Safe World for Women Logo

Maria Stambler (l) and Pussy Riot lawyer Violetta Volkova in Moscow  19.08.2012  Maria Stambler (l) and Pussy Riot lawyer Violetta Volkova in Moscow Photo: ©Safeworld

Exclusive interview by Maria Stambler, Russia Correspondent for Safe World. August 2012.

In the second part of an interview, Pussy Riot lawyer, Violetta Volkova, talks to Maria Stambler about her life and work.

Pussy Riot lawyer, Violetta Volkova, met with Maria Stambler in Moscow, two days after the high profile sentencing of three of the members of the Russian band.

 

How did you get into a career in law?

I started doing law about 20 years ago, and 1991 I got into the Law Academy. I studied there for five years, and also worked part-time because otherwise it was impossible to get any kind of practical work at then time. Then I started working in defense authorities, and then for one of the most well-known social organizations in Russia at that time. For the past ten years I have been working in the law cabinet in my area of residence outside of Moscow.

You can't say that Lawyers can be divided into politically-motivated ones, and ones that cover other areas of law. No, one can come to the political side absolutely gradually. First you start with commercially-related law and then you understand that there are certain areas where citizens are not protected by their government. Actually, there are areas where the government itself infringes on the rights of its citizens. So that's how you start doing the kinds of things I'm doing now. So now it appears that my efforts, and the efforts of my colleagues, are mainly centered on political issues because these are the issues that, at the moment, exemplify how exactly human rights are violated in Russia.

For the past eight months I have been working on political defense almost non-stop, and I think quite successfully. Most of the cases we lose, of course, but the point is that through our efforts they are brought to some sort of logical conclusion.

The way the Russian government deals with citizens who are politically active, and take part in the protest movement, means its necessary to have proper defense for these citizens. If there is no defense, these citizens will be given even less of a fair trial. We can at least control - to a small extent - the human rights violations committed by the government.

I believe that with time situation will improve, and so it is necessary to get practice in this field now so that more and more lawyers would take part in human rights law in the future. Everything has its place and time, and for us it's only the beginning.

You have been targeted by the government before for taking on the cases of oppositional figures so how safe is it for you to have been defending Pussy Riot?

You know, it's absolutely not safe. We understand that we face very serious risks, professional risks especially, because obviously the government will not let us be and do our jobs.

The government sees a big risk coming from lawyers that gain high publicity from cases like the Pussy Riot one because we make society condemn its actions.

When it all began, for example, certain ratings agencies estimated that 38% of the citizens supported the girls, and now it's over 90%.

This happened to a large extent thanks to the work of the lawyers, who gained high publicity, and explained to the people what the problem is. Public opinion, to my relief, does not have to shape the legislation or the punishment in the country. If there's a law in the country, then only that law should function. In our case, it happened the other way around. In other words, to the benefit of some social and political interests, and this why the girls received such disproportionate punishment now.

That is why we, the lawyers, feel this enormous pressure, and began feeling it already at the start of the trial, when our accounts were blocked back in April, and we could not support ourselves financially, although legally they could not block our bank accounts. Apparently the tax authorities lost all our tax declaration information, in which case they should normally call one of us in with the documents, check them, and everything's ok. But in my case the tax authorities acted differently: they simply blocked all our bank accounts, including the ones through which we pay salaries. So there is immense pressure.

And now, following the Pussy Riot case, some people have attempted to tarnish my professional reputation by sending complaint emails of the following nature: "concerning lawyer Volkova - we did not see how she conducted the case, but we heard that she was not professional during the trial, that she was disrespectful towards the court, and we think she should be punished that is why we ask for her to be investigated and punished". So I ask, if you didn't see how the trial proceeded and are not even familiar with the case, and you are in no way connected to the case, then why are you sending around such emails?

There are, of course, certain forces that help organize the lawyer witch hunts and these forms of intimidation. Now for all we know, someone is going to try and accuse us of using this Pussy Riot brand in a commercial manner, of monetizing it, which is initiated to inadvertently give the three girls a PR boost. However, this is not true because this project has not be and will not be in a million years a commercial project. It is purely a political project.

Discussions have been started in the mass media regarding why we trademarked the Pussy Riot brand – we did this so as to protect their name from being used by other for commercial reasons because, as previously stated, this is not a commercial project. So we must defend this brand, despite the fact that we face reputational risks. I think we’ll come out this situation just fine because we have truth on our side.

Do you always take on controversial cases like this one?

No, not always. My legal specialization is totally different, but I still had a small amount of media spotlight on me, which was more than enough for me because when a lawyer deals with serious commercial matters, he/she should not try to use them as personal PR, that’s unnecessary.

