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Q&A: Pussy Riot's Yekaterina Samutsevich on Their Fight for Freedom

'I don't see a big difference between being in jail and out'

Yekaterina Samutsevich, a member of anti-Kremlin punk feminist band Pussy Riot
ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/GettyImages
October 15, 2012 3:05 PM ET

Four days after jumping into a red Honda to escape a mob of journalists crowding outside of a Moscow court, Pussy Riot punk rocker Yekaterina Samutsevich has had little time to celebrate her new freedom. She has been fielding back-to-back interviews and trying to get back to her normal life after nearly seven months in jail.

Pop music blared in a small, packed McDonald's far from the Kremlin as Samutsevich, peppy as ever, sat down with Rolling Stone on a chilly October night. She talked about her surprise release, continuing the revolution, political art, Pussy Riot wannabes and the group's new tactics to avoid arrest.

Pussy Riot: Their Trial in Photos

How does it feel to be free?
I don't see a big difference between being in jail and out. There are as many police on the streets as there were in jail; OMON [special police], everything is guarded, there are white cars monitoring phone conversations. The atmosphere of control. And these anti-citizen laws that were passed this summer. Everything is turning.

What are the terms of your release?
Honestly, I don't know. I still have to call and find out. I don't have much restrictions, except not committing any crimes. I don't think it would be difficult. I am not a criminal. I am a peaceful person, and I just talk to people. Our action was not a crime. Sure, it was a violation of order, but there was no crime.

How have you been spending your newly free time?
I went to see my relatives. My friends gave me flowers and cake, which is actually not very feminist. And they made fireworks. Mainly I am solving problems, picking up my things from the detention center. It's notable that the guard at the detention center who gave me my things, after congratulating me on my freedom, said, "Don't get into any stupid things, and have children." The problem is, people don't remember why we are against Putin. They think, "Why? He's a normal man, he's not a maniac." It's not a personal problem with him, but a problem with the system of government and society. There is still something to fight for.

Why do you think you were released and the others weren't?
I don't know who decided this or why. It's possible that it's the government's sneaky new strategy. Possibly it was the international pressure. Putin and government officials always had to answer uncomfortable questions, and possibly they decided to soften the blow, and retreat a bit.

How does it feel to be famous?
I don't especially feel famous. I remain the same as I was before. I still treat all people equal to myself. I don't feel any fame. We [Pussy Riot] are against that. We are for democracy and equality. The only thing, I wasn't expecting so many cameras when I was released. They all pounced on me, and I had to escape.

I am interested in seeing how I am represented. I see a certain misrepresentation on Russian channels. The Western, they are surprisingly accurate. Unfortunately, with Russian television, Russian publications, there is a problem. They cut out, manipulate and change the context. There is this view that is being pushed that I am just an ordinary girl that doesn't understand anything. Without political views, just a regular girl. A standard view of women in Russia.

Everyone is talking about Pussy Riot. Was your performance successful?
In this way, yes. We raised this problem. There is a comeback of so-called traditional values . . . There were many people with progressive views, but with the advent of this totalitarian regime it's all gone away. It's very upsetting to see how anti-progressive values are being propagated. Marriage only between man and a woman, and women must always give birth. Even adopting is frowned upon. Any deviation is considered a sickness – a person is not considered normal. Our performance has forced people to talk about this. Unfortunately, the church has become a tool of propaganda of these conservative views.

The problem is, our government has been manipulating public opinion very skillfully. We don't have such influence. If we talk, our words are distorted. I noticed my interviews are manipulated, some parts are cut out. Even the opposition channels do it. It's the pressure of the propaganda machine.

Why do you think there such a difference between how Pussy Riot is perceived in the West and in Russia?
I understand why in the West we are so well-received. There have been several generations of the feminist movement. There are many people that understand it. They know what is LGBT, civic society, freedom of speech. It doesn't mean that in the West there is an ideal situation. There are many problems in the U.S., where there is a harsh government that constantly violates human rights. But there are traditions of protest culture. In Russia, our social policies and education teaches people to be passive. People are taught not to think critically. You must not protest, because if you do, you go against society. There is a constant positioning of the individual against the society. In our society of authoritarian totalitarianism, of power verticals, harsh boundaries, any individual activism is seen negatively.

What did you think of the trial?
Many people watch television. In general, most of Russia aren't active Internet users. That is why the public opinion is that it was hooliganism and deserves to be punished, and our trial was accompanied by this campaign. Unfortunately, we weren't heard. Nobody talked about feminism, the rights of the LGBT, the system that we are fighting against. Instead we always heard about the rights of believers, that they were insulted. And anytime we tried to say something ourselves, we were stopped.

We had good lawyers – [Mark] Feygin, [Nikolai] Polozov, [Violetta] Volkova – but unfortunately our position regarding feminism, regarding our views, did not coincide. They said their own opinion that was different from our opinion. Many people didn't understand that it was their opinion and not our opinion. They made us look like teenage girls that went against Putin, without even understanding why they are doing it. I know what the lawyers were trying to do, but unfortunately because of this difference in view there was a distortion. They weren't doing it maliciously, and we don't have any complaints toward them.

