Q&A: Pyotr Verzilov, political activist and husband of an imprisoned Pussy Riot member

Q&A: Pyotr Verzilov, political activist and husband of an imprisoned Pussy Riot member

As the Sochi Games near, Pyotr Verzilov, a political activist and the husband of a Pussy Riot member who spent two years in a Russian prison, is plotting how to protest his country’s homophobic policies

Q&A with Pytor Verzilov, political activist and husband of imprisoned Pussy Riot member (Image: courtesy Pyotr Verzilov)
 

Your wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, is a founding member of the Russian punk protest band Pussy Riot. She was sentenced to two years for performing “Virgin Mary, Kick Out Putin” in a Moscow church in 2012, and was recently released. What was it like, visiting her in jail?
We had a date in the prison café [in December]. The conditions were a vast improvement over her previous prison, where the inmates worked 18-hour shifts sewing uniforms without medical care or safety supervision. If a needle went through her finger, she had to continue working. If she stopped, she would be beaten.

You have a five-year-old daughter, Gera. What did you tell her while her mom was in jail?
I told her that Nadya’s been fighting the evil guys, and as a result the evil guys locked her up in a special castle. Gera liked to draw elaborate prison escape plans and send them to her.

You have a Canadian passport and spent some years in Toronto as a teenager. What brought you here?
I was a bit of a hooligan growing up in Russia—very into girls and brawls. My parents sent me to live with my relatives in Toronto to cool me down.

What did you think of Toronto?
It was quiet compared to Moscow, but I had no difficulty finding trouble. I drank homemade vodka, called horilka, with my new friends in High Park. Then we’d throw snowballs at police cars and run away.

In 2002, you returned to Moscow for university. Have you kept up with current affairs in Toronto?
The crack scandal made news in ­Russia, and the mayor’s comments about his wife, too.

Our own Pussy Riot, you might say. The coverage of your wife’s band focuses on her, but you’re an accomplished activist yourself. What are some of the sassier stunts you’ve pulled?
At the height of Russia’s economic ­crisis, Voina—an art collective I’m affiliated with—projected a skull and crossbones on the parliament building. We mock-lynched gay activists and migrant workers from Central Asia to highlight the homophobic and xenophobic policies. We staged a punk concert in a Russian courtroom during a trial that tried to indict art performers. We released thousands of ­cockroaches into a courtroom. I had sex with Nadya at a public museum in a stunt to protest then-­president ­Medvedev’s faux presidency.

Were you actually having sex, or just pretending?
It was the full deal. We wanted to liken the physical act of love with porno­graphy and the way democracy compares to the imitation of democracy in Russia.

Any performance anxiety?
A lot, actually.

How many times have you been arrested?
Maybe 50 times.

Do you ever fear for your safety?
If you live in Russia and do the things I do, you get to a point where you become completely fearless. I realize I’m constantly watched by Russia’s special forces and my phone is tapped. I see the same plainclothes officers following me around, and they don’t even try to hide. But if the government staged a violent attack on me, the public would see through it, and that stops them.

What do you hope to achieve?
We want to reform the courts, free the press and overhaul the political system.

We’re hearing a lot of disturbing things about Russia’s homophobic policies as the Sochi Olympics approach. Are the media portrayals accurate?
The coverage might make things seem harsher than they are. If you’re a gay-rights activist, you won’t get thrown in jail or shot. But Russia has basically declared homophobia an ­official policy.

What should Canadian Olympians do in response?
We hope they will find loud ways to make their opposition heard.

The world’s eyes will be focused on Russia. Can we expect more Pussy Riot concerts?
That’s probably a safe assumption.

Your father is a nuclear physicist and your mother is a drama teacher. What do they think of your activism?
My father was okay with everything from the beginning. My mother was skeptical but now understands the significance of what we’re doing and is supportive.

They’re not threatening to ship you to Toronto to straighten you out?
No. That ship sailed long ago.