Sunday, 19 January 2014

Putin's Russia

The Sunday Times published an interesting interview with two members of the Pussy Riot punk rock group who were sentenced to two years in jail for the terrible crime of holding a peaceful protest concert inside an Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow.

But far from being cowed or intimidated by their experience Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova are more determined than ever to change Russia for the better.

Now that's the kind of fighting spirit I really admire.

Putin’s hell couldn't break us

After 22 months of abuse and forced labour in jail, members of Pussy Riot are unbowed. In their first interview with a British paper since being freed the protesters reveal how other inmates suffered even worse

By Mark Franchetti

Maria Alyokhina, left, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova say Russia is built on the model of a prison colony (Denis Sinyakov )

It was not until a chilly autumn day in 2012 when Nadezhda Tolokonnikova arrived at Penal Colony 14 in Mordovia, a region 300 miles southeast of Moscow known for its infamous Soviet-era gulags, that the irreverent Kremlin critic first began to understand the ordeal she faced.

One of three members of the punk group Pussy Riot jailed in the face of international outrage for singing a song against Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral, Tolokonnikova was hauled in front of the two bosses who run the notorious women’s prison camp. “You should know that when it comes to politics I am a Stalinist,” one of the two men, a colonel, said proudly.

The other warned her that unless she confessed her guilt she would never be granted parole. Tolokonnikova, a pretty 24-year-old brunette known for her chutzpah, refused. “You should know,” the prison officer stated, “that we have broken stronger wills than yours.”

Tolokonnikova, who had already spent several months in a Moscow pre-trial detention cell, had been dispatched to Camp 14 to serve her two-year sentence after her conviction on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

“I’d heard terrible things about Mordovia,” Tolokonnikova said last week. “In prison they say you haven’t really done time unless it’s in Mordovia. Nonetheless, when I was first transferred from Moscow to Prison Colony 14 I thought to myself that I could handle it, it could not be that bad. But that’s where I came face to face with hell.”

Tolokonnikova spent a year at the prison camp. Four months ago, after going on hunger strike for nine days and penning an open letter in protest at the conditions there, she was transferred to a penal colony in Siberia that she says was more law-abiding.

In December, as part of a wider prison amnesty and to improve Russia’s image before its Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin released early both Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, 25, another Pussy Riot member. (Yekaterina Samutsevich, the third Pussy Riot member, had been freed in 2012.)

Over coffee and cigarettes during a late-night meeting in a Moscow cafe last week, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina gave their first interview with a British newspaper since their release. People at other tables gawked at arguably Russia’s two most controversial young women.

Tolokonnikova, who wore a blue dress and Dr Martens boots, is well known as the face of Pussy Riot because of her good looks. Six years ago, while eight months pregnant and before Pussy Riot was formed, she took part in a public orgy “art performance” with her husband.

Visibly more defiant and bullish than before they were jailed, she and Alyokhina denounced the prisons in which they had been held for nearly two years as a “hellish world of slave labour and abuse” — a “disgrace” that they are now vowing to expose and reform.

Tolokonnikova revealed that she had asked her father to bring an icon of the Virgin Mary for her cell. “It was important to me because my father and I have always maintained a strong tradition in our family,” she said.

“Whenever we went to church together, we bought an icon that we particularly liked. Over time we accumulated quite a collection of icons at home. That’s where my intellectual roots lie, if you will.”

Tolokonnikova’s critics will be surprised to learn that she found solace in a religious icon, given the widespread anger and deep offence that Pussy Riot caused among Russian churchgoers.

They were jailed after their performance in February 2012 of a “punk prayer” inside Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, where Putin attends Christmas and Easter services. The stunt was designed to criticise the Orthodox Church’s close links to the Kremlin. Four band members, wearing their trademark brightly coloured balaclavas, danced and sang at the altar as outraged church staff and security sought to stop them.

“The KGB chief,” they sang in a reference to Putin’s career in the Soviet secret police, “is their chief saint, he leads protesters to prison under convoy.” The chorus was an appeal to the Virgin Mary: “O Birthgiver of God, get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin.”

The stunt caused widespread anger and shock among the Russian public. Less than two weeks later police arrested Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina. Ten days later Samutsevich was arrested. Other band members fled abroad.

What could have ended with a small fine led instead to a lengthy trial in which the three women escaped up to seven years in jail on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred but were still handed a two-year sentence.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina argued last week that the punishment was the result of Putin taking personal offence. They also believe that, in the president’s view, letting them off lightly would have been interpreted as a sign of weakness.

There was international outrage over Putin’s heavy-handed treatment of his two fierce young critics, who attracted sympathy from some of the world biggest’s pop and rock stars, including Madonna, Peter Gabriel, Sting and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“I’m grateful to those who supported us month after month in Russia and abroad,” Tolokonnikova said. “I owe my release to the people and not to our political leadership. That’s why we must continue to apply pressure.”

By contrast, nearly 40% of Russians agreed with jailing them. Prominent Russian opposition figures supported the women but criticised their choice of a cathedral to stage a protest.

Asked if they regretted the stunt, Tolokonnikova conceded almost reluctantly that they had been misguided in their choice of venue; but both quickly added that their message had been cynically misrepresented by state television. When a state broadcaster dedicated a prime-time chat show to the Pussy Riot affair last year, it featured ominous graphics of snakes slithering across the screen.

“We never intended to offend churchgoers — we wanted to bring to people’s attention some important political issues,” said Alyokhina, who of the two has shown less contrition. “Had our message not been so distorted by the Kremlin-controlled media, far fewer people would have been as hurt. Anyway, artists should provoke and divide society.”

They looked surprised when I asked if they were not scared of reprisals by a crazed ultra-orthodox nationalist, given the hatred they have provoked among some Russians. They smiled and shrugged.

“I’m a fatalist, what am I to do: live in fear, always look over my back or hire bodyguards?” Tolokonnikova said. “I’m not that kind of person. I look ahead and what we both want to focus on now is ridding Russia of the corrupt and authoritarian system Putin has created. That’s our dream.”

They have also founded Zone of Law, a human rights group that will gather testimony and evidence from former inmates and lodge complaints with Russia’s courts — “zone” in Russian slang means prison. The aim is to ensure that the basic rights of prisoners are respected and sadistic prison officials are removed.

They said they were shocked by the “terrifying and degrading” conditions in prison. Inmates are beaten, they said, by guards and other prisoners loyal to the administration. They are abused and are deprived of basic rights such as going to the lavatory and washing. The women alleged that inmates have even died as a result of the treatment.

“You are stripped of all your rights. You are not treated as a human being but just as a body; the aim is total submission,” Tolokonnikova said. “The whole system is geared towards degrading and humiliating you. Slave labour is the only way to describe it. Inmates are worked to the bone and allowed to sleep only four or five hours. Complain and your life will become even more awful.”

In some penal colonies, they said, female prisoners are forced to work 16 hours a day in sweatshops that produce mostly police uniforms. Tolokonnikova said she was paid 45p a month for her work as a seamstress and was given a day off every month and a half. She was often forbidden to go to the lavatory and once was not allowed to wash for three weeks. She described the food as “disgusting” and mostly unfit for human consumption.

She and Alyokhina said inmates were given absurd production targets and were severely punished when they failed to meet them. Prisoners are beaten by fellow inmates, with the administration’s approval, in the kidneys and the face. “Snitches” and “provocateurs” are unleashed on dissenters, often using sexual entrapment to frame them — officially sex is not allowed and offenders are punished.

Alyokhina said inmates were routinely subjected to forced gynaecological examinations. Both said the worldwide publicity their case attracted meant they were treated better than other inmates and were spared any physical violence. The prison administration on several occasions sought to foment anger against them among other inmates.

“The collective punishments were the worst, almost unbearable,” Tolokonnikova said. “You make one small gesture the prison bosses don’t like and 100 people are severely punished. The pressure to silence you becomes unbearable.”

Both women said that to increase their isolation other inmates were under strict instructions not to talk to them. Prisoners who dared befriend Tolokonnikova were denied parole, beaten or severely reprimanded. “The prison authorities set out to encourage and provoke betrayal and fear among the inmates themselves, empowering some to act against others,” Alyokhina said.

Tolokonnikova was sent to Mordovia penal colony after Pussy Riot’s protest at a Moscow cathedral, inset (Damir Bulatov/ )

In an open letter to explain her decision to go on hunger strike, Tolokonnikova revealed that inmates were forced to stand out in the freezing cold as punishment. One elderly inmate lost a finger to frostbite as a result.

A jailed gypsy was allegedly beaten to death a year before Tolokonnikova’s arrival; her murder was covered up as a stroke by the prison administration. Fresh new inmates who could not keep up with the workload were undressed and forced to sew naked in the sweatshop.

She described prisoners as being always on the verge of breaking down because of sleep deprivation and the race to meet outlandish quotas, screaming at each other and fighting over trivial matters. She revealed how one young woman was stabbed in the head with scissors because she had failed to deliver a pair of trousers on time.

“From the moment you get up to when you got to bed exhausted you are under constant psychological pressure,” Alyokhina said.

She served most of her sentence in a prison colony in Perm, 900 miles east of Moscow, where winter temperatures can drop to -30C. Five months were spent in solitary confinement “for her own safety”.

“Many times I was threatened with fresh criminal charges,” Alyokhina said. “The worst moment for me was seeing an inmate who was dying as a result of cirrhosis being forced to work. Prison in Russia is a place where everything is done to destroy all sense of humanity.”

Since their release they have become determined to concentrate their activism on reforming the system and ending the widespread abuse against female inmates.

“I decided to become a human rights activist when I realised how easy it was for officials to force with impunity women to be examined in the most intimate parts of their bodies,” Alyokhina said. “Russian officials should not stay unpunished, they cannot have this kind of absolute power over us.”

Tolokonnikova praised some prison officials and emphasised that conditions in all prisons in Russia were not as bad as those she had witnessed, but she is determined to see that the bosses of Mordovia’s Camp 14 are sacked. Russia, she argued, was built on the model of a prison colony: “The colony and the prison are the face of the country. It’s important to change the colony now, so as to change Russia too.”

Outside the restaurant, deep in the night, the two were stopped by passers- by asking to pose for a souvenir picture — a frequent scene since their release, said Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband. The irony that Tolokonnikova, a diehard feminist, should