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Cockroaches And Mock Executions: Stricken Russian Activist Has Long Record Of Audacious Stunts


Pyotr Verzilov, the Russian activist hospitalized with what friends suspect are symptoms of a poisoning, emerged from the underground art collective Voina and played a key role in high-profile political protests. He's shown here in a Moscow court on July 23 during his sentencing for a World Cup football stunt.

Pyotr Verzilov, the Russian activist hospitalized with what his friends fear are symptoms of poisoning, has played a key role in audacious and high-profile political protests in Russia over the past decade and drawn international attention for his involvement in the punk art group Pussy Riot.

While far from a household name in Russia, the 30-year-old former philosophy student is a well-known figure on Russia’s political scene and the publisher of Mediazona, an independent news site founded by Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova that covers Russia’s criminal justice system.

Verzilov participated in some of the most notorious political stunts by the underground performance art collective Voina (War), which eventually split up amid infighting. These included an orgy staged in a government museum to mock President Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in 2008.

Verzilov (right) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova prepare a migrant worker for a mock execution in September 2008.
Verzilov (right) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova prepare a migrant worker for a mock execution in September 2008.

After Pussy Riot members Yekaterina Samutsevich, Alyokhina, and Tolokonnikova -- Verzilov’s then-wife with whom he has a daughter -- were convicted in 2012 for performing a “punk prayer” against Putin and the Russian Orthodox leadership in Moscow’s main cathedral, Verzilov became a public face for the group.

In that role, which at one point prompted Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina to denounce him as a usurper of Pussy Riot’s name, Verzilov accepted an award on the group’s behalf from Yoko Ono.

Verzilov is chased by a steward after he and other Pussy Riot members -- dressed in police uniforms -- ran onto the pitch during the World Cup final in Moscow on July 15.
Verzilov is chased by a steward after he and other Pussy Riot members -- dressed in police uniforms -- ran onto the pitch during the World Cup final in Moscow on July 15.

Together with Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, following their release from prison, Verzilov held meetings in the United States in 2014 with U.S. officials, including one with U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power that was mocked by the Russian government.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power (left) meets with Verzilov (right) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (second from right) and Maria Alyokhina in 2014.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power (left) meets with Verzilov (right) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (second from right) and Maria Alyokhina in 2014.

A year later, the three appeared as themselves in a cameo on the popular U.S. political drama House Of Cards.

Verzilov recently returned to his political stunts in July, when he and three Pussy Riot activists ran onto the pitch of the World Cup final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium that was attended by Putin and beamed around the world.

All four, who wore police uniforms during the stunt to protest torture by police and prison authorities, were fined and jailed for 15 days.

The goal of the protest was “to show how the Russian government, in the form of law enforcement authorities, can illegally burst into the everyday lives of Russian citizens,” Verzilov told reporters in court:

Verzilov and the other three were all rearrested immediately upon their release after serving their 15-day sentences and informed that they faced additional charges.

Here’s a look at some of the best-known political stunts, protests, and performance-art pieces Verzilov has participated in:

'F*** For The Little Successor'

In February 2008, just days before Medvedev’s election, several members of Voina -- including Verzilov and Tolokonnikova -- stripped and staged an orgy at the Timiryazev State Biological Museum in Moscow. During the stunt, two activists held a sign reading “F*** For The Little Bear Cub Successor" -- a pun on Medvedev’s last name, which is derived from the Russian word for “bear.”

Tolokonnikova later said of the performance that Putin had presented the country with a fait accompli by picking “a politician whom no one knew at the time” to be Russia’s next president.

“At that moment, they truly did screw the country. We portrayed this as best we could, using the traditions of modern art,” she said.

'Cockroaches In Your Head'

In July 2010, as a Moscow court was preparing to read a verdict convicting two Russian curators of inciting religious hatred with an exhibit combining pop culture and religious imagery, Verzilov burst into the courthouse and released what Russian press reports called “thousands” of cockroaches from a bag.

As security officers wrestled Verzilov out of the building, he said there were “1,500 cockroaches” upstairs showing that “you all have cockroaches in your head” -- a Russian idiom meaning someone is “crazy” or “has a screw loose.”

Yury Samodurov, one of the curators who was convicted and fined but not jailed, said he did not appreciate the stunt.

“You can’t do that,” he was quoted as saying in the Russian media. “People interested in our case weren’t the only ones in court. There were those who had their own court cases. Why do they need these cockroaches?”

Cossack Olympic Whipping

During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s southern city of Sochi, men identifying themselves as Cossacks attacked -- including with whips -- Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and other Pussy Riot members after the group began performing an anti-Putin song.

Verzilov was also roughed up by a man in Cossack-style garb during the incident, which prompted a senior Russian official to accuse the activists of coming to Sochi “specifically to provoke this conflict.”

Verzilov said afterward that he was taken to the hospital with eye injuries due to pepper spray.

Mock Execution

In September 2008, Verzilov and other Voina members staged a mock execution of migrant workers and sexual minorities at a big shopping center on the outskirts of Moscow.

The performance was aimed at highlighting racism and homophobia in Russia.

Putin himself later delivered a convoluted portrayal of the stunt. Speaking alongside Angela Merkel in 2012 after the German chancellor raised the issue of the Pussy Riot protesters' rights, Putin falsely suggested that the performance had featured a mock execution of a Jew and demonstrated anti-Semitism by the artists.

The “chancellor mentioned the young women who are in prison for a performance in a church. Does she know that before that, one of them hung an effigy of a Jew and said Moscow needs to get rid of such people?” Putin said.

“We cannot support people who take an anti-Semitic position,” Putin added.

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