone put away on hooligan charges or for participating in mass riots. Nonetheless, this is a victory for Russia’s unorthodox civil society, because Putin is finally nodding to international pressure, even if he's not yet fully bowing to it.

– – –

This summer, I met up with Pussy Riot member Katia Samutsevich in Moscow to interview her for our upcoming film on Russia’s state-sanctioned homophobia. Katia was freed after an appeal in October 2012, and when we met her, she was hard at work trying to appeal her fellow feminist punks’ sentences with the help of lawyers and human rights groups – efforts that were rejected at the time but are finally bearing fruit. From our conversation with her back then, you could draw the conclusion that this new amnesty bill is Putin taking the necessary measures to avoid evidence leaking out of what, according to Katia, was a flawed trial.

VICE: How did Pussy Riot come about?
Yekaterina Samutsevich:
How did we create this band? First, we became actively interested in feminism. We were already interested in the idea of feminism, but that was the moment we decided to find out if there were any feminist artists in Russia. Honestly, we searched for a long time and we couldn’t find anything. As we researched further and further we learned about the second feminist wave in the US, which included punk feminism. We liked this idea and started searching for punk feminist bands in Russia. And again, we didn’t find any. Maybe they exist, but they are not seen. Which got us quite upset. 'Why does that not exist in Russia?' we thought. So we formed our own feminist punk band. We had to make it cause it didn't exist. Then we came up with the name, the image and started performing.

How come you were released from prison and the other two girls weren’t?
I changed my lawyer and this new lawyer came up with a pretty big procedural mistake. He found that in the verdict, there was no description of my actions, so although the court officially sentenced me to two years in prison, the verdict was not actually handed down to me. The lawyer pointed out this mistake at the hearing on the 10th of October. The court realised they'd made that mistake and tried to cover it up. If they admitted to it, they would have to cancel the verdict. To avoid that, they gave me a suspended sentence but left Masha and Nadia’s sentences as they were.

A suspended sentence means restricted travel. I am under an agreement not to leave Moscow. I have to get special permission from the penitentiary inspection in order to leave Moscow and I can’t leave Russia under any circumstances. I also can’t violate any laws – even a minor administrative infraction could increase the suspended sentence, or even send me back to jail. It’s a pretty strong restriction, although I am able to travel around the city. That's a huge advantage.

Are you hopeful that Nadya and Maria will be soon be freed, too?
The trial, as well as the pre-trial investigation, were conducted under many procedural violations. At the moment, we are presenting these errors to the higher court, which has the power to repeal the decision of the court in Khamovniki [a district in Moscow], where the first trial took place. The Moscow City Court already tried to cover up these violations, during a hearing. My lawyer says that he’s never seen a trial with so many basic violations. He says that if the Supreme Court – who will look at our appeal shortly – are impartial, the verdict will be annulled. Unfortunately, our courts are subjected to pressure from above, so I don’t know what will happen. But we are fighting.

Why do you think you were handed such harsh sentences for an offence that should, at most, give you 15 days of detention?
There are several reasons. First, it’s the result of propaganda that is pushed in the mass media – the propaganda of an extremely conservative government, where any action that isn’t part of the normative politics of our authorities is highly criticised. Then there is our courts' dependence on these authorities. We also think we've become Putin’s personal grievance. We think that was the reason the police captured us; our case was a gift to their president. Most likely it is a combination of all the above, and it all came together in this sentence.

Milene's latest film Young and Gay in Putin's Russia – for which this interview was conducted – is coming soon to VICE News.

Follow Milene on Twitter: @Milenelarsson

More on Pussy Riot:

Down with Puttin! Set Pussy Riot Free!

We Went to a Pussy Riot Protest Concert

Meeting Pussy Riot

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