Riot – but different

We know them for their gaudy facemasks, their miniskirts, their blaring guitars and their screamed vocals: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. On 21 February 2012, these two women suddenly attained world renown. As activists from the feminist punk band "Pussy Riot", they demonstrated against Russia's President Vladimir Putin with their "Punk Prayer" in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The performance lasted just 41 seconds – their resulting prison sentence almost two years.

“The prisoner is supposed to feel like a dirty animal without rights here,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova reported from her prison camp in the constituent Russian republic of Mordovia, which is also known as “Camp Hell”. Tolokonnikova was taken there from Moscow, 420 kilometers from her husband and their young daughter. Her fellow band member Maria Alyokhina was transported to a prison in Perm, a city 1,150 kilometers east of Moscow, where her son lives. They chose the “most terrible camps” possible for them, stated the artist collective “Voina”, a group which Tolokonnikova’s husband belongs to. Innumerable inmates were forced to work until exhaustion, punished randomly and housed in squalor there, they said; many of whom were imprisoned because of their political views, like Tolokonnikova und Alyokhina.

“We have broken stronger wills than yours,” the prison camp’s director Colonel Kulagin is purported to have said to Tolokonnikova upon her arrival (Source 1). The impression is that political conviction is supposed to be quashed here through torturous labor and inhuman treatment. The inmates are forced to sew police uniforms for 16 to 17 hours a day. “We are lucky if we can sleep for four hours,” Tolokonnikova reported from the prison. Rebellious or disobedient prisoners were beaten, had to stand in the freezing cold in the courtyard or were made to work naked, she continued, also claiming that the food in the prison was intolerable. “Apparently it is one of the re-education measures to give the prisoners old bread, heavily watered-down milk, rancid millet and rotten potatoes to eat,” Tolokonnikova said. There were only five showers for 800 inmates. But Tolokonnikova did not give up. She used her fame to publicly denounce the circumstances in the penal camp. “I want us to be treated like human beings, not as slaves,” Tolokonnikova demanded. She went on a hunger strike to protest against the merciless prison conditions.

Now Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are free again. The two activists were released from their camps in an accelerated procedure at the end of last year – just in time for the start of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Both of them knew that they wanted to continue their political struggle. Just out of jail, Maria Alyokhina explained that she not only intended to repeat her Punk Prayer, she also wanted to sing it all the way to the end. But their time in prison has left its mark on the two Russian women. Their goals have now changed.

Where they once protested with Pussy Riot against the Russian system and for a stronger feminism, they now want to campaign primarily for more humane penal conditions in Russia, and for the rights of those who are still imprisoned in Russian jails, suffering the same awful fate as they themselves did. “Zona Prava” (law zone/zone of rights) is the name of the non-governmental organization that Tolokonnikova und Alyokhina recently founded. They are still in the initial stages, collecting funding, touring Europe and America to drive their project forwards. They recently gave interviews in Germany, visited Hillary Clinton and took the stage alongside Madonna at an Amnesty International concert.   “I can no longer stand by and watch my fellow prison inmates break down under these terrible conditions,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said before starting her hunger strike last year. “I demand that the law be upheld in the prison camp in Mordovia.” Now she is continuing her efforts to have this demand met, but with changed protest methods: no longer with a brightly colored woolen mask and punk rock vocals, instead with the determination to help her former prison mates.

Picture: PEN American Center CC BY 2.0

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