Is Pussy Riot Breaking Up?

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Something’s rotten in the state of Pussy Riot. Yes, there was some good news today: Ekaterina Samutsevich, the oldest and quietest member of the jailed trio, was released from jail today after her sentence was reduced to probation. When the appellate judge read out the changed verdict, Samutsevich whooped and her two bandmates, who will now depart to do two years of hard time in a distant penal colony, hugged her. They were all smiles and cheers. But don’t let that fool you. Pussy Riot isn’t well. 

For one thing, the appeal was only heard today because it was postponed last week when Samutsevich suddenly asked for a new lawyer for herself. Before, during and after their August trial, the three young women were being represented by three lawyers who were more political activists than classic attorneys: they seemed to have given up before the trial had even begun. Instead of lawyering, they tweeted. Instead of trying to force the court, which wouldn’t allow a single defense witness, back into the strictures of legal procedure, they went for theatrics. At one point, for example, lawyer Violetta VolkovaSamutsevich’s original lawyerhad worked herself into such a tizzy that she stormed out of the courtroom without asking the judge’s permission, forcing the court to call her an ambulance.

But it’s hard to really blame Volkova and her colleagues: It’s not like the court was letting the lawyers do much of anything anyway. The verdict was known before it was read, and before the trial started.

Moreover, Samutsevich’s sudden change of heart was not so sudden: It was the result of a slow drip of pressure from the state. One evening after yet another marathon trial day, Samutsevich’s father, a soft-spoken, unhappy-looking man with gray hair and old glasses, told me that before the trial started, his daughter was being visited by a man from the civic committee that oversees the prison system. The man, thought by the other committee members to be a government mole, would visit Samutsevich and tell her that Volkova did not have her interests at heart, and that she should consider getting another lawyer.

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Samutsevich resisted, and stayed with the Pussy Riot team. But the Samutsevich family has long been a weak link in Pussy Riot’s effort to maintain solidarity. Samutsevich’s father actually testified for the plaintiffs in the original trial. When he was first questioned in the case, an investigator apparently hinted that he could help his daughter, and, as a result of his affidavit, the plaintiff decided to call him as a witnesswhich came as a shock to Mr. Samutsevich. Taking the stand, he hinted that one of the other defendants, Nadia Tolokonnikova, was responsible for corrupting his daughter. He said that after his daughter started hanging out with Tolokonnikova she became “zombified” and that she stopped sharing her inner world with him; he no longer recognized his grown child. 

In the two months since the Pussy Riot conviction, other cracks have started to show. Tolokonnikova lashed out at Peter Verzilov, her (now platonic) husband and co-founder of Pussy Riot, for trying to cash in on the group’s (now international) fame. (A heart-rending episode of the documentary “Srok” showed Verzilov touring the United States with the couple’s young daughter, Hera. As Verzilov sails through the media appearances and awards ceremonies, Hera is left largely unattended. In one scene, she looks out the hotel room window and searches for an explanation for why “Petya” is still not home.)

And, now that Samutsevich is out, Pussy Riot’s supporters–including the many opposition journalists they expended energy courting– have turned against the group’s original lawyers. Samustevich’s new lawyer, a pretty, middle-aged corporate blonde who cuts a striking comparison with the obese and histrionic Volkova, is praised as a hero. If only Pussy Riot had employed her all along, the thinking goes, this never would have happened.

This is, at best, a collective delusion, a desperate and groundless gasp of retrospective regret. The fact is that legal redemption has never really been possible for Pussy Riot. Consider this: at the appellate hearing, Samutsevich’s lawyer made the case that her client had not actually participated in the “hooliganism” of which the three Pussy Riot members were convicted in August. She had been pounced on by security guards and thus prevented from getting to the altar to kick and punch in a manner provocative to God. The implication, therefore, is that there was a crime committedsomething that the original defense team never concededand that Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were guilty of it. Samutsevich’s new lawyer did a good job, narrowly defined: she got her client off. But she also broke up the group’s unity and blocked off the one path to redemption that the group actually had: ignoring the court’s proceedings and denying its legitimacy. As prominent Russian journalist (and close friend) Tikhon Dzyadko noted in a Facebook post after Samutsevich walked out of the courtroom and into a throng of cameras, “There is no independent judicial system in Russia, especially in such cases. Therefore, today’s court decision can be said to be about anything except about the actual issue before the court. And that means that it doesn’t matter which lawyer did the defending.”

Samustevich’s release, in other words, was a simple application of a classic technique: divide and conquer. The state has not had a change of heartover the weekend, Putin told a reporter for state-owned television that the girls “got what they wanted”and Samutsevich is no more innocent or guilty than Tolokonnikova or Maria Alekhina, the third and most vocal defendant. They were all wearing balaclavas when they performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and the plaintiffs in no way provedor really tried tothat the identity of the women in the balaclavas was the same as that of those sitting in the courtroom “fish tank.” Nor did they try to link those specific women in the “fish tank” to any of the unrepeatable things said on that altar that had so offended God and “the entire Christian world.” If the state has made it look like Pussy Riot is breaking apart, it’s not because the judicial system has revealed any nuances in how the group functioned. It merely found the group's weakest link, loosened it, and popped it right out, breaking the chain and trying to catalyze its collapse and decline.

In a surprise twist, and perhaps reacting to the outside pressure to splinter, the group seems to be pulling back together and at least temporarily putting aside their differences. There were the hugs in the fish tank, then, for the rest of the evening, Verzilov drove Samutsevich around to various television appearances. (Her first, tellingly, was on CNN.) One can peer into the near future and see a Samutsevich media and legal blitz–she’s planning on taking her case to the European Court of Human Rights – in part on behalf of her jailed bandmates.

Or not. The Kremlin tried to accomplish something clever today, and, at least temporarily, achieved the opposite. But perhaps it’s just a hiccup: what fame started, fame will finish.

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