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Protesting Putin; The Joy of Swimming

Aired August 1, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

With people power asserting itself and authorization regimes falling around the world, one is standing firmer than ever. That's Russia, where Vladimir Putin has returned to the presidency, as we know, for the third time. My brief tonight: Putin lowers the iron fist. Russia is a crucial player on the world stage, especially in places like Syria and Iran.

But at home, he's stifling dissent. Russians aren't taking it lying down, though. In the past six months, they've staged unprecedented street protests against him. Those have now been quashed. And in February, there was this.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): A popup protest by a feminist punk rock band called Pussy Riot. They stormed the altar at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and they called upon the Virgin Mary to, quote, "put Putin away."

Of course, many Christians, many others found this performance offensive. But is it criminal? That's the question the group faces in a Moscow courtroom today. The women are there behind bars and charged with hooliganism, motivated by religion hatred or hostility. That is the formal charge. And it's a felony with a maximum sentence of seven years in jail.

They've already spent five months in jail and two of them have very young children, whom they haven't seen since their arrest. I'll speak to the husband of one of the band members in a moment. But first, a look at what's coming up later in the program.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): From dipping one toe in the water to one historic Olympic moment, the lure of swimming into the unknown.

And Gore Vidal never met a controversy he didn't like.

GORE VIDAL, AUTHOR: I prefer living in Italy to living in the United States of America.

And anyone doesn't like that, I'll tell you also what I think of you, too.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Remembering the writer and Renaissance man.


AMANPOUR: We'll get to all of that in a bit. But first, Peter Verzilov, an artist and activist whose wife is a member of Pussy Riot -- and they are currently in the dock in Moscow, as we said. The group has pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, and that, again, is hooliganism, motivated by religious hatred.

Peter, thank you for joining me from Moscow. I know you've just come from the courtroom, where your wife and her band members are facing trial. At this point, day two of the trial, what do you think is going to be their punishment?

PETER VERZILOV, HUSBAND OF PUSSY RIOT MEMBER: Well, first of all, we're completely sure that it's only one man in Russia and not the court, not the lawyers, not anyone else who will be deciding the fate.

That's Vladimir Putin, because no one else in Russia is capable of staging the protest this big and this powerful.

And we expect him to give a well (ph) prison sentence to the girls of one, two or three years of jail, because obviously in this situation, giving them a suspended sentence, not sending them to jail would mean that Putin basically got scared of all the international protests and of all the people inside Russia who have become insulted of the situation when three girls are put behind bars for singing in a church.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you this. How have they been treated?

VERZILOV: Well, the prison authorities realize that they have the most -- basically the prisoners in Russia with the most public attention. One of the -- and the case has become one of the most watched cases in the world. So obviously they can't do anything seriously brutal to them.

But in the small details, they're doing everything they can to make their life worse. They're taking away their personal notes, not allowing books and food to be properly sent to the prison or basically making their life as tough as possible.

AMANPOUR: And what about -- but what about your child? Your wife has not seen -- well, tell me, has she seen your daughter since her arrest?

VERZILOV: No, no. The past five months, first of all, I've been denied to see the legal and lawful right to see Nadezhda, my wife, in prison. And our daughter, she's 4 years old, Dara (ph), she couldn't see her mother as well.

AMANPOUR: So what do you tell your daughter?

VERZILOV: Well, I've been constantly telling her that, well, first of all, politics in Russia is very much like a fairy tale. It's all black and white. You have the good guys and the bad guys fighting the good guys, and the good guys trying to resist that somehow.

So when Dara (ph) realizes that Putin has put Nadezhda like a princess in a cage and now both me and her, we have to figure out some wise plan to go to the president and free Nadezhda from that cage.

AMANPOUR: Beyond that, I want to know what was the broader message and whether you accept that what happened in the church was obviously offensive to, you know, certainly a number of people in Russia and orthodox Christians. And you know, the pictures of the ladies in the church were trying to get your wife and her band members off that altar.

VERZILOV: Right. So basically the whole point of this punk prayer was to bring attention to the connection between the state and the church, which is seen -- which was seen by the band, Pussy Riot, as something completely unacceptable, because, well, in the past month, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, he's been repeatedly saying -- asking Christians to vote Putin.

He's been saying that Putin's the only man who can save Russia, who can save Russian Christian values, and who can basically keep the country together. And that's from our perspective and from the perspective of the members of Pussy Riot. It's completely unacceptable from the head of basically the largest Christian congregation in the country.

And, well, if you think about how the performance went, you know, in this situation, when the girls have been in prison for five months, it's really hard to talk now if anyone has actually been insulted by the performance itself, because, well, we obviously know that millions of Christians have been insulted, have been brutally insulted by the way the government is treating these three young women who did this song.

