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The Man Married to Pussy Riot

"Media attention has blown the girls up to the size of Russia's government," said Pyotr Verzilov, husband of 22-year-old Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova, in a Skype chat two weeks ago. This was before a Russian judge sentenced Nadya and bandmates Katya Samutsevich, age 29, and Maria Alyokhina, age 24, to two years in prison. Before Yoko Ono called for his wife's release and the Associated Press cooed at Nadya's "Angelina Jolie lips." Even then, though, Pyotr believed Pussy Riot had "superhero status."

For 40 seconds on February 21, Pussy Riot crashed the services at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Doe eyes fluttering behind neon balaclavas, they pumped their fists in the air and screamed "Mother Mary please drive Putin away." In court, allegedly traumatized onlookers described their actions as "skirt kicking" and "demonic seizing."

“The balaclavas were for anonymity," Pyotr said. "Then they became a symbol. It’s a bright image. People get it easily. No one else looks like that."

But now everyone knows the look. Presented as a music video for their song "Punk Prayer," video of the Pussy Rioters praying and getting hauled out of the cathedral went viral, first in Russia and then all over the world. Followers printed the girls' faces on T-shirts. When Madonna performed in Moscow's Olimpsky Stadium two weeks ago, she did it with PUSSY RIOT painted across her back.

Since then, Pyotr has become the group's de facto spokesperson. He's become an international TV news staple, kept a Pussy Riot trial diary for The Observer, and live-tweeted from the trial. (He broke into all caps when Madonna joined the #FreePussyRiot bandwagon.) "It's amazing," Pyotr marveled. "It does small compensation for them sitting inside that horrible Russian prison in the south of Moscow." He described his wife's prison as resembling "your super-max prisons in the United States."

On March 3, on the eve of the Russian presidential election and subsequent mass protests, federal authorities swarmed and arrested Nadya in front of her husband. Kirill the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church endorsed Putin personally, describing the politician as a "miracle of God." Pyotr believes Putin's relationship with Kirill drove Pussy Riot's prosecution.

In "Punk Prayer," Pussy Riot sings, "The head of the KGB, their chief saint, leads protesters to prison." Nadya quoted that lyric in her closing statement at the trial, in which she argued that Pussy Riot's objective wasn't to "incite hatred," but to protest a corrupt relationship between church and state in Russia.

During our conversation, Pyotr repeatedly brought up Russia's state-controlled television, which in recent months has called Pussy Riot members spies, Satanists, violent Anarchists and deviants. State-controlled television also likes to remind the public that Nadya once took part in a protest “orgy” at a Moscow museum.

That she did. Pyotr and Nadya are members of Russian performance-art group, Voina. You can see Nadya and Pussy Riot member Katya Samutsevich, age 29, force-kissing female police on the subway in Voina’s anti-corruption Kissing Trash video — an action that occurred during a schism in the group, causing some members to condemn the sexed-up subway attack.

Asked whether Pussy Riot is a punk band or performance-art group, Pyotr replied, "Both."

"The concept of blurring the lines is important," Pyotr replied.

Ten minutes into our Skype chat, his phone buzzed. "I'm sorry— wow— I just got a text message that Marc Almond is supporting Pussy Riot," he said, referring to the British musician and member of New Wave duo Soft Cell. "Mention it when you write."

Copyright © 2013, New York Media LLC. All Rights Reserved. The Cut® are registered trademarks of New York Media LLC.

Copyright © 2013, New York Media LLC.
All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © 2013, New York Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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