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Jailed, Censored at Home, Russia’s Pussy Riot Hailed by Supporters from Yoko Ono to Aung San Suu Kyi

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Three members of the Russian band Pussy Riot have spent the last six months in prison for staging a protest against Russian leader Vladimir Putin inside an Orthodox cathedral. On Friday, the group was awarded the LennonOno Grant for Peace award by the artist and activist Yoko Ono. On Thursday, Pussy Riot also received the public backing of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently on her first visit to the United States in more than three decades. We’re joined by two guests who have traveled to the United States on Pussy Riot’s behalf: Pyotr Verzilov, husband of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadia Tolokonnikova, and Alisa Obraztsova, lawyer’s assistant with the band’s legal defense team. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 17, 2012Pussy Riot Members Sentenced to 2 Years for Anti-Putin Protest; Feminist Rocker JD Samson Responds
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Putin’s Glamour Burns” by Pussy Riot, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Three members of the band Pussy Riot have spent the last six months in prison for staging a protest against Russian leader Vladimir Putin inside an Orthodox cathedral. On Friday, the group was awarded the LennonOno peace award by the artist and activist Yoko Ono.

YOKO ONO: I thank Pussy Riot for standing firmly in their belief of freedom of expression and making all women of the world proud to be women. And I am, too. Each injustice like this is very important. And there are many, many activists in this world now, and they are fighting for each one of them. And I’m fighting for many, many injustice—situation of injustice.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, Pussy Riot also received a boost from the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who’s currently on her first visit to the United States in more than three decades.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: I don’t see why people shouldn’t sing whatever it is that they want to sing, and there’s nothing wrong with singing. I think the only reason why people should not sing is if what they are saying is deliberately insulting or if they sing terribly. I think that would be the best reason for not singing at all. So I would like the whole group to be released as soon as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Aung San Suu Kyi herself was jailed for years. In August, the three jailed members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism” after a judge rejected the argument their act was a form of political protest. Speaking from inside a “glass cage” in the courtroom, jailed Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina condemned Putin’s administration.

MARIA ALYOKHINA: [translated] When we talk about Putin, we have in mind, first and foremost, not Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, but Putin, the system, that he, himself, created, the power vertical, where all control is carried out effectively by one person. And that power vertical is uninterested, completely uninterested, in the opinion of the masses. And what worries me most of all is that the opinion of the younger generations is not taken into consideration. We believe that the ineffectiveness of this administration is evident in practically everything.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the fate of Pussy Riot, we’re joined now by two guests here in New York. Pyotr Verzilov is the husband of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadia Tolokonnikova. He is also a performance artist and a member of the art group Voina. We’re also joined by Alisa Obraztsova. She’s a lawyer’s assistant with Pussy Riot’s legal team. You may remember we spoke to her in a cafe in Moscow just after the verdict came down.

And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Pyotr, talk about coming to the United States, to New York, and receiving the LennonOno prize named for John Lennon, Yoko Ono’s late husband.

PYOTR VERZILOV: Well, receiving this prize has been very emotional, as for any person who has been doing political activism in art for some time. Obviously Yoko Ono is a very important symbol. What she has championed and done since the '60s and the ’70s, that's obviously like a very strong image with the things she has done with her late husband John Lennon. And basically, whenever anyone thinks of political activism on a certain side, you will definitely see images of Yoko and John protesting in the '60s and the ’70s. So, since she's a very important part of the history of political activism, it’s a great honor to receive the award from her.

AMY GOODMAN: And you are here with your four-year-old daughter?

PYOTR VERZILOV: Yes, we’re here together with Gara, and basically she has been meeting all these people, meeting people in D.C., and we went to D.C. before that. And, yes, she formally received the award from Yoko, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And she’s four. So when did she—when was she last with Nadia, when Nadia was free?

PYOTR VERZILOV: When—well, basically, Nadia was arrested in March, exactly six months ago. So before that, it has been six months since they spoke and kind of shook—hugged and shook hands before Nadia was arrested. The last time she got to see her mom was on—was this past Monday, exactly a week ago, when Gara for the first time went to prison and got to see Nadia through the glass, and they spoke with each other on the telephone in the prison, inside the little prison room where people usually have dates.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to Nadia and the other members of Pussy Riot? Explain exactly what they did and how they were arrested and what the sentence means.

