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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.



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