AMANPOUR: So, Peter, you're an activist. Your wife is as well. What is your hope or what do you think is the future of these kinds of protest movements? And what message do you think the government, President Putin, is giving with this trial?

VERZILOV: Well, the future of actions like this is that they definitely will grow. They will be happening more often. And they will be more brighter and more effective. Because while people are slowly waking up in Russia and since we've never seen such public outcry, both in Russia and in the West for 20 years.

Never had the government ever reacted, never had the public in the West and in Russia reacted this nervously to Putin arresting or mistreating some political activists. So these things will definitely keep on happening in the future and they will be even more effective and more powerful than what the girls did.

AMANPOUR: Thank you.


VERZILOV: (Inaudible).

AMANPOUR: Thank you very much for joining me. And obviously, we're all going to keep an eye on how that trial goes. Thanks for joining me from Moscow.

And now let's get some answers from where President Putin sits.

For that, we turn to Andranik Migranyan. He knows the president well, and has held prominent government positions in Russia. He's now the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, which is a Kremlin-approved think tank here in New York.

Welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, why a punk rock band? What is President Putin so afraid of?

MIGRANYAN: I don't think that President Putin is afraid of anything or anybody.

AMANPOUR: So why are these people on trial?


MIGRANYAN: He's one of the unique political leaders who enjoys 67 percent of approval --

AMANPOUR: Precisely.

MIGRANYAN: -- in Russia.

AMANPOUR: Precisely.

MIGRANYAN: (Inaudible). But what I would like to mention for the audience of your respected TV channel, the problem is that these girls are -- they're not because this is a unique case in which they were involved. This is a series of -- a serial of actions which they took in previous period. And among them, I would like to mention, one of them participated in collective grouping sex in theological (ph) museum.


MIGRANYAN: Which means this is a provocative action, which is intentionally organized, and they wanted to be in the center of attention. They wanted to be, you know, famous.


MIGRANYAN: And they achieved their goal.

AMANPOUR: All right. That's all fine and good and you can say what you think about them, and you've seen the video and we know they're in court.

The question is, is it criminal? And does a government, as you mentioned, President Putin, has some two-thirds of popular support. Why did the government like that need to be so brittle, be so afraid?


MIGRANYAN: This is not the problem of government.

AMANPOUR: Is it criminal?

MIGRANYAN: By the way, if you --

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible) criminal case?

MIGRANYAN: Is it a criminal? Yes, it is a criminal case. But what is important, Russian public demands very severe punishment --

AMANPOUR: Well, that's actually --


MIGRANYAN: That's true, that's true. Majority of Russians, especially the believers and orthodox church is very much insulted. They chose after theological (ph) museum, when they had sex --

AMANPOUR: Let's -- can we talk about this case? Can we talk about this case?

MIGRANYAN: But here, the problem is that, of course, now the problem is the level of punishment. But this is a hooliganist. This must be punished. And people demanded punishment. But we don't have, you know, anonymous (ph) --

AMANPOUR: What do you think --

MIGRANYAN: -- approach. Many of now Russian intelligentsia, who are supportive to Putin, they also consider that this is excessive punishment.

AMANPOUR: All right. So what do you think should be the punishment?

MIGRANYAN: I think that the punishment must be a kind of fine or some kind of -- they must be released. Of course, the punishment is enough. They got what they wanted to get. They became famous --

AMANPOUR: All right. So you agree that it's excessive?

MIGRANYAN: It's excessive.

AMANPOUR: Fine. Let's move on to the broader issue, because clearly this is being seen, certainly by the defendants, certainly by many in Russia and many around the world, as a pattern, as part of a broader pattern of stifling dissent, stifling any kind of protest in Russia. We've seen all sorts of new laws being drafted.

We've even seen one of the most prominent activists, Alexina Valmy (ph), now have charges of embezzlement leveled against him. He's the anti- corruption crusader. Is this a signal of where President Putin is taking Russia? You've already said that he can't afford to look weak. What do you mean by that?

MIGRANYAN: No, no, the problem is that he is feeling himself very confident. It's an illusion, especially in Western media, that regime is very weak, he feels himself in a troubled situation. It's not true because he enjoys, as I said, (inaudible) support. He has real, you know, support of a majority.

But what he wants to do, in my opinion, it's just to make -- to take some measures in order to consolidate the power and to set up the rule -- the rules of the game. This is the rules. You are following the rules, the law. Democracy is not the thing where you can do anything you want to do. Democracy is law and order. Let's set up the law, let's follow the rules.

AMANPOUR: Right. There's law and order, there's -- and there's democracy and pluralism. And in his inauguration speech, President Putin very clearly talked about democracy and how people should be allowed to have it. He also obviously wants to raise the middle class.

