Artist and Pussy Riot member describes how he joined Ukrainian armed forces in fight against Russia

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The Russian-Canadian artist and member of the protest-art group Pussy Riot Pyotr Verzilov has revealed that he is fighting with Ukraine’s armed forces against Russia, saying in a YouTube interview with a prominent Russian dissident journalist: “I had to do my best to defend Ukraine from the illegal aggression”.

Verzilov, told the Russian journalist Yuri Dud that he went to Ukraine days after the invasion last year with his “close friend” Beau Willimon, a showrunner on the Netflix series House of Cardsto document Russia’s attacks. In April 2022 Verzilov reported from Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv where Russian forces killed civilians after invading Ukraine on 24 February, and in May he accompanied the wives of captured Ukrainian Azov Regiment fighters to meet with Pope Francis in Rome.

Verzilov was previously in a relationship with Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of Pussy Riot, whose 2012 “punk prayer” performance against Vladimir Putin at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral led to her and fellow Pussy Riot activists Yekaterina Samutsevich and Masha Alekhina being imprisoned for two years.

Verzilov was until recently the publisher of Mediazona, a human rights-focused news site that was founded by Tolokonnikova and Alekhina after their release from jail. Mediazona was declared a “foreign agent” by Russia’s justice ministry in 2021. The journalist Yuri Dud was also declared a foreign agent in 2022, after the invasion, and has left Russia.

Verzilov’s interview with Dud, which was posted on 5 October and has had millions of views, was filmed at Verzilov’s request on Saaremaa, an Estonian island where he helps to organise Kamchatka, a Russian-founded creative camp for children. He said the remote setting reminds him of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Sacrifice, a warning against nuclear war.

Verzilov also spoke of the profound impact of the Bucha massacre on the public’s understanding of the conflict. “Probably the main photographs of this war are the photographs of murdered civilians of Bucha on the main streets of Bucha with their hands tied,” he told Dud. “And these are now probably among the most important images of world history, not just of this war. Images describing Russia, the Russian state, the Russian army [that will be a historical record] of what took place on Earth in our day.”

The interview includes footage of him in the trenches, fighting against Russia’s Wagner private army. After the interview aired, Verzilov announced via X, formerly known as Twitter, that he is resigning as publisher of Mediazona to ensure its objectivity.

Verzilov, who was previously a member of the performance art activist group Voina, has continued to engage in high-profile activism in recent years. In July 2018, him and his girlfriend Nikulshina ran onto the field in police uniform during the Fifi World Cup final in Moscow, attended by Putin. He has been repeatedly detained by police in Russia.

In September 2018, Verzilov fell seriously ill and German doctors in Berlin who treated him said he had likely been poisoned.

The first major museum retrospective of Pussy Riot’s work, curated by Alekhina, opened at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern art last month (until 14 January, 2024).

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