Is that why you decided to change your lawyer?
There was not a specific reason or a conflict. It was a totally formal move. I wanted to again accent on mistakes on the verdict of the Khamovniki Court. I thought that the lawyers had the best intentions, but for some reason, maybe they didn't have enough time to emphasize the obvious mistakes. I chose lawyer [Irina] Khrunova from Agora. She had a solid political reputation. She defended [Russian billionaire Mikhail] Khodorkovsky. She found these mistakes in the verdict. And strangely enough, there was a result.

Was it worth it?
We did not think we were going to be arrested. It's not something that is a crime. All three of us don't consider ourselves guilty. We didn't want to end up in jail. Why is it that if you're not in prison you are not being heard? It's a warped understanding of protest and political art, in general. I think that Nadya [Tolokonnikova] and Masha [Alyokhina] will agree that we are completely against this. Political artists must be free. I will try to avoid arrest, but if we have this crazy government that is ready to jail people for any action, then I won't be quiet. We won't be quiet. I will not renounce my beliefs.

How many members does Pussy Riot have?
There are about 20 people.

Did more people want to join after the trial?
Now we get letters from girls from many cities. They support our ideas, our concept. They don't want to just participate, they want to take part in actions. Since the group is anonymous, and any girl in a balaclava is Pussy Riot, sometimes people don't completely understand the ideas of the group and distort them. They don't know about feminism or art. They say we are against Putin and that's it. I can't prohibit it, but I don't approve of it. I like that girls want to participate, but I would like more knowledgeability. Maybe they can talk to us. I don't want to accent anything or accuse anyone, but it's important how our ideas are broadcast. Any person can put on a balaclava, it's all very good, but it's important that the ideas are not warped.

Is there anything planned?
We always have some ideas, plans, we have to develop. But it's more of a problem of actionism. Those that do actionism know how difficult it is to realize it. Even the action in the Church of Christ the Savior. I was led out at the beginning, unfortunately. Of course I wanted to participate and that we would be successful. But what happened, happened.

Are you afraid you will be jailed for future actions?
No, we will be more clever. All the emails are being read, phone calls are being monitored. We will consider all these technical things. We will use coded emails, coded conversations, turning off cell phones when we talk, take out the battery. There is no fear. Anyway, I am not alone – there are other band members. And we are anonymous. When a girl is in a balaclava and a dress, she can change it, and it will be difficult to identify her.

Possibly the arrest was an attempt to stop our protest. Possibly the special services, the government was paying attention to our group. Because we were hitting the painful themes, forcing society to talk about this. We are forcing the whole world to say the name of our group, and even that insults them. But it's important to say that we will continue.

How has the arrest affected the group?
Our ideologies and concepts were not changed. Many say it's become a brand, but it's not so at all. We don't want to sell out. We saw the reaction of the government to our actions, our ideas. How inadequately our government treats this, and how unprepared it is for these ideas.

What about the recent conflict with Nadya's husband, who was disowned as the group's spokesperson?
I don't know. It's hard to comment. I didn't sign this document toward [Pyotr] Verzilov. I don't see any problem with him. You don't see anything in jail but little bits and pieces of information that come to you from people that heard it from other people – lawyers, letters – and they can warp the picture. And sometimes you can make these crazy decisions. I don't know what that was.

How effective is art in protest?
It's very effective. Art is always working out different ways of communication between the artist and viewer. And art has become only more complicated. Now it's done internationally, and it has great political potential. An artist is a person who is constantly analyzing critical thoughts, always working out an independent opinion regarding everything. That is why art gives a breath of fresh air and a different way to protest.

How do you think people will react to future performances?
They will compare it to what happened at the Christ the Savior Church. Many people talk about it – how loud was the previous act and what we will do if the next thing will be less loud. In reality, we are not afraid of that. If the government didn't react this way . . . it made it way more loud. It's actually pretty ordinary for us, the same as the performance in the Red Square, Putin is scared, and in the performance in the detention center.

What about all the conspiracy theories about Pussy Riot?
Again, it's the same problem, of government that doesn't want to conduct normal social politics.  As soon as a person shows any freedom of thought, he is beaten right away. We showed our freedom of thought, and from this there has been such an aggressive reaction. It's this propaganda machine that starts to work out these different conspiracy theories. People can't imagine that a citizen can independently do some action. Someone has to stand behind it.

Did your arrest make Pussy Riot's message more effective?
It's quite a dangerous opinion that in jail you can increase the effectiveness of your views. We didn't want that. We still want for Nadya and Masha to be released. The fact that they are in jail harms us as a band, to be honest with you. I don't think it's a more effective way to spread our views. But this did help  make all these problems visible to the whole world. Putin can say all he wants that we have a democratic government, that people have the right to their own opinion and no country can criticize it. But all people can see it, that the government doesn't hear. There is a whole campaign against opposition and against individual thinking.

Will there be a revolution?
It's hard to say. I'm not a political observer. I want for there to be revolt of the thought first of all. I don't want any physical violence. А change in mentality is much more effective. If people will be more independent, they will become aware of the tactics that the government is using. And the government will change. And the country will change. I think mentality should be emphasized. There is a distorted understanding of revolution, as something bloody. Citizen protest doesn't mean that something should be burned, turned over. The main thing is mentality.

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