Pussy Riot’s Pyotr Verzilov: No criminal justice system in Russia | Europe

This interview took place on September 10 at Basmanny Court in Moscow and September 11 at a cafe nearby the courthouse. Verzilov fell ill late on September 11. Pussy Riot believes Verzilov was poisoned. He remains hospitalised.

Moscow, Russia – Sitting in the corridor of Basmanny Court, Pyotr Verzilov, “a member of Pussy riot” as he prefers to call himself, looks self-assured.

He is waiting for Veronika Nikulshina, another member of the punk-feminist band and his current girlfriend.

Both of them invaded the Luzhniki stadium pitch during the World Cup final in Moscow.

He is smartly dressed in a navy blazer, white t-shirt, and Nikes. 

It is stifling inside the building but the atmosphere among those gathered to support Nikulshina is relaxed and casual. 

Verzilov, with his piercing blue eyes and wide smile, affectionately entertains the group of mostly young women.

He shows them videos of a recent opposition protest and Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ad on his phone, explaining the context behind them.

There’s no criminal justice system here. In any democratic country the main criteria of criminal justice system is its independence.

Pyotr Verzilov, Pussy Riot activist

No photography is allowed in the court building, but someone manages to surreptitiously take a picture of him. Minutes later it pops up on Verzilov’s Twitter feed. 

There, he goes by @gruppa_voina.

Voina was a political performance art group which gained popularity in the mid 2000s in Russia, before internal conflict caused it to disband.

Verzilov was a founding member. He showed interest in contemporary art before studying philosophy at university. Over time, he became acquainted with artists by attending exhibits and social events.

“It’s a small circle and you can get to know everyone if you really want,” said Verzilov. 

This is how, in 2007 he met Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who became his wife (they are now separated), Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol – also a married couple. Together they started Voina, an art band that would shape the minds of discontented youth in Russia.

“It was 2007 and the era of the fat, rich 00s was coming to an end. Art was very commercial in its form and we were very upset about that because we believed that Russia had great traditions of conceptual art in the 70s and 80s, and of art actionists (performance artists) in the 90s. They were not political activists but were talking about freedom at a street level and in a very impudent manner, about the things we considered to be important.

“We created a new genre, political actionism, which in some way inherited some of the achievements of Russian actionism of the 90s but underlined the political aspect.”



Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the female punk band Pussy Riot, was handed a two-year prison term for performing a song against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral [File: AFP]

In three short years, by 2010, Voina was the most well-known art group in Russia.

It had under its belt dozens of extravagant political performances, arrests and expressions of opposing views to the current political leadership in Russia.

“It was brazen visual art based on intervention in city space with the involvement of huge number of activists and collaboration with media.”

But after several disagreements between the members, the group split.

“They were years of happiness. We were very young, I was 20-21 and we managed to do big, important things that were socially impactful. I am very proud and happy, and feel great that I was able to find myself at such a young age and do something that seemed to be the only right thing to do.” 

As Voina was collapsing, Verzilov turned his focus to creating Pussy Riot. 

In 2011, before protests that gathered tens of thousands of people in the streets of Moscow, he said he already felt that a “spectre was haunting society”.

“There was a patriarchal, macho image of the Russian regime which wasn’t there when we started Voina” and so in retaliation, the image Pussy Riot manifested was of punk feminism.

“We wanted to add a new twist to Russian art. To create an image of heroic, anonymous collective that can fearlessly speak from opposite ideological values than the regime. That can talk about it shamelessly.” 

The birth of Pussy Riot coincided with a rise of civic activity and discontent, and so captured imaginations with provocative performances.

The one that shot the group to fame was at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

The band performed a song filled with expletives, criticising the Orthodox Church’s support for Russian President Vladimir Putin – resulting in two members being imprisoned, including Verzilov’s then wife Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

Back at the courthouse in Moscow, Veronika Nikulshina’s lawyer appears to tell the group that the trial has been postponed and that she’ll have to spend another night in detention. 

According to Verzilov, it’s revenge for their World Cup stunt.

He is unsurprised. As an activist he has been detained and arrested dozens of times. 

With his decade-long struggle with the Russian criminal justice system, he launched Mediazona, a website focused on activism.

“The attention that we managed to attract during the Pussy Riot trial, we decided to save and further develop by creating a new media platform that would cover courts, police, prisons and everything that happens in law enforcement sphere,” said Verzilov.

“There’s no criminal justice system here. In any democratic country the main criteria of criminal justice system is its independence. In Russia, it is just the department of internal affairs of the president’s administration which follows the orders of these or that people in power.

“We haven’t seen any decisions that were contradicting the interests of power, although that’s the true meaning of the criminal justice system. Our goal is to … show what’s wrong and how you can fight it.”



Pussy Riot members receive a special award during the 1Live Crown Awards 2012 in the Centennial Hall in Bochum, Germany, in December, 2012 [Henning Kaiser/EPA]

The next day, it was drizzling in Moscow.

Verzilov arrived late to a cafe near the Basmanny court. He had been delivering food to the women in detention at the police station. 

He looked fresh despite a difficult night. He said he slept at 3am.

He spoke about his future plans, vague ideas of filmmaking and an investigation into the recent killing of his friend – journalist and filmmaker Alexander Rastorguev. 

After the interview, he returned to the court building.

A few hours later, Verzilov was hospitalised in the toxicology wing of intensive care for suspected poisoning, with his vision, speech and movement severely compromised.

At the time of writing, his condition had not improved.


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