But don't these actions collide dramatically with trying to have a middle class? And don't you need the very kind of reforms to actually have an economy that's pluralistic and a people that are pluralistic, that can thrive?

MIGRANYAN: Christiane, if somebody is very objective and sober and is looking into the situation in Russia, it's very clear that in Russia now we are in a process of beginning of the real dialogue between society and authorities. You know, this reform's about the party registration, the change of the rule. And you have as much party as you want.

The rules which are changed for governors, their election, which was, you know, business after this one event. And many other things open government which started (inaudible). And even (inaudible) representatives are members of this open government, which means authorities now are in dialogue with society.

But the problem is that what is interesting, during these mass demonstrations, some marginal but very radical people on the side of opposition decided that power is very weak, authorities are afraid. And they can overthrow the regime as happened in Ukraine, in Georgia, in (inaudible) --


AMANPOUR: So that's the fear, that --

MIGRANYAN: This is --

AMANPOUR: -- the fear is about overthrowing the regime?

MIGRANYAN: This is not the fear on the side of the regime, but --


MIGRANYAN: They are reacting this way in order -- yes. But this is not because they are afraid. This is because they don't want to have a mess and chaos. This is --

AMANPOUR: Don't you think that this is precisely what's going to create a mess and chaos? You heard Peter. You heard that they're going to continue these protests.

MIGRANYAN: No. These are --

AMANPOUR: Isn't there a way to have a dialogue for reform?

MIGRANYAN: We have a dialogue. We have a very wide dialogue. By the way, after (inaudible), we passed several laws improving the situation with the people who committed economy crimes. After this --

AMANPOUR: But this is not --

MIGRANYAN: -- election, we passed a lot of laws improving the situation in this area, which means authorities are reacting, the demands and challenges which comes from the society. But one thing is to react and to have a dialogue. Another thing is that on behalf of radical opposition, this is a demand for unilateral, total surrender, which is absurd, you know.

AMANPOUR: But you think --

MIGRANYAN: It is the same if Occupy Wall Street will say, listen, we want to keep out of this capitalist billionaires, millionaires and White House, and we want to be a government. This is exactly the case which is going on now in Russia.

AMANPOUR: Well, many people think it is the very middle class that President Putin has been encouraging and trying to create that is now engaging.

Anyway, we will continue this conversation. We'll keep watching it and we'll continue this conversation.

MIGRANYAN: With pleasure.

AMANPOUR: And from the shark-infested waters of Russian politics, we'll turn to the historic events taking place in the Olympic pool, whether it's going for the gold or just going for a dip, swimming is more than just exercise. For some, it is a lifelong journey.

But first take a look at this picture. We've been talking about him, and that is indeed Russian President Vladimir Putin, practicing his marksmanship at the future site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in the Russian city of Sochi on the Black Sea.

And you can watch my documentary, "Czar Putin," online. We posted a link at And we will be right back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And history is being made at the London Olympics as we know. U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps has won the most Olympic medals of all time, 19, thus breaking the record set by a Russian gymnast back in 1964.

Phelps also earned this tweet from President Obama, "Congrats to Michael Phelps for breaking the all-time Olympic medal record. You've made your country proud." And he tweeted back that he was glad to have done it.

The president even signed it "B.O.," which means that he did it himself. But you don't to be an Olympian or even a competitor to love swimming. Lynn Sherr is a journalist, a lifelong swimmer and author of "Swim," the book.



AMANPOUR: So let's just talk about Michael Phelps for a moment, because you know, there were lots of Schadenfreude of going into this, people were really sort of dissing him. And he finally pulled it out and showed what he was made of. Let's look at this last moment.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Phelps is going to cruise into the wall with Olympics gold, (inaudible) 48-year-old record now (inaudible).

Olympic gold medal number 15 for Phelps.


AMANPOUR: So he looks happier now. But a lot of sour grapes and (inaudible). Did you ever have any doubt that he would pull it off?

SHERR: No, I didn't have any doubt that he would pull off the breaking the medal record. But I predicted that Ryan Lochte would win the other race because --

AMANPOUR: You were wrong.

SHERR: -- no, no, no --


SHERR: -- because Lochte has -- is on the up and Michael is on the even or down. Now Michael Phelps is a phenomenon. He is a brilliant swimmer. Let us not take one thing away from him.

And for all the Schadenfreude you were talking about, the truth is that the real talk was that Michael Phelps was going into this Olympics to be a team player. He didn't need to be here. He wanted the record that he just got. But he's got a bunch of golds. He wanted to help the team. And he's doing that. (Inaudible) --

AMANPOUR: And it's great to watch.

SHERR: The man is magnificent.

AMANPOUR: It's really exciting.

Let's get to something a little less exciting but unbelievably courageous, what you did, which was your swim across what they call the Hellespont.

