Pussy Riot's Latest Fight: Making Sure People Still Hear Their Protests

With a single letter, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has broken through the media blockade of Pussy Riot. The imprisoned band member has written to explain the reasons behind her hunger strike. Writing from her Mordovian penal colony, she acknowledged the method was “extreme” but necessary. “[L]iving and working-condition violations at PC-14 are endless,” she said. And she faces threats of violence by prison officials who also use “cruelest means” and “collective punishment” to ensure that no complaints are leaked to the outside world.

Moreover, she writes, “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.” The inmates of the all-female colony are treated like “slaves,” laboring 17 hours a day, in disregard of the 8-hour workday set by Russian federal regulations. “Mordovian prisoners are afraid of their own shadows.”

This week, a special delegation from the presidential human rights council went on a 10-hour tour of the colony — where Tolokonnikova has been isolated from other inmates according to the rules — and early comments from the inspectors confirm the horrors she describes. A member of the delegation, Ilya Shablinsky spoke with several inmates and said their stories were shocking and “hair-wrenching.”

Meanwhile, at a detention facility in Nizhny Novgorod, Mariya Alyokhina of Pussy Riot spent some quality time this week with her pro bono attorney Irina Khrunova of the interregional organization Agora. In a surreal court decision, Alyokhina was ordered to “telecommute” to her parole hearings earlier this year, and on September 26 she was able to, for the first time in 8 months, see her judge in person — but at the brief hearing the court decided to postpone its decision on early release to October 18. 

While stationed at a penal colony in Perm, Alyokhina also went on hunger strike, which she ended after winning important concessions. Who knows, perhaps Khrunova will work wonders again: in 2012, it was she who persuaded the appellate court to suspend Yekaterina Samutsevich’s sentence and release her on probation.

Still, the longer the punk collective’s imprisoned members continue to demonstrate the courageous behavior exemplified by Mariya Alyokhina’s unwavering legal challenges and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s decision to stand up for the rights of all inmates and go on hunger strike in protest, the harder it will be for the Russian government to ignore the group’s persecution and portray them as anti-religious “hooligans,” “extremists,” and “outcasts.”

Every trial motion, every courtroom speech, every hunger strike, every media interview by the members of Pussy Riot is proving the Kremlin wrong. 

In response, Russian authorities are making a blunder after blunder. Courts across the country have already banned four Pussy Riot videos as “extremist,” and more are working tirelessly to expand the Federal List of Extremist Materials, which has eclipsed 2,000 entries this year. On September 17, a court in Novorossijsk has declared “extremist” and banned the distribution of a translation of the Holy Qur’an. So much for the logic of “upholding religious freedom” by punishing Pussy Riot: in reality, religious groups suffer as much as free-wheeling dissenters persecuted by the Russian state. The same set of legal tools are used to go after religious groups, human rights defenders, and artists.

Though it’s been difficult to find balanced stories about Pussy Riot in the state-run media, Tolokonnikova’s hunger strike is impossible to dismiss because she talks about the horrors of Gulag, which will strikes a note with any Russian. This letter from PC-14 will stand together with Nadezhda’s closing statement last year, which was a manifesto of everything she sees wrong with Putin’s Russia. At a parole hearing in August, she gave another forceful speech, predicting the decline of Putin’s regime and promising that “our symbolic power, rising from conviction and courage, growing stronger with each passing year, will transform into something much greater.”