Protest Art

11.30.12

Pussy Riot’s Yekaterina Samutsevich Speaks Out

A member of Russia’s legendary punk-rock band talks to Anna Nemtsova about why she fears for her jailed friends and the message that fans missed.

Yekaterina Samutsevich tried not to squint in the bright light of the studio lamps. The 30-year-old Pussy Riot activist, known simply as Katia, stood still as a statue in her broad-shouldered tuxedo jacket, which hung loosely on her frame even after project assistants pinned it to her back. Samutsevich smiled shyly at the cameras. In one hand, she held a toy replica of the Kremlin with an American flag on top. In the other, she cupped a bunch of Russian rubles. The trinkets represented the new reality she faced after being released from jail last month: pro-Kremlin critics accused of her taking money from the U.S. State Department, while anti-Kremlin activists—including her former lawyer—claimed she cooperated too closely with the government.

Samutsevich had created the “Double Agent” image for her participation in a calendar project called “Twelve Dissident Women,” which Russian opposition members were preparing for the New Year. The calendar planned to feature black-and-white portraits of Russian female opposition members and politicians suppressed by authorities. Among the 12 women—all well groomed and impeccably dressed—at the photo shoot at a downtown Moscow studio last week, Samutsevich was the only one who rarely smiled. She was weighed down by grave concerns that often kept her up at night—chiefly, the fate of two of her fellow Pussy Riot friends, who had been convicted of crimes against the state and shipped off to faraway prison camps.

The three women were first arrested last February when their punk band appeared at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to protest against the rule of President Vladimir Putin. That day, Samutsevich had arrived at the church and removed her winter overcoat, revealing a white summer dress and red tights underneath. To disguise her identity, she’d wrapped a red balaclava around her face. She was just unpacking her guitar when security forces grabbed her and carted her away.

The news of Pussy Riot’s imprisonment quickly spread, and Samutsevich and her friends became a cause célèbre, not only for opposition members in Russia but for activists around the world. Madonna and Paul McCartney expressed their support for the band. A video of Pussy Riot’s church performance became a sensation on YouTube. The irony, Samutsevich said, was that she didn’t consider the Christ the Savior performance particularly memorable. They’d previously performed their entire signature song—titled “Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Away”— in nightclubs, on the subway, and even in Red Square. But at the church, “the girls did not manage to sing even the first line of [the song],” she said. She also worried the video clip that later appeared on the Internet was so poorly edited, “nobody understood anything about our feminist ideas.”

When Samutsevich talks, she comes across as calm, serious and mature. But a casual stranger could easily mistake her for a teenager, with her black rocker T-shirt, sweatshirt, and jeans. Since her arrest—and subsequent imprisonment—she’s become more “strong-willed,” says her girlfriend Natalia, a short woman with dark hair and pale skin. The two met at Moscow’s Rodchenko School of Photography and Multimedia seven years ago, and soon discovered a shared love of contemporary art, feminist ideas, and literature. “Katia is a real intellectual,” said Lyudmila Zinchenko, Samutsevich’s former photography teacher. “Always studying and reading about challenging themes. I remember she’d rather work on her deep art projects than drink at parties.” For her diploma project, Samutsevich constructed an Internet browser that would distort the content of any website it found. The point: to show the Russian people how all media—Internet included—dispenses false information.

“They are having a bad time in the sexist crowd” in the prison camps, Samutsevich said about her two jailed friends. “Nobody understands our ideas.”

Modern art was Samutsevich’s second profession—she’d formerly been a software programmer for a military institute, working on operative systems for nuclear K-152 submarines. She still has her thick blue navy uniform, and wore it to the street protests last year to keep warm. She quit the military, she said, after witnessing corruption in the top ranks. But because of her work, which involved a security clearance, she was confined to Russia for five years.

Samutsevich’s artistic mission grew more focused last year, when she founded Pussy Riot with seven female friends. “Our art is meant to make the entire world laugh at Putin, so that not a single self-respecting leader would agree to sit down at the same table with him,” Samutsevich said. She shook her head, which sported an edgy haircut—short on one side, long on the other—that she’d received in prison shortly before her release. Her six months behind bars “challenged my stamina,” she said. She passed the time talking to her fellow inmates about Pussy Riot’s philosophy and introducing them to her favorite thinkers, Judith Butler of ‘queer theory’ fame and Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek. “Most Russian women are interested when you sit down and talk to them about queer theory and international women’s studies,” Samutsevich said.

Now that she has been released, Samutsevich is focusing her attention on how to save her two jailed friends, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. “They are having a bad time in the sexist crowd” in the prison camps, Samutsevich said. “Nobody understands our ideas.” Last week, Alyokhina, the group’s red-haired poet, asked prison authorities to move her to a single-person cell after being verbally threatened by other women in her Ural Mountains labor camp, 715 miles northeast of Moscow. “We should pull them out as soon as possible,” said Samutsevich, who has the authority to appeal court decisions on behalf of her fellow Pussy Riot members. She’s also looking into the activities of the lawyers who represented the group during their trial. “The former Pussy Riot lawyers collected in their personal bank accounts thousands of dollars that our fans contributed from all over the world to support us,” she said. One of the former lawyers, Mark Feigin, disputes Samutsevich’s claims, saying, “All accounts were public and transparent.”

Meanwhile, Samutsevich was determined to continue changing Russian minds—although there’s one Russian in particular she’s given up on. “I won’t waste my time talking to Vladimir Putin,” she said. “He is not interested in the truth.” She talked about a recent opposition art project that Putin misinterpreted. “To show the discrimination of gays, illegal immigrants and Jews in Russia, our activists staged [fake] hangings” wherein they identified as members of one of those oppressed groups. “Putin said that one of us hanged a Jew in effigy, [and called] to rid Russia of such people. Either his aides gave him false facts, or Putin preferred to distort reality,” Samutsevich said.

Such artwork could conceivably provoke the authorities into arresting her again, but Samutsevich remained undaunted. “Life behind bars is a waste of time,” Samutsevich said. “But authorities should realize that prison will not stop the protest.”