PYOTR VERZILOV: So, basically, what happened, the girls did this 49-second performance inside Cathedral of Christ the Saviour called “The Punk Prayer, 'Mother Virgin Mary, Please Relieve Us of Putin.'” And so, it was basically—what they did inside the cathedral was a set for filming and the creation of a musical clip, which was later published on the internet, basically the next day, and went viral and got a huge following, well, because millions of Russians thought that this was basically precisely the idea that has to be put to people’s minds right now. So, and a week later, I went to see Nadia, and around 20 or 25 FSB officers just like were jumping out of nowhere and apprehended us. We were put to the ground, guns stuck to our heads, and then we were taken to interrogation. And the same thing happened with the other two girls.

AMY GOODMAN: In her closing statement at the trial last month, Pussy Riot member Katja Samutsevich talked about the connection between church and state in Russia and described the significance of Christ the Saviour Cathedral, where the Pussy Riot protest took place.

KATJA SAMUTSEVICH: [translated] During the closing statement, the defendant is expected to repent or express regret for her deeds or to enumerate attenuating circumstances. In my case, as in the case of my colleagues in the group, this is completely unnecessary. Instead, I want to express my views about the causes of what has happened with us. The fact that Christ the Saviour Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of our powers that be was already clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former KGB colleague Kirill Gundyaev took over as head of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Saviour Cathedral began to be used openly as a flashy setting for the politics of the security services, which are the main source of power in Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: That was jailed Pussy Riot member Katja Samutsevich. The scene in the courtroom, Pyotr, with the glass cage that your partner, your wife, and the other two women were in?

PYOTR VERZILOV: Well, first of all, this cage was built for a Russian billionaire, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is basically the first kind of major enemy of Putin, and this cage was built after he won a case against Russia that said that you cannot have people in metal cages, you must have them in glass cages. So, basically, they’ve been sitting in this glass cage during this trial and making these powerful political speeches.

AMY GOODMAN: And Putin, what he has to say about these young women?

PYOTR VERZILOV: Putin gave several comments on the case, which was very surprising, because usually he would not touch such a sensitive issue of people getting sent to prison for political reasons. And, well, basically, he did not directly say much, but he went on to elaborate how these girls have been doing some type of strange political art for years. He went on to describe in an interview he gave a week ago several works done by Voina group, which was, well, quite an event. And, well—

AMY GOODMAN: That’s your group.

PYOTR VERZILOV: Yes. And basically, he was making a point that these people are doing some very horrible and strange things that are not well understood by common Russian people, so it’s basically OK for them to be sent to jail.

AMY GOODMAN: What does your group do, Voina?

PYOTR VERZILOV: Voina group, it’s—basically, it’s somehow similar to Pussy Riot in the sense that it’s also—we do art, action art, which touches on political topics. And, well, we choose bright topics and bright formal methods, which we see as crucial to illustrating the problems which are key to Russia at a given point.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Alisa Obraztsova into the conversation. Alisa, you were in the courtroom. You’re a translator for the lawyers. Talk about the significance of this case in Russia.

ALISA OBRAZTSOVA: Well, I think that this case actually showed that we do not have any legal system in Russia, the trial does not work. Unfortunately, we still live under telephone justice, and all the decisions were made by Kremlin, by Putin and the people who are close to him. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Although Putin says he doesn’t want them to have such a harsh sentence.

ALISA OBRAZTSOVA: Oh, you know, I think we all should not think a lot about what he says, about what Medvedev actually says, because these statements are not for people in Russia, they are for the worldwide society. And actually, Putin just wants to make the society to make it more calm, you know, just to stop people talking about Pussy Riot. And the only thing he is wanting, just make people forget about Pussy Riot, about the girls, because the Pussy Riot case actually showed how weak Putin’s authoritarian system is. It doesn’t matter that the girls are sentenced for two years. The main thing, that all worldwide society—in U.S., in Europe and in any other countries—just seen that there is no democracy in Russia, that people still live in an authoritarian country.

