Russian-Canadian Pussy Riot activist vows to return to Moscow after alleged poisoning

Anti-Kremlin activist Pyotr Verzilov says he will go back to Russia and keep investigating the killings of Russian journalists.

Pyotr Verzilov says it's his 'duty' to return home and investigate the deaths of 3 slain Russian journalists

Russian-Canadian Pyotr Verzilov, who is recovering in Berlin after a suspected poisoning attack, says he will return to Moscow. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
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Anti-Kremlin activist Pyotr Verzilov says he will go back Moscow and keep investigating the killings of three Russian journalists, despite what he believes was an attempt on his life. 

Verzilov, who lived in Toronto for several years and holds dual Russian-Canadian citizenship, was rushed to a hospital in Berlin earlier this month after he took suddenly ill. 

German doctors treating Verzilov say it is "highly plausible" he was poisoned, but stressed they can't say how this might have occurred or who was responsible.​ Russia has not commented.

Verzilov, who publishes a Russian online news portal with close ties to punk protest group Pussy Riot, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off from Berlin on Wednesday. Here is part of their conversation. 

Have you made a full recovery?

Drastically better, especially given the fact that for the better part of last week I was completely unconscious and not understanding where I am and basically my mind was separated from my body.

And what do you understand put you into that condition?

We have an understating that, first of all, it was done by Russian security services. The only question is what agencies, specifically, worked on this.

What do you base that on? 

Very few people in the world, in fact, have knowledge of these poisonous nerve agents, which have an unpredictable effect.

It was interesting to see how 20 or 30 doctors at this huge hospital in Berlin, called The Charite, were trying to get any sense what this could look like.

So it's essentially some brand-new or hidden agent that's used on special occasions.

But the doctors in Berlin say that you were likely poisoned, but they can't say definitely. So why are you so sure?

Without having solid evidence, they can't claim that this particular poisonous act took place. But at the same time, no one is denying that what happened is very strange and [the poison] is just not something that is readily available outside for use on anyone.

Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, left, and Veronica Nikulshina, right, speak to the media on Sept. 18, 2018 in Berlin after Verzilov became ill. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

What are your theories as to why somebody might want to poison you?

Essentially, there's two options.

One option is the very high public visibility which happened after our action at the World Cup.

Option No. 2, a close friend of mine and one of Russia's best documentary filmmakers, Alexander Rastorguyev, he was one of the murdered filmmakers and reporters in the Central African Republic at the end of July.

And we because he's my friend and because this is… a case which we felt is very close to us, we announced that we will also be working on our own independent examination of what has happened in Africa.

Let's just start with the World Cup incident. You did a protest on the pitch. You dressed as a police officer. It was a stunt to bring attention to what? What was the point of that protest, and why might somebody want to kill you for that?

When we demanded freedom to political activists, political competition and other things… it was seen immediately seen by the millions and millions of people, and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin himself.

Verzilov runs away as a steward tries to stop him during the France and Croatia 2018 World Cup final match in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. (Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press)

The Russian reporters who were working in the Central African Republic, you were going to take part in that investigation. You were going to join those journalists. What were they investigating?

They were basically on a field trip to make a film about Russian mercenaries opening up their operations in Africa and particularly various groups connected to the so-called Wagner group.

Because the World Cup happened and I wasn't able to join them, although I had the desire to, I essentially am alive now.

What they were trying to find out was the Wagner group, which as you say, is a private army linked to the Russian Ministry of Defence, and as I understand, it is under the control of [Russian businessman] Yevgeny Prigozhin. Is that right?

Yes exactly.

And we should point out that Prigozhin… has been indicted by the Mueller investigation in the United States into Russian interference in the U.S. election. So he has quite a case, doesn't he?

Yes, exactly.

Those three journalists who you were going to join — what happened to them?

Their car was ambushed. The three Russian filmmakers and journalists were killed. And their driver wasn't killed, so he managed to get to the nearest village and ask for help.

Verzilov attends a funeral ceremony for Alexander Rastorguyev, one of three Russian TV journalists killed in Central African Republic in Moscow. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Do you think will there be an investigation, a police investigation [in Germany], into what happened to you?

The problem is I was brought into Germany already with these symptoms… Because this whole event of me being poisoned happened in Russia, that obviously greatly limits the scope of what they can do.

And any possibility the Russian authorities will investigate what happened to you?

This is highly unlikely.

Do you have any plans to go back to Moscow?

All our work is tied to Moscow and we always had a strong sense of not leaving Russia, but instead working on it and asking other people to sort of work into making Russia a better place. So definitely, we will return and continue.

But you're also a citizen of Canada. Would you consider taking refuge here?

Essentially, my work, my soul and my inspiration is in Russia, where I was born. So I feel it's my duty to myself and to my friends and to my murdered friends to actually work and see what has happened.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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