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‘First it was his vision, then his speech, and then his legs’ Pussy Riot member Pyotr Verzilov is hospitalized in critical condition and friends fear he was poisoned

Meduza
20:51, 12 september 2018

Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Pyotr Verzilov, a member of Pussy Riot and one of the publishers of the independent news website Mediazona, was hospitalized in critical condition late on September 11. His partner, Veronika Nikulshina, told Meduza that he’s started losing his sight, speech, and mobility.

Pyotr Verzilov is currently receiving treatment at the toxicology wing of Moscow’s Bakhrushin City Clinical Hospital. Verzilov’s friends told Meduza that his mother came to the hospital on the evening of September 12, but staff wouldn’t let her see her son, and even refused to describe his condition or inform her about his preliminary diagnosis. “[At the hospital] they said they don’t have the right to disclose any information… They sent her away and were rude. They said they can’t admit her. They kept pointing at this sheet of paper, saying that they can’t disclose [any information] until the patient signs a release himself, but he’s unconscious,” Verzilov’s friend told Meduza.

According to Nikulshina, Verzilov started feeling unwell shortly after a court hearing on Tuesday. At six in the evening, he laid down to rest. Two hours later, when Nikulshina got home, Verzilov “woke up and said he was starting to lose his sight.” “Between eight and ten, his condition got exponentially worse. First it was his vision, then his ability to speak, and then his ability to walk,” she told Meduza.

“When the paramedics arrived, he answered all their questions, saying, ‘No, I didn’t eat anything. No, I didn’t take anything.’ He was getting worse even faster, and then he started convulsing. On the way [to the hospital], in the ambulance, he was already babbling. [...] He fell into such a half-asleep, half-unconscious state that he stopped responding to me and didn’t even recognize me anymore,” Veronika Nikulshina told Meduza.

Nikulshina says the doctors’ original analysis “didn’t turn up anything bad,” but around 1 a.m. they suddenly moved Verzilov to the hospital’s toxicology wing. Staff refused to tell her if he’d been diagnosed with “poisoning,” explaining that her status as his common-law wife “doesn’t entitle her to any rights.” “The doctor only said that his condition was serious, but his behavior was improving and he’d started responding to his own name,” Nikulshina said.

Pyotr Verzilov became a public figure in Russia in the late 2000s as a member of the “Voina” artist-activist group, where he performed demonstrations with his then wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. In 2012, Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich became international celebrities when they were tried and convicted of “premeditated hooliganism performed by an organized group of people motivated by religious hatred or hostility.” During the trial, Verzilov presented himself as Pussy Riot’s “producer.” In this role, he helped generate global media attention for the group, recruiting dozens of world-famous musicians to pledge their support for Pussy Riot. In 2014, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina established the news website Mediazona, which conducts often daring reporting on Russia's criminal justice system, with Verzilov as its publisher.

On July 15, 2018, Verzilov, Nikulshina, and two other activists raided the soccer field during the World Cup final game, interrupting play. The four were dressed as police cadets, and the demonstration was carried out as an action by Pussy Riot. Their punishment was 15 days in jail.

Story by Viktor Davydov and Andrey Kozenko, translation by Kevin Rothrock