The Women of Pussy Riot Are Launching a Powerful New Protest Movement

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Jan. 9 2014 5:40 PM

“I Was My Own Person Again”

The women of Pussy Riot made meaning out of a horrific experience in prison. Now, they’re launching another protest movement in Russia.

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Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova try to talk about other inmates more than they do about themselves, in part because they are now free, and in part because they feel they were ultimately in a privileged position in prison. What they have disclosed of their experience opens the window on the hell that is the life of a Russian inmate. Prison stories are stories of humiliation, dehumanization, and constant physical hardship. While in solitary, for example, Alyokhina was subjected to gynecological searches whenever she left her cell to meet with her lawyer and again when she returned. She filed a series of complaints and eventually declared victory in a letter to a friend: “This went on for a month, and now I have finally managed to get this canceled. It was painful and disgusting, and anyway, no one can stand being subjected to 'the chair' 4 times a week.”

But Alyokhina's first major battle behind bars concerned the most basic, most pervasive, and perhaps most pernicious practice of Russian prisons: the systematic denial of the right to wash. While the members of Pussy Riot were in pretrial detention in Moscow in the spring and summer of 2012, supporters paid the facility to allow the women to take more than one shower weekly. Once Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova arrived at the penal colonies, though, that option was no longer available. Like the other inmates, they were reduced to risking lice and other afflictions of dirt, and to feeling like the filth in which they were forced to live.

An official letter from the regional prison authority, stating that female inmates could wash their hair more than once a week, was the first of Alyokhina's many wins on the personal hygiene front. Another was increasing the number of toilets and sinks in the dorms from two to eight, for a unit of 50 to 100 people—and, as important, getting the facility to put up partitions between toilets. Once Alyokhina, who was a journalism student at the time of her arrest, had fought and won her first battles, she became a full-fledged—and hyperactive—jailhouse lawyer. She challenged procedural violations in reviewing inmate infractions, helped inmates write numerous complaints, and collected bulging folders of information on working conditions in the colony.

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For her part, Tolokonnikova had no intention of taking up prisoners' rights. A philosophy student at Moscow State University at the time of her arrest, she thought of herself as a philosopher and an artist more than an activist, and in jail she planned to keep a low profile. “For a long time, I wanted to try to blend in, to be like everyone else,” she says. This was both a survival strategy and an existential approach: “I wanted to live a universal experience. I wanted this to have been not just Nadya Tolokonnikova's experience of prison but a human being's experience of prison.” She was dispatched to work on the grounds, which can take many forms—often puzzling in their futility but effective as tools of intimidation and control. Mostly, inmates lug stuff around: anything from flour to dug-up dirt to rocks packed into giant black bags. As what seems to be a matter of policy, penal colonies do not have wheelbarrows or trolleys.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova walks to her news conference at Dozhd TV channel with the Cathedral of Christ the Savour on the background, Dec. 27, 2014.
Tolokonnikova walks to her news conference at Dozhd TV channel, with the Cathedral of Christ the Savour in the background, on Dec. 27, 2013.

Photo courtesy Denis Sinyakov

Tolokonnikova, too, came up against the facility's hygiene rules. Once a week at Correctional Colony No. 14 (IK-14) in Mordovia, inmates were marched to a small common washroom, where about 100 naked women would use their elbows and fists to gain access to faucets from which water may or may not flow on any given day. Tolokonnikova sneaked about, secreting a towel and a plastic ladle beneath her uniform jacket and going to a washroom on a different floor, where the duty watchwoman was somewhat more relaxed. On “bath days,” Tolokonnikova hid from the guard who escorted the inmates to the common washroom. The young inmate tried to make herself invisible to spare herself the humiliation of fighting and failing to keep herself clean.

Yet Tolokonnikova, unlike Alyokhina, did not want to enter into constant confrontation with the prison authorities. Even the potential to leave the colony for occasional court hearings did not appeal to her. “I just want the time to pass quickly,” she said when I visited her in prison in June last year. “Anything that breaks up the monotony slows time down.”

Alyokhina would have had no way of knowing her friend felt this way at the time—inmates are not allowed to correspond with one another—but this attitude is exactly what she wants to take on as a prisoners' rights activist. “Many inmates say, 'I just want my 14-hour workday and to be allowed to sleep the rest of the time so the days pass faster,' ” she says. “This is the most terrible thing that happens to a person in prison: She refuses to live, she refuses to see that she is more than a body that is shuttled between the dorm and the factory. And it turns out not to be so difficult to give up thinking for yourself—suddenly it seems like not such a big sacrifice to make. The denial of freedom as a legal concept becomes a metaphysical denial of freedom.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk.
Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk after being freed from prison.

Photo courtesy Denis Sinyakov

Tolokonnikova, the student of metaphysics, discovered this empirically: Her strategy of trying to live the life of a regular inmate forced her into a corner. Last summer conditions at IK-14 began deteriorating rapidly as the administration took on more and more orders for sewing police uniforms. Work hours expanded, as did the output requirements, and the hours allotted for sleep shrank. Inmates who failed to meet their production goals were beaten and denied access to food sent by friends and family—the only way to stay nourished in a Russian prison. When Tolokonnikova so much as tried to raise the issue with the warden, she was penalized too. For days she was locked out of her dormitory after work: She would have to remain outside, in a small fenced-in area, until lights out. This punishment was supplemented by so-called work in the woodshop; though the shop was equipped with a gas rotary saw, Tolokonnikova would be given a manual saw and required to stay in the shop until she had cut a thick log.

But the worst of the pressure was exerted through other inmates: as soon as Tolokonnikova so much as raised her voice in protest, others’ work hours would grow longer, too, and their access to food would be curtailed. It wasn't just the responsibility for making fellow inmates' lives hell that weighed on Tolokonnikova—it was the knowledge that eventually they would not only blame her but kill her. The deputy warden told Tolokonnikova as much when she got up the nerve to ask him to cut work hours back to the legal maximum. “He said he would make sure I'd be all right for eternity, 'because in the afterlife, everyone is all right.' ” This was a death threat, hardly veiled. It was this that finally got Tolokonnikova to act—this and the inspiration she drew from a friend, a doll-maker jailed on drug charges.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk, December 24, 2013..
Tolokonnikova in Krasnoyarsk on Dec. 24, 2013.

Photo courtesy Denis Sinyakov

“Every once in a while, the administration would do a sweep of my friends,” Tolokonnikova says. “People who had been seen talking to me would be told there would be trouble if they kept on, and they'd suddenly distance themselves.” At some points Tolokonnikova could not even ask a work-related question at the factory; other inmates would hiss at her to step away from their stations. But not the doll-maker—she was defiant in every way. For one thing, she continued to practice her art, carving her dolls even while standing in formation in the quad, or getting up in the middle of the night to paint; for another, she never abandoned her friend. Nor did she seem deterred by the physical hardships of colony life—not even on the regular occasions that the plumbing backed up, sending fecal matter flying into the living quarters, when she would be the one trying to unclog the pipes using a stick.

“For months I struggled with the idea of how to resist in these conditions, where anything I did would have negative consequences for other inmates,” Tolokonnikova says. “Finally I figured out that I needed to engineer my total isolation from other inmates.” A hunger strike would be her ticket, because an inmate who refuses food is automatically transferred to solitary. Tolokonnikova set about composing an open letter, though getting it out to the public would be extremely difficult. She passed paragraphs scribbled on scraps of paper surreptitiously to her husband and fellow activist, Petr (Petya) Verzilov, during his visits, and dictated other parts to him while prison staff were out of earshot.

The resulting letter was probably the most detailed and searing expose of Russian prison conditions since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. Verzilov released it to the public on Sept. 23, the day Tolokonnikova declared her hunger strike.

Solitary confinement followed. In the cold, without food, and following a summer of sleep deprivation and poor nutrition, Tolokonnikova became very weak very fast. She was taken to a hospital that served several Mordovian penal colonies at once, which marked a final turning point in her evolution as an activist. At the hospital she met women from a women's facility for repeat offenders, Correctional Colony No. 2 (IK-2). The stories they told—and the condition many of them were in—made the abuses Tolokonnikova had witnessed at IK-14 seem almost harmless in comparison. One woman from IK-2 said that for writing a complaint to a human rights commission, she had been punished by a year in punitive solitary, where the door to the street had been propped open in the dead of winter while the woman wore only “an orange dress and a pair of panties.” After she was seen talking to Tolokonnikova, this inmate was transferred out of the hospital back to IK-2.

Tolokonnikova made up her mind to use her skills and her access to the media to speak up for these women. She and Alyokhina began communicating secretly—passing messages through the lawyers they shared—to hatch a plan for a prisoners' rights NGO that they would launch as soon as they were released.

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