Too much media and social attention from the press gets in the way of doing our job. I’ve worked with scandalous and controversial cases before, but it was quite calm and quiet. Now any kind of commercial cases have taken second place because a gaping wound within our legal system is making itself painfully known.

Human rights violations take top priority now.

And this is exactly why you’ve decided to take this case?

Yes, of course. But we got into this quite accidentally. I never really took part in the protest movement nor did I see myself as defending protestors. My friends – well, technically online acquaintances – decided to go to the December rally and so I came along. I understood that it was quite a risky thing to attend even though it was sanctioned by City Hall. And we joked amongst ourselves that if arrests take place, I will defend the protestors.

We laughed amongst ourselves – how can there be arrests at a demonstration that was approved by the government? And the arrests did take place. I met lawyer Nikolai Polozov online and we agreed to come to the following demonstration and monitor it and no mass arrests took place there, however Sergei Udaltsov [one of the key leaders of the Russian opposition] was detained by police. So we decided to defend protestors, activists and innocent passers-by who had nothing to do with the demonstrations. The police has no grounds to detain most of them.

We dealt with many cases, and one of them was that of Pyotr Verzilov, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s husband, so when the Pussy Riot case began, Pyotr invited Nikolai, and Nikolai then invited me to form their defense.

We won trust among the protestors, and they come to us for legal matters. So we didn’t intend to get on the Pussy Riot case, it just kind of came to us. Fate, I guess.

What has made you persevere with what you do during the Putin years when it has become clear that justice is not served justly in Russia?

Someone has to do it. When there are violations you can’t leave them unchecked. Should we be saying that we might as well do away with lawyers and defense and law altogether then?

Citizens need to be protected so we are going to keep working, and keep fighting for their rights. So we do what we need to do, and then the rest does not depend on us. As they say, you can’t walk away from destiny.

As a woman in Russia, what obstacles have you faced in trying to achieve a successful career in law and, more specifically, in human rights law?

I’ve not encountered any obstacles. If you have determination and a specific goal, and believe in yourself and ignore the obstacles, then you are capable of anything.

The problem is that the Russian society is quite patriarchal, and those feminist traditions that the three Pussy Riot girls preach don’t fit so well with the way our society is structured.

I’m not a feminist, and never even thought of any feminist traditions, but the girls told me that, judging by my lifestyle and view on life, it turns out I’m basically one of them.

I don’t really think in those terms because I think that every person needs to have some goal ahead of them, something to work towards without stopping. In that case, no patriarchal traditions could obstruct a woman from doing what she wants with her life, and not what is expected of her by society.

 What do you think can be done to empower Russian women to speak their minds, maybe in not such controversial ways?

Again this is a question of upbringing. The patriarchal upbringing within Russian society is a very big and serious question.

We need to enlighten the people, and tell women that their lives are not limited to the kitchen or any kind of service to men.

What do we see? We see that very same sexism that the girls were talking about. If you go on any website you will see all these ads: “do you want to attract men? Then you must do this, this, and this. Do you want to please a man? Then you must do this, this, and this”.

Women are taught to keep quiet if they have been insulted or offended. It was always very different in my family. We never had a head of the family, all the money was kept in one pile, and whoever needed it for something important could always take some. But there are families where the man is in charge of the money and the woman has no say in this matter, and this, of course, is absurd and unacceptable.

There has to be equality. There has to be partnership, not dependency. This is what the girls tried to enlighten society about in their own way, a way that may not be understood by some people, but a way that is not forbidden by law.

What is your view on Putin using attractive young women in his “army”? [Promotional advertisements]. Could this also be viewed as disturbing public order and further subjugating women in Russian society?

It is foolish on behalf of the girls who agreed to take part in this. Ideology and the use in one’s ideological work of people, who don’t quite fully understand what they are doing is immoral.

But is it right for the government to take advantage of this foolishness?

Of course not. It’s immoral. The government is doing something immoral in its own interest, and that’s considered acceptable.

Someone else’s action that is not favorable to the government, like in our case, is not considered to be morally acceptable in the eyes of many citizens, and is presented by the government as some sort of crime. One side is allowed to be immoral, and the other side isn’t. It’s all one chain.

I believe it’s wrong. It’s wrong to use women as bait, almost. It’s immoral, low, disgusting. I cannot approve of it - not only as a lawyer, but also as a human, as a member of our society because I pity the girls that participated in that campaign. Time will pass, and they’ll feel extremely ashamed of their actions, but it will then be too late to change anything.

Part 1 of the interview