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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Before Tolokonnikova was released, though, she was transferred back to IK-14. Her friend the doll-maker was now in solitary for having spoken to a human rights inspector, who had come to the prison because of Tolokonnikova's hunger strike. Tolokonnikova now had even more reason to fear for her own safety, but she was no longer allowed to see her lawyer or have any telephone contact with the outside world. She declared another hunger strike, demanding a transfer. She was finally transferred to a penal colony in Siberia, in a grueling three-week-long transport in an unheated train car with painted-over windows and only a hard bench to sleep on. Inmates dread these transports, during which they are cut off from contact with lawyers, friends, and family and consequently, from any source of food other than the prisoner's scant ration. Another hardship specific to the transport is the number of bathroom breaks—no more than three and often two a day, at a time chosen by the convoy. “I took a plastic bucket with me,” says Tolokonnikova, by that time a seasoned inmate. “I made sure not to drink much water. And it was fine.”

Tolokonnikova had made a breakthrough: Not only had she escaped IK-14, but she had also found her mission, making the entire prison experience meaningful. “I felt euphoric. During the transport, I was held over at some of the harshest pretrial detention centers in the country, and yet I felt I had been halfway released. I was my own person again.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk.
Tolokonnikova in Krasnoyarsk.

Photo courtesy Denis Sinyakov

Once they were released, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova put out a call to former inmates to testify to the abuses they had witnessed or experienced. They have been meeting with recent ex-convicts and recording their stories. Tolokonnikova is particularly interested in collecting information on IK-2, which she began doing in the Mordovian hospital.

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“At IK-2, you have to work to be taken to punitive solitary,” she says. “First you have to surrender your outerwear and, dressed only in a thin uniform, stand outside in the quad with your arms stretched forward. This can last up to three days. If you collapse, they will stand you back up again.” After this, the cold and deprivation of punitive solitary come as a relief.

“Regular staff there have regular sticks,” Tolokonnikova says. “But one of them has a stick with a metal tip. She will walk along the conveyer line in the sewing factory and hit people with it at random.” Other weapons at IK-2 include a large stick emblazoned with the word ARGUMENT (used by the warden himself as an “argument” in discussions with inmates) and a stick covered in plastic tape used to enforce work discipline at the sewing factory. The work shift at IK-2 runs from 7 a.m. until 3 a.m., and inmates are often roused at 5 to work on the grounds before they report to the factory. One of the women whose testimony Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have recorded said she witnessed a death at the factory in mid-December: A woman apparently collapsed from exhaustion while working in the middle of the night and died. Inmates were then compelled to sign statements indicating the woman had not been at work when she died.

* * *

Ten days after their release, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are meeting with ex-convicts in the backroom of a fashionable Moscow gallery, made available by one of their many supporters in Moscow's art community. The pair’s workday runs from 10 in the morning roughly to midnight. One former IK-2 inmate leaves, and another arrives—a woman with a wide, friendly smile and many missing teeth, here to tell the story of her friend back at IK-2 in punitive solitary. Alyokhina’s son, Filipp, had been at a soap-making class next door which has long since ended; he’s since had time to construct a huge cardboard foiled-wrapped sword and matching shield. Still, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s work is nowhere near done. With Verzilov, they are composing an appeal for people to flood IK-2, the regional prison authority, and the prosecutor's office with phone calls and letters inquiring about Victoria Dubrovina, the woman in solitary.

Alyokhina calls Filipp's father, Nikita Demidov, and asks him to pick Filipp up and take him skating. Demidov has been taking full-time care of Filipp since the day in February 2012 when he received a text from Alyokhina: “I have to go into hiding, possibly for as long as a month. Please take Filipp.”

Demidov arrives with a bouquet of short-stem pink roses that he gives to Tolokonnikova: “Congratulations on your release,” he says.

By 5 p.m. the writing is done and the appeal goes up on Alyokhina’s and Tolokonnikova's Facebook pages. “Now do I need to make a tweet too?” asks Alyokhina.

“Make four,” says Verzilov, who is better-versed in social networks. “Summarize the story in four separate tweets.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (R) and Maria Alekhina are seen in a restaurant in Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk just in couple of hours after their meeting in local airport.
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova in a restaurant in Krasnoyarsk just a couple of hours after meeting at the local airport.

Photo courtesy Denis Sinyakov

 “I've always admired people who can organize others around a cause,” Tolokonnikova says. “My activism was always pretty individual. But now it's great to see how we can do it too.” This is Friday night; by Monday morning the original Facebook post will have been shared nearly 2,000 times. The official responses to complaints and inquiries will not come until after the holidays and are most likely to be uninformative, but the point of the post was to let IK-2 know that Victoria Dubrovina's fate was being watched by thousands of people. That kind of attention can mean the difference between life and death for an inmate.

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova can not only detail the abuses and humiliation of prison life but also illuminate a larger truth: that a Russian prison is a microcosm of Russia itself. “Every correctional institution is a totalitarian state in miniature,” Alyokhina says. “And all totalitarian states have similar problems. But from being in prison I have also understood a lot about the way Russia is governed. Putin runs it like a criminal boss runs his fiefdom”—which is also the way most wardens run their prisons.

Videographers who used to document Pussy Riot actions have been following Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova around since they returned to Moscow. But Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are clear that their prisoners’ rights movement is not a Pussy Riot action. For one thing, Pussy Riot members were always anonymous. “And we always wanted Pussy Riot to exist independently of us,” Alyokhina says. “We clearly succeeded: Pussy Riot got bigger once we were arrested.” But Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are no longer Pussy Riot. “And if we do something as Pussy Riot, we won't tell,” Tolokonnikova says.

Nor are they other things they used to be—like college students. For her first few months in the penal colony, Alyokhina attempted to continue her studies long-distance. Now, she says, “I don't see how it's possible to do this fully and also go to college.”

“Both Masha and I, when we do something, we devote ourselves to it fully,” Tolokonnikova says. “Plus, I no longer see the point of a formal education. I will continue to learn, but I don't see what it has to do with a particular university structure.”

They may not be the most experienced organizers, but they are confident of their ability to launch a trend. They claim that Pussy Riot's wearable symbol of resistance—those iconic, brightly colored balaclavas—will soon be replaced by prison uniforms. “Everyone will be wearing a [prison] robe,” Tolokonnikova says with a laugh of the Russian penal uniform. “And we also want everyone to learn to light their cigarette using another cigarette, like they do in prison,” Alyokhina adds—another way to signal solidarity with the cause.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina on the roof of TVRain, the independent television channel, right after their first press-conference.
Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina on the roof of TVRain, an independent television channel, right after their first press conference.*

Photo courtesy Denis Sinyakov

Their new movement has almost everything: charismatic leaders, visual symbols, great public interest, and, at least for now, extreme media attention. The only thing lacking is a long-term vision, which is not at all surprising for a movement launched a few weeks ago by two twentysomethings just out of prison. For the next month, they will concentrate on the cases and the prison colonies they know best. They envision the movement broadening after that, drawing in not only ex-convicts but also lawyers and scholars.

What happens then? “We have a negative program and a positive one,” says Tolokonnikova. “The negative program is to stop prison administrations from killing people in body and in spirit. The positive program is to achieve economic transparency of correctional institutions, bring in culture. Basically, it's democratization from below.” Alyokhina has an idea for government subsidies for companies that commit to training and employing convicts in and out of prison.

On her euphoric prison transport, Tolokonnikova devoured books by Soviet dissidents, such as the memoirs of former political prisoners Vladimir Bukovsky and the late Anatoly Marchenko. She had asked friends to send these books, but IK-14 officials had kept them from her. “I walked out of the colony with these books and with two life-size bags of postcards from people all over the world, mostly organized by Amnesty International,” she says. The postcards had not gotten past IK-14 censors because they were written in foreign languages. So in her solitary, unheated train compartment, Tolokonnikova had a concentrated taste of what solidarity feels like and a large dose of impassioned writing by people who had sacrificed their health, their security, and their freedom for their convictions. Soviet dissidents were like this: They worked painstakingly on behalf of the regime's individual victims; they were idealistic and even at times naïve as a matter of principle; and most important, they were fearless.

“You cannot frighten someone who has been to Russian prison,” Tolokonnikova says. What is Putin going to do to them—throw them back into prison after the Olympics? They'll just treat it as a fact-finding mission.

*Correction, Jan. 10, 2014: A caption in this article originally misstated that the two newly released Pussy Riot members were in the town of Krasnoyarsk. The correct location is the TVRain television station in Moscow.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and co-editor of Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories.