Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Pyotr Verzilov, husband of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, in Moscow, Dec. 1, 2013. He has dual Russian-Canadian citizenship; Ms. Tolokonnikova was granted permanent-resident status before her arrest. He says he is disappointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s silence regarding his wife’s treatment. (Olga Kravets for The Globe and Mail)
Pyotr Verzilov, husband of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, in Moscow, Dec. 1, 2013. He has dual Russian-Canadian citizenship; Ms. Tolokonnikova was granted permanent-resident status before her arrest. He says he is disappointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s silence regarding his wife’s treatment. (Olga Kravets for The Globe and Mail)

Mark MacKinnon

Sochi spotlight energizes campaign for Pussy Riot prisoners Add to ...

Pyotr Verzilov’s eyes gleam with pride when he discusses the fame achieved by his wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “They say that internationally, she’s the second [best-known] person in Russia, after Putin!” he says, smiling.

The triumphalism might seem out of place for someone whose spouse – the leader of the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot – is currently serving time in Siberia. Ms. Tolokonnikova has been in jail, convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” since a 2012 Pussy Riot performance in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral during which members of the band climbed on the altar and shouted a song calling for the Virgin Mary to help rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin.

More Related to this Story

Since then, Ms. Tolokonnikova’s treatment has made global headlines, thanks to a letter she smuggled out criticizing the conditions inside Penal Colony No. 14 in the isolated Russian republic of Mordovia. “The hygienic and residential conditions of the camp are calculated to make the prisoner feel like a filthy animal without any rights,” she wrote in September.

But Mr. Verzilov – a Russian-Canadian dual citizen who spent three years in Toronto as a teenager – believes things are finally going the couple’s way. International attention led to Ms. Tolokonnikova being transferred from Mordovia to more comfortable conditions in a prison hospital in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where Mr. Verzilov was recently allowed to visit his wife for the first time since her incarceration.

And with the eyes of the world on Russia ahead of next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, there’s pressure on Mr. Putin to include Ms. Tolokonnikova and the other jailed bandmate, Maria Alyokhina, on a list of “political prisoners” to be amnestied Dec. 12 to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of Russia’s post-Soviet constitution. Hopes are rising that Mr. Putin will do just that, if only to avoid having to discuss the Pussy Riot case in Sochi.

“Obviously, it would be good for Putin to release her, because it would be an awkward situation [for Putin] if Nadya is in jail for the Olympics,” Mr. Verzilov said, using the diminutive form of his wife’s first name.

The Sochi Games run from Feb. 7 to 23. Ms. Tolokonnikova’s two-year sentence would normally expire March 3.

Mr. Verzilov said his wife at this point doesn’t care much whether she’s released in one month or three. After some minor health problems in Mordovia, she is doing better now that she has been transferred.

“She’s doing fairly well. Much better than she was in Mordovia,” Mr. Verzilov said of his visit two weeks ago with Ms. Tolokonniva, who recently turned 24. He said the international attention had meant that prison authorities were now treating the punk singer better than other inmates. “They’re really afraid something will happen to her.”

The couple’s Canadian connection – Ms. Tolokonnikova gained permanent resident status shortly before her arrest – has only caused them trouble, however. Ms. Tolokonnikova’s residency card and Ontario health card were held up by prosecutors and shown on Russian state television as proof of her involvement in a foreign plot to stir unrest in Russia.

Mr. Verzilov’s own Canadian passport was also repeatedly mentioned by the judge that convicted his wife. “They wanted to show ‘these are foreign spies planted here to cause trouble,’” Mr. Verzilov said, shaking his head at the memory. The couple has a five-year-old daughter.

Given the Canadian link to the case, Mr. Verzilov, 26, said he is disappointed with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s silence regarding the treatment of Pussy Riot. “Chancellor [Angela] Merkel [of Germany] spoke out, [former U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton spoke out, but no high-placed Canadian official ever said anything. This was a huge surprise.”

Mr. Verzilov has played a sometimes controversial role in Pussy Riot’s rise to prominence. The shock artist helped shape the band’s angry, mask-wearing style – he says the provocative name was Ms. Tolokonnikova’s idea – and he remains part of the band’s “creative circle” of about 20 people. However, he has been criticized by Pussy Riot members for too often claiming to speak on behalf of a feminist punk collective.

Mr. Verzilov says the band “thought about the consequences” before going ahead with the controversial protest in Christ the Saviour Cathedral, but they were nonetheless surprised by the severity of the sentences Ms. Tolokonnikova and Ms. Alyokhina received. Still, Mr. Verzilov says prison has only made his wife more convinced of the need to battle Mr. Putin’s “dictatorship.”

Mr. Verzilov said he and Ms. Tolokonnikova are fond of Canada, and will visit again in the future, but for now their future and their fight is in Russia. “We’d rather have Putin and his rich friends leave, and leave Russia to us. We’d like to make them leave.”

 

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories