Democracy Lab

A Pussy Riot Letter from Prison

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the punk band’s most famous member, jolts her compatriots with a description of her life in a Russian penal colony.

MOSCOW — Once again Pussy Riot is shaking up Russia. But this time they're not doing it with colorful balaclavas and anti-Putin songs, but by documenting life behind bars. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, nicknamed "Tolokno," is a member of the feminist punk band who is serving a two-year term in one of Russia's most hellish prisons as punishment for singing a song in a church. This week, she's staging a hunger strike. In Penal Labor Colony No. 14 in the remote province of Mordova, the 23-year-old artist-turned-inmate wrote an open letter to authorities after the colony's deputy director threatened to murder her. Immediately, her beautiful face -- sad eyes and full lips, framed by dark, bobbed hair -- reappeared at the top of the news. In a strikingly vivid letter from prison, Tolokonnikova swore that she'll refuse to eat until the prison's administration starts treating inmates like humans.

In her letter, the performance artist described how the dirty, exhausted inmates are forced to work continuously for 17 hours a day, from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., sewing 150 police uniforms each (the daily "production norm") on decrepit Soviet-era sewing machines. When newcomers like Tolokonnikova can't keep up with the fast working hands of more experienced inmates, their punishments range from bathroom prohibition to severe beatings. Instead of bearing it all in silence, the activist chose to scream about her rebellion: "I'm not going to step away from my demands. I'm not going to sit and watch how people are falling down because of slave-like conditions."

Just to give you an idea, here's a snippet from her letter:

A threatening, anxious atmosphere pervades the work zone. Eternally sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfill inhumanly large quotas, prisoners are always on the verge of breaking down, screaming at each other, fighting over the smallest things. Just recently, a young woman got stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors because she didn't turn in a pair of pants on time. Another tried to cut her own stomach open with a hacksaw. They stopped her.

On Sept. 23, the day Tolokonnikova went on hunger strike, I spoke with her friend Yekaterina Samutsevich, another Pussy Riot member. "I'm worried about her health, her back pains and headaches, but I'm proud of Nadya," Samutsevich said. Samutsevich has experienced the horrors of Russian jail herself. Last year she spent six months in pre-trial detention in Moscow after pulling her guitar out of its case in an Orthodox church (at the same impromptu concert that prompted the charge of "hooliganism" that landed Tolokonnikova in her penal colony). "The gulag is tuned to break her free spirit, to put her and other inmates on their knees, but the system's jaws are too weak," Samutsevich said. "Nadya is stronger than them." But the jaws continue to squeeze: On the fourth day of Tolokonnikova's hunger strike, her prison guards deprived her of water.

The reality is that the majority of Russians don't sympathize with Pussy Riot's protests. The most recent polls by the respected Levada-Center research institute show that 55 percent of Russians believe that order is more important than human rights. Nevertheless, Tolokonnikova's letter is igniting some Russian hearts and minds like a meteorite's burning tail, arcing all the way from Penal Colony 14 to downtown Moscow. Dozens of journalists, human rights activists, and officials traveled to the colony to see for themselves whether the prison's administration really "treats women like cattle," as Tolokonnikova wrote.

Within hours, Pussy Riot was back on thousands of news websites and television channels. (The Russian Internet is generally free of censorship, and the story attracted interest even from television channels that are normally beholden to the government.) The band's supporters protested outside of the Russian Prisons Adminstration building, holding posters that quoted Tolokno's letter. "A year ago, before I came here, a gypsy woman in the third unit was beaten to death," read one. Another, featuring a brightly colored balaclava, declared, "Inmates are not slaves." On Sept. 24, police surrounded the protesters and tore the signs out of their hands. Undeterred, one of the Pussy Riot sympathizers simply said, "We'll draw new ones."

Facing mounting public pressure, authorities reacted to Tolokonnikova's letter by sending a commission of experts to Mordova. They must have seen rows of weathered, exhausted faces, hands reddened from working in freezing weather, and hundreds of pairs of frightened eyes. That's what I saw when I visited the inmates of Kineshma Women's Colony Number 3 in 2010. It was a place that hadn't changed much since it was built in 1920: the same depressing barracks, gray walls, the same uniforms inmates were wearing in Stalin's day, the same choking life in a big collective, where it's nearly impossible to preserve your identity.

One of the public observers monitoring the situation in Russia's prison, Zoya Svetova, filled me in on the history of Tolokonnikova's colony: "For decades, Mordovian women prisons were famous for hostile treatment. The grandparents of Tolokonnikova's guards worked in Stalin's Gulags, their parents worked in Soviet labor colonies -- this is the old school of punitive methods." Svetova hopes that Tolokonnikova will succeed in her struggle for rights (for all prisoners, not just for herself) and will manage to obtain transfer to a prison with greater respect for human dignity. Right now, though, the best she's been able to manage is a move to a prison hospital, where the authorities decided to put her after the first week of her hunger strike. Her husband Pyotr Verzilov has described her health as "horrible."

Will anything change in Russia's prison system as a result of her protest? It seems unlikely (though Tolokonnikova's revelation that inmates have been working seven days a week seems to have come as a surprise to the authorities, suggesting that that, at least, might be altered for the better).  For now, the former punk rocker is being held in a solitary cell with no hot water or heating, and her guards use force to keep her calm.

MAKSIM BLINOV/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Dagestan's Desperate Search for Peace

The people who live in Russia's troubled North Caucasus republic hope that their new president will make a difference. But the chaos and bloodshed are deepening with every day.

MOSCOW — Dusty military trucks are rolling up and down Dagestan's streets these days. Special units patrol public places. Police offers armed with machine guns and clothed in camouflage and black balaclavas conduct counter-terrorist operations, searching homes and arresting people suspected of involvement in the continuing Islamist insurgency (as well as the occasional corrupt bureaucrat). With just a few months left before the start of the Winter Olympics in February, President Putin has been urging Russian security agencies to act "more harshly" in neutralizing terrorist and criminal threats in the northern Caucasus.

The Kremlin is relying on a veteran politician by the name of Ramazan Abdulatipov, who was elected as president of the republic earlier this month, to end the smoldering insurgency and shake up the old and notoriously corrupt clans. (That "election" was actually more akin to a coronation, since Putin had already made his own preference for Abdulatipov manifest by appointing him as acting head of the republic in January following the resignation of the previous governmnent.) Dagestan's new president clearly has his work cut out for him. Russian law enforcement officials are now saying that certain criminal activities, including some terrorist acts, can be traced back to officials -- a situation strikingly reminiscent of Latin America's gangster wars.

Putin is now betting that Abdulatipov, a loyal servant of the Kremlin who originally hails from the northern Caucasus, can regain control over the situation. Abdulatipov, a former academic and diplomat, helped draft the Russian constitution in the 1990s and worked for many years to shape Moscow's policies toward the country's myriad of ethnic minority groups. Most of the Dagestanis I've asked say that, while they welcome Abdulatipov's professed interest in reviving their national culture, they're all too aware that folk songs cannot bring peace to a republic that is already on the verge of a virtual civil war between the families of police officers killed in the insurgency and the families of those who have seen family members arrested or "disappeared" as suspected guerillas.

Few are inclined to believe that the crackdown will bring positive results. They can't help but recall how the last three Dagestani leaders all failed to establish stability in the republic.

Abdulatipov says that this time things are going to be different. He's been stressing that his orders come from the very top, from Vladimir Putin himself. "The president has given me carte blanche to establish order and clean Dagestan up," Abdulatipov said on Thursday.

Meanwhile, local media have been breaking some significant news. On a recent morning, the citizens of the republic's capital of Makhachkala woke up to find out that their former mayor, Said Amirov, the most powerful man in the republic for over a decade, was a terrorist. Local reporters revealed that Amirov, working together with his son and a state prosecutor, had plotted a terror attack "on an official of the state" -- including the extraordinary detail that the conspirators had planned to use a portable, shoulder-launched missile for the job. The local television channel broadcast footage of police searching Amirov's houses.

As appalling as all of this was, none of it came as a complete surprise. The Russian authorities had arrested Amirov (dubbed "the Godfather" by the Moscow media) back in June, even going to the trouble of sending in a helicopter from outside the republic to pick him up. He was subsequently charged with ordering a contract murder. (There was no immediate explanation for the lapse between his arrests and the recent raids.) Some of his opponents have since suggested erecting a monument to a helicopter that rescued Makhakchala from its bloodthirsty mayor.

Amirov, of course, didn't come from nowhere, as local experts explained to me. For years, corrupt officials in the republic have been delivering black caviar, fish, cognac, and billions of rubles to Moscow along with loads of cash. "Regional leaders, corrupt police, prosecutors, judges -- the entire system survived on kickbacks to Moscow," a retired police colonel told me. "They paid billions of rubles at all levels of the state, at every layer of the bureaucratic system." Where did officials get all the loot? By stealing, apparently.

On Sept. 19, Dagestan heard more news: the head of the remote Kumtorkalinsk region, Ruslan Tuturbiyev, was arrested on suspicion of stealing over 100 million rubles, or more than $3 million dollars. This followed the arrests of the deputy minister of education and the deputy minister of industry earlier this week.

Not everybody admires the anti-corruption campaign. On one recent afternoon, a crew from one of the Moscow state TV channels set up their cameras to take videos of the spectacular villas that belong to senior officials of interior ministry units responsible for fighting corruption. Within minutes, local officials arrived on the scene and detained the journalists, holding them in custody for four hours. The Moscow journalists insisted that the federal authorities had told them they had every right to be there; the local officials clearly didn't care about that one bit. Small wonder that genuine anti-corruption activists in Dagestan refuse to believe that the "purification campaign" will really tackle corrupt officials on all levels.

Magomed Shamilov, the leader of Dagestan's police union, says that real reform will come only by allowing transparency. He says this, in part, as a way of explaining why the president of Russia did not fire the criminal mayor and dozens of other crooks in the government long ago. "The Ministry of Interior Affairs [which is responsible for the police] fired many experienced professionals who were unwilling to put up with the existing corrupt system," Shamilov told me. "As a result, we have very few professional investigators left."

For several years now I've been hearing Dagestani human rights activists, journalists, defense lawyers, and residents complaining about threats to their lives and violations of their rights. Since the spring of 2012, police have detained a large number of Muslims on suspicion of supporting the insurgency (also known as "the forest," since that's where the guerillas tend to hide). Law enforcement officers often grab suspects on the street without a warrant and without informing families about the whereabouts of the detainee.

In case after case, officials deny lawyers access to their clients for days on end. Defense lawyers told me that authorities treated them as enemies for taking on the cases of conservative Muslims. "Two of our lawyers have been assassinated in the last year," the head of the firm, Costa Mudunov, told me. "Our friends and families fear for our lives." Mudunov points to a deep, permanent scar on the back of his head -- a memento from a bullet fired at him in a 2007 assassination attempt.

Justice and the rule of law are in short supply in the region these days, says pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov. "The North Caucasus presents in concentrated form all the problems that plague Russia," Markov told me. "Yes, innocent people sometimes experience violations of their rights, sometimes even leading to death. But there is no time to reform the courts. The main goal of our struggle is to destroy the enemy."

Anna Nemtsova