Pyotr Verzilov ‘Poisoning’: Can You Trust This Guy?

Pyotr Verzilov, member of Voina and recently divorced husband of Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was (most likely) poisoned in a “non life threatening” manner and transported from Russia to Berlin, giving the Russian-Canadian artist a striking public parallel in the press with the notable poisonings of dissident figures like Alexander Litvinenko, Vladimir Kara Murza, and Sergei Skripal. No doubt this will have a lot of media trying to interview him, give him attention, etc.

However, I still advise caution about Verzilov who is noted by members of his former art group Voina as a “dexterous deceiver” “occupied with self-promotion”; and is accused of ratting out several members of the group to police, as well as subverting other anarchist-dissident movements. This could easily be a ploy for sympathy or relevance; as much as it could be some kind of Russian intelligence ruse; or even the work of an honest Russian nationalist who doesn’t get that Verzilov is possibly ‘one of their boys’.

Boris and Natasha? Pyotr and Nadezhda?

  1. Verzilov, according to statements made by the ‘real’ Voina in 2010-2011 which is before the Pussy Riot controversy – was a “police stooge”, “plagiarist and provoker” who in 2009 “ratted out [Ukrainian dissident artist] Alexander Volodarsky, who was then detained for two months in prison and … sentenced to one year in a colony” and “also tried to rat [Voina members] Oleg [Vorotnikov] and Natalia [Sokol] out to the police.” Verzilov and Tolokonnikova were kicked out of the group in 2009 for these reasons; but they still continued to use the name of the group — forming two disputed ‘factions’ from the ‘schism’ – a ‘St. Petersburg Faction’ led by Vorotnikov (the ‘real’ or ‘original’ group), and a ‘Moscow Faction’ associated with Verzilov and Tolokonnikova.
    • Verzilov still appropriates the name of the group in a way the ‘original’ members find disagreeable, and even claimed as of 2011 to be the leader of the entire group in public. As the reporting on Verzilov’s poisoning shows, Western media associates him as a legitimate representative of both Pussy Riot and Voina.
  2. Verzilov may have intentionally misinformed the public about the detention location of Voina members after their arrest which caused all of the aid and legal support to go to the wrong location.
  3. Later, according to Voina members, “Verzilov published statements on behalf of the group calling for, among other things, Putin’s assassination”, despite knowing the Voina Twitter account operated by Verzilov was monitored by Russian police; and “Verzilov’s Live Journal blog has been used to discredit the group by publishing fake news about Voina actions that never happened.” Including making extreme anti-feminist comments which the group does not support. This not only diminished public support for the group but increased the risk of compounding criminal charges for the Voina members.
  4. Verzilov is accused of leaving his cell phone on when he was asked to turn it off which is assumed to have compromised the security of sensitive Voina group discussions and meetings; and he may even have recorded them.
  5. The group claims that Verzilov and Tolokonnikova broke into the Voina storage and stole their ‘archives’, as well as stole user names and passwords for websites, and appropriated other art which was developed by Voina as their own. Shortly afterward, in November 2010, Voina was raided by the anti-extremist / political police force called ‘Center E‘.
  6. Verzilov recorded the faces of anarchist protesters after identifying himself as a member of Voina and telling the protesters he would not record their identities. He then uploaded the video to the internet crediting Voina which caused a lot of “hatred toward” the group.
  7. Verzilov was involved in the US marketing of the Pussy Riot detention to Madonna; and in the UK to figures like Banksy (also connected to Voina) who later collaborated with the Tolokonnikoiva-led Pussy Riot on ‘Dismaland’. At first, this art campaign which was ostensibly in response to Russian authoritarianism had the appearance of humanitarian relief and support of human rights; but over time, the campaign has come to resemble other aspects of Russian information war in many respects.  (However some might even argue it was the Russian state which gave the band their global platform.)
A(n) RT (kind of) WAR: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Pyotr Verzilov (paid actors?)

Based on these accounts, apparently most of Verzilov’s accomplishments as a ‘dissident’ prior to the 2012 Pussy Riot scandal involved the infiltration, public cooptation and subversion of the Voina group; and he has largely been able to operate as a provocateur in Russia over the years (even managing to get into the World Cup to cause a scene).

It seems unfortunate to consider that Verzilov’s past inconsistencies with Voina and the police have been too easily forgotten – not to mention the ‘business model’ of his ex-wife which seems quite similar and perhaps more transparently in line with Russian information war objectives. Both of them seem to have ‘taken over’ these art groups which they are no longer officially involved in. The first hand accounts and evidence is transparently out there.

One can wonder – fairly, I think; based on this Voina controversy all occurring beforehand in 2009 – 2011, if Pussy Riot (particularly the Tolokonnikova-led variant) is version 2.0 of this (‘Center E’-like?) model as has been employed by Verzilov to create a name for himself as a dissident, while apparently cooperating with police and subverting actual dissidents simultaneously?

In such a scenario, Tolokonnikova’s Pussy Riot might be employed toward a more Western/external strategic campaign of political subversion as opposed to a Russian domestic/internal one as Verzilov finds himself consistently involved in. The highly publicized incarceration and trial of the group members provided the legitimacy for Pussy Riot in the Western media, so why not the same for a Verzilov ‘poisoning’? (It’s not like the Russian government prevented Verzilov from leaving or anything.)

Although Voina had surprisingly been accepted by the Russian establishment initially, perhaps the thefts of property, etc. laid the groundwork for the group to be neutralized as a real political threat, while still allowing figures like Verzilov to represent the group in  ‘name alone’ in a way which has political advantages for the Russian government; using the name recognition to support subversion of other anarchist-radical movements.

Making a scene for the cameras (WSJ)

Of course, there is the risk I am simply confirming my existing biases by excluding evidence he was in fact poisoned; but I think this could easily be a ruse. Pyotr Verzilov does not seem like a man worthy of trust.

Main References:

Police stooge Pyotr Verzilov is trying to put Voina in prison for life; Dec 31 2010

Russia’s Art War – An Interview with Voina; Apr 4 2011

The Voina Group: “P. Verzilov and N. Tolokonnikova are provokers, who pass themselves off as the Voina Group”; October 13, 2011