SHERR: It's now the Dardanelles. It used to be the Hellespont. This is that wild strip of water that separates Europe from Asia in western Turkey. And I decided to enter a race. I had never done anything like this before, Christiane. And I wrote my book because I wanted to talk about the joy of swimming, the fun of swimming, the history of swimming.

But I thought I'd better find out what's going on out there. So I was in a race with 430-some international swimmers.

AMANPOUR: How long?

SHERR: Point to point, the Hellespont is -- yes. Point to point, it's just a mile. But because the currents are so strong and you -- if you go point to point, you could get swept out into the Aegean, they make you do this big arc. So I swam around four miles. And here's the deal. It's a very busy shipping channel. They only stop the ships for 90 minutes. So if you don't --


SHERR: -- yes, they'll fish you out if you don't --

AMANPOUR: Seriously.

SHERR: That's me in the background, swimming across the Hellespont. Here I am. And here's the deal. I made it. I did it in one hour, 24 minutes and 16 seconds. And I won my age group. How about that?

AMANPOUR: That is fantastic. But you talk a lot about how it is a life-changing experience. Obviously the major competitors know that, and even recreational swimmers like myself, I know it's a very Zen experience. But it's really a journey. Tell me about it.

SHERR: It is. First of all, it just feels good. The skin is the largest organ on the body. So when you're in the water, you're totally enveloped in this alien atmosphere, zero gravity. As Esther Williams, the great movie star and champion swimmer always says, when you're in the water, you're ageless and weightless. So you're on another planet as far as I'm concerned.

AMANPOUR: And it's great for the mind.

SHERR: Oh, man, I just relax. It calms me down when I'm too excited. It gets me excited when I'm depressed. It's the best full-body massage available. Here's my medal, by the way, from when I won --

AMANPOUR: Brilliant.

SHERR: I also think it's the cheapest antidepressant around. It's just -- it changes your life. And here's what I've learned, having done this book, I'm getting a lot of email from people. I've an email on the book flap. And people are telling me they feel the same way. Swimmers love to talk about swimming. They all feel this magic. And it's not only magical, it can save your life.

AMANPOUR: And it is extraordinary to remember how people swam way back when, how they would dress. And you have an amazing chapter in your book about the garb, particularly for women.

SHERR: Costumes.

AMANPOUR: The costumes, which we call them in England, bathing costumes.

SHERR: Well --

AMANPOUR: And they really were.

SHERR: It was horrible. A little bit for men, worse for women. We had to wear these wretched long things with yards and yards of fabric. You would drown if you swam in that.

Finally along came Annette Kellerman, this wonderful Australian swimmer, came to this country, essentially invented a one-piece bathing suit for women. And but there were rules. You could not go on the beach if more than six inches of leg showed.

AMANPOUR: And there were policemen on the beach.

SHERR: Yes, there were people --

AMANPOUR: Measuring.

SHERR: -- measuring. And you could get fined. You could absolutely get fined. You could get a citation for having too much body showing. Here we are. There's the policeman, measuring. This is not a joke. This was, by the way, my grandmother, my mother, to some extent. I mean, this is insanity.

AMANPOUR: And that amazing carriage that they took people into the sea so they won't even be seen.

SHERR: Yes, there is a tradition that we know nothing of or very little of in this country, and they used them mostly in England and through other parts of Europe. There is it. The bathing machine. You went in there so that you could change your costume.

Then the machine was taken out by horses to the middle of the water and then you were dipped into the water. There were even people called dippers who held you and dipped you in the water before people knew how to swim. Oh, what a revolution it's been.

AMANPOUR: Well, it's been great to talk to you, particularly at this moment, when swimming is in everybody's, you know, face with these amazing Olympic swims.

SHERR: Well, it's best to watch it and this is --

AMANPOUR: And do it.

SHERR: And do it.


AMANPOUR: Lynn Sherr, thank you very much indeed. Author of "Swim: Why We Love It." And we will be right back.



AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a world without characters like Gore Vidal, prolific author, actor, acid-tongued wit. He was a living contradiction, holding a mirror up to America, warts and all.

Although he was born at West Point, raised in Washington, and the grandson of a U.S. senator, whether it was writing sweeping historical novels about Abraham Lincoln or Aaron Burr, or plays that are still being performed on Broadway here in New York, no subject was taboo, even God.


VIDAL: God is a blackmailer. God is a warden of the prison. He created this all in His image, probably a mistake, and then allows us to run wild and punishes us or rewards us with his beaming vision of Himself. This is no God I really want to have any traffic with at all."

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Always irreverent, Gore Vidal died Tuesday evening at the age of 86, leaving behind a legacy of elegantly biting prose.


AMANPOUR: That's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.