Yekaterina Samutsevich is striding across Moscow’s Patriarch Bridge. Behind her is the city’s Christ the Saviour cathedral, where her band Pussy Riot sang a 45-second song that landed Samutsevich in six months of pre-trial detention and two of the other members in prison. To Samutsevich’s left is the Kremlin.
“Look,” deadpans her friend Natasha, pointing at the iconic red fortress, “it’s your office.” They erupt with laughter.
Pussy Riot shot to fame for their guerrilla performances of songs such as “Holy Mary, Blessed Virgin, drive [Vladimir] Putin away”, and their biting criticism of Russia’s leader, ahead of Putin’s return to the presidency in May. But Samutsevich is now fighting claims that she sold out to the government in order to be freed at the band’s appeal hearing in October, and is a secret Kremlin stooge. The ruling in her favour came after she parted company with the band’s opposition-minded lawyers, whom she says appeared more interested in politics than getting the women out of jail. With her new legal team came a new defence: Samutsevich could not be guilty as she had been detained by church security before the band’s performance actually began.
The turnaround of events has thrust Samutsevich, the quietest of the three, out of a Moscow detention cell and into a whirlwind of media appearances, legal fights and publicly aired personal dramas, while her two bandmates, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, serve out two-year sentences in penal colonies.
If Samutsevich is exhausted from all the attention and daily demands, she doesn’t show it. Dressed in jeans, trainers and a pink hooded sweatshirt – the same outfit she has been wearing all week – she barely pauses for breath as she runs through all the court cases she’s involved in, and the latest in her tit-for-tat with her ex-legal team.
As we are meeting, a Moscow judge is about to decide whether three of Pussy Riot’s music videos qualify as extremist and should therefore be removed from the internet. More importantly for Samutsevich, she will soon take her case – and the guilty verdict for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” – to the European Court of Human Rights.
“Our lawyer, who has experience with the European court, says we have a good chance,” Samutsevich says breathlessly. “The European court doesn’t just look at the court case but the conditions in which the court case took place.”
The conditions, Samutsevich explains, include everything from the fact the women were forced to sit through marathon court sessions without food and water or the chance to converse with their lawyers to the context of the performance itself. Samutsevich admits that some Orthodox believers were offended when the Pussy Riot women stripped down to brightly coloured outfits and blasted their obscenity-laden anti-Putin song inside the church. But she stresses that the band hoped to expose the Church’s dubious role in Putin’s pre-election campaign. She says that Christ the Saviour itself had become a political stage due to the regular appearances at the cathedral by Putin and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.
“The prosecution was talking the whole time about how we disturbed the peace and humiliated believers, but no one asked why we did this and in what context this was done,” Samutsevich says.
Talking with Samutsevich it is hard to believe that this is one of the women who have generated so much publicity in the west, and so much hatred inside Russia. She is 30, but looks much younger. Most photographs catch her stony-faced or scowling, but in person she is quick to laugh and unassuming.
A Moscow-born computer scientist-turned-artist, Samutsevich met Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina through the performance art group Voina, which was notorious for stunts such as painting a 200ft penis on a St Petersburg drawbridge. In autumn 2011, the three founded Pussy Riot along with at least seven other women whose identities still remain secret.
Their punk band is typically painted as a fringe group of the nascent Moscow opposition movement, which has come to the fore over the past year. Yet Samutsevich is quick to clarify that it is first and foremost a feminist group that draws on the traditions of the feminist punk movement, which originated in the US in the 1990s, and Russia’s more complicated history of feminism which dates back to pre-revolutionary Russia.
“Russian feminism had a very big role in the January revolution [of 1905] and influenced the revolution quite significantly,” she explains. While the early feminists made gains against alcoholism and other social problems, the movement largely died out during the Stalinist era. Instead a new Soviet ideal emerged, in which women were expected to both manage the home and hold a full-time job, a model that remains to this day, Samutsevich says.
“In society now there is the feeling that everything is fine because women have the right to work. They work – they should work – but they should also take care of their families.”
It is Pussy Riot’s particular accent on feminism, and their self-identification as artists rather than political activists, which explains why the band members have not always gelled with the other stars of the Moscow opposition – and also the recent friction with the legal team. Samutsevich expresses disappointment that certain male leaders have begun to speak on behalf of the diverse group of citizens that make up the opposition movement. She argues that forcing all the factions to coalesce behind Alexei Navalny, the popular anti-corruption crusader-turned-opposition leader, would be no better than having “a second Putin”, noting that Navalny even has the same “machismo image”.
She is similarly critical of the band’s former defence lawyers who, she says, appeared more interested in turning the Pussy Riot trial into a political stunt. “Everything about the process looked wild from the very beginning,” she says, referring to the defence team, which spent parts of the trial alternately screaming and interrupting or live-tweeting the court proceedings.
“Our lawyers for some reason decided that their speeches should be about their strong political positions, about what had been going on in the country … about anything but us,” she says. “A lot of lawyers say we could have defended ourselves better.”
Samutsevich says Pussy Riot’s performances are currently on hold while she and the other members concentrate on getting Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina out of prison. “These people are your girlfriends, your friends – they’re not just some people you met a couple of times. You want to spend all your time on making sure they get freed.”
But she says that once the group is reunited they will continue performing. “A lot of people have said maybe you should change the form, and do everything legally,” she says. “No – naturally that won’t happen … We suffered so much for what we did. It would be strange if we changed everything.”
Given the chance, would Samutsevich perform the stunt in Christ the Saviour all over again? The short answer is yes – although ideally skipping the prison time and everything that came after.
She denies that the band had wanted to be sacrificial victims, as her ex-lawyers claim. “We didn’t want to be victims at all. If we’d wanted to be in jail we would have done everything to get there from our very first performance.” Going to a Russian prison on purpose would be “crazy masochism”, she says. “I wouldn’t advise any artist to go to prison – even for self-promotion.”
Courtney Weaver is the FT’s Moscow correspondent
Women of 2012