AMY GOODMAN: The lawyers that you work for, that you assist for Pussy Riot, they themselves are being threatened?

ALISA OBRAZTSOVA: Yes. Two of three lawyers, Mark Feigin and Violetta Volkova, were called for interrogation in the investigation committee. And this happened because of the 6 May case. It is the day where—when Moscow, a big protest rally happened. Mark was already been on the interrogation, and they tried to know if he knew any people who made fundraising for the protest rally. He showed—they showed him the video. He was on the stage. He was trying to call people for their—for taking part in striking.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s an upcoming hearing on October 1st?


AMY GOODMAN: What’s the significance of this?

ALISA OBRAZTSOVA: Well, we think that probably they will reduce the sentence for maybe half a year, but not more. And after that, the girls will be sent to the penal colony. And we think that they probably will be sent to three different penal colonies, which are very far from Moscow. And it will be quite complicated to visit them every day. Unfortunately, it is allowed to visit them for the close relatives only for three short visits during the year and three long visits.

AMY GOODMAN: Pyotr, the significance of where they are being sent? And talk about the penal colony.

PYOTR VERZILOV: Well, yes, people in the West have basically—quite clearly have understood that the girls are being sent to these Stalinist-era-styled colonies, right? So, the prison system in Russia really did not change much since the Gulag days. It was built after Second World War. It was built for the massive amount of prisoners that Stalin was sending to these prisons. So, and in terms of architecture and behavior of prison authorities and the amenities in the prison, things have stayed the same for the last 50, 60 years. So, basically, for example, Nadia is being sent to this prison in a region in Mordovia, supposedly. And, well, it’s a notorious area in central Russia, basically most famous for its Gulag prisons. So, it must be fun going to the Gulag, if you can put it that way.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read—to bring you a guest we had on our show just after the verdict was handed down. Democracy Now! interviewed JD Samson, a feminist punk musician here in the United States, a member of two bands, Le Tigre and MEN. We asked her to read some of the lyrics Pussy Riot performed during their punk prayer inside the church.

JD SAMSON: The song was called, “Punk Prayer 'Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away.'”

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
Put Putin away, put Putin away

Black robe, golden epaulettes
All parishioners crawl to bow
The phantom of liberty is in heaven
Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains

The head of the KGB, their chief saint,
Leads protesters to prison under escort
In order not to offend His Holiness
Women must give birth and love

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
Become a feminist, become a feminist.

AMY GOODMAN: JD Samson, reading the words. Pyotr, what happens now? And does Nadia and the other Pussy Riot members in jail understand what’s happening in the outside world around their case, the response? For example, Friday, Aung San Suu Kyi, long jailed herself, speaking out for Pussy Riot.

PYOTR VERZILOV: Well, the girls in the prison do understand everything that’s happening in the world. And as we’ve stated repeatedly, they basically hear every protester and every action done in their support. Well, they have TV connections. The lawyers visit them often. They get newspapers. So, basically there is a—

AMY GOODMAN: How often do you get to see Nadia?

PYOTR VERZILOV: I get to see Nadia once every two weeks usually. That’s the law in Russia, unfortunately. But we have a very good letter connection going on through the lawyers. And, yes, the girls do feel that this major international support going on really does help them live through the harsh prison days. It really basically allows them to keep themselves together.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of them wearing the balaclavas over their faces?

PYOTR VERZILOV: This whole idea was to brought by the group to make the public focus on their values and ideas, not on their identities, right? Which have basically become the focus in the media right now, since the balaclavas were, as you can say, taken off by the police.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, and congratulations on the prize, the LennonOno prize, named for John Lennon and Yoko Ono, that Pussy Riot received last week. You received it for your wife, Nadia. Pyotr Verzilov, husband of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadia Tolokonnikova, he’s also a performance artist and a member of the group Voina. And also thanks so much to Alisa Obraztsova, who is a lawyer’s assistant with Pussy Riot’s legal defense team.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Eve Ensler will join us. Stay with us.

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