Democracy Lab

The Ferocious Pirates of Greenpeace

Russia's decision to charge environmental activists with piracy sets an ominous precedent.

MOSCOW — On Oct. 3, when I visited the Moscow headquarters of Greenpeace, the organization's office was buzzing with anxious staffers and friends. The activists were shocked, their faces drawn and nervous. They had spent hours at meetings with the Kremlin's administration and the Federal Security Service (FSB) looking for some solution to their problems. Earlier that day, a Russian criminal court had issued prison sentences to 16 more Greenpeace employees and sympathizers, on top of the 14 activists sentenced the day before. The charge: piracy.

The Greenpeace members I spoke to have endured years of official pressure and threats in their long struggle to prevent oil spills and other natural disasters. There have been many occasions when Greenpeace ecologists have found themselves confronting the FSB, the successor to the old Soviet KGB. But 15-year jail terms as punishment for environmental activism? The news was a bombshell. 

In fact, the protest itself was innocuous. On Sept. 18, the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, anchored a few hundred yards away from Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya oil platform, a 100,000-ton metal giant sitting 60 kilometers off the coast in the icy Pechora Sea. A few unarmed activists (one of them, the Russian journalist Denis Senyakov, equipped only with a camera) approached the platform on two inflatable boats. Then, two of the activists used rock-climbing equipment to climb up the rig's wall in an attempt to raise a protest banner. "They were later accused of threatening the security of the rig," noted Vladimir Chuprov, the head of Greenpeace's energy department in Moscow. "But why is the rig out there in the ocean if it can be threatened by two guys with ropes?"

The activists were soon stopped. Russian Coast Guardsmen in balaclavas pointed guns at the activists and fired warning shots; water cannons on the top of the rig loosed torrents of water at the Greenpeace men. The next day, a helicopter arrived, and security forces soon detained the rest of the Arctic Sunrise crew. Putin later expressed regrets that he never had a chance to sit down with Greenpeace to hear about "their complaints, demands, and concerns." However, he explained that Russian security forces did know the identities of the people who were storming the platform. "It is absolutely evident, that they are, of course, not pirates," he continued. "But formally they were trying to seize this platform. It is evident that these people violated international law."

Greenpeace is indignant and has called the FSB's decision an extreme overreaction. "The Arctic is melting before our eyes and these brave activists stand in defiance of those who wish to exploit this unfolding crisis to drill for more oil," read the statement on the group's website. "Greenpeace International insists that piracy charges are unjustified, and that Russian authorities boarded the Arctic Sunrise illegally in international waters. Several international legal experts have supported that view."

The Russian Greenpeace employees wondered how President Vladimir Putin could possibly allow the draconian punishment of environmental protesters, especially since Greenpeace has performed exactly the same protests in many countries over the years, including Greenland, New Zealand, the Netherlands -- even, just a year ago, in Russia itself. Such activism has generally been recognized as free expression; until this past week, no government has ever sentenced environmentalist protestors on piracy charges. I watched as the activists in the Moscow headquarters browsed through pictures of their 30 arrested colleagues, all of whom have received two months of pretrial detention: citizens of Finland, Ukraine, Britain, the Netherlands, the United States, and 13 other countries. It seemed that citizens representing half the world were locked behind bars in Murmansk.

The FSB has a close relationship with Russia's big oil companies and their pipelines -- which is something that Vladimir Chuprov has experienced firsthand. Greenpeace first opened its bureau in Russia in 1989, and went on to work uninterrupted for the next decade. Police raided the organization for the first time during the environmentalists' struggle to prevent the import of nuclear waste into Russia. Secret agents questioned Chuprov's family, friends, and even his teachers back in his hometown in the Komi region about his criticism of Russia's gas and oil giants. His father expressed pride about his son's activism and pushed the interrogators out the door. Chuprov's math teacher Galina Shpekht told the FSB: "If you intend to arrest Chuprov, then you can send me along to the gulag with my former student."

But not everybody in Russia feels the same way about Greenpeace's storming of the oil platform in Pechora Sea. As reported by the polling group VTSIOM, around 60 percent of Russians believe the authorities were justified in employing harsh measures against Greenpeace. Russians often accuse Greenpeace activists of working as agents of the U.S. State Department, protesting to support policies that serve U.S. interests in exchange for money.

Members of Russia's underground art scene, by contrast, are more likely to take the activists' side. They often criticize the country's oil and gas companies for embodying a destructive national culture of addiction to the energy industry. Last July, for example, the punk rockers of Pussy Riot released a new song called "As in a Red Prison." The lyrics describe Russia as kingdom of gas and oil pipelines enriching Putin's best friends. Indeed, activists across Europe are staging dramatic protests against the recent arrests. The photo above shows protesters in the Puerto del Sol square in Madrid on Oct. 5.  

International diplomats and celebrities, including artist and activist Annie Lennox, Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke, and actor Ewan McGregor, spoke out against the Russian authorities and their efforts to intimidate Greenpeace. The Dutch foreign minister vowed to free the activists: "I don't understand how this could have been thought to have anything to do with piracy," he said. "I don't see how you could think of any legal grounds for that." A Russian conservationist, Mikhail Kreindlin, who has also been threatened by the FSB for his attempts to prevent the destruction of nature around the future Winter Olympics site in Sochi, told me that the charges against his colleagues sounded outrageously unfair. "We are by principle a peaceful organization," Kreindlin said. "Our colleagues obviously weren't trying to take Gazprom's property by force."

The Kremlin's response to these criticisms was consistent with its reactions to previous arrests of oppositionists: President Putin's press spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that Putin was not involved in any way in the charges against Greenpeace. He pointed to Putin's observation that piracy wasn't an appropriate charge. "He does not and cannot interfere in the work of investigative agencies," said Peskov. Yet one has to wonder how many Russians who heard Peskov's words took them at face value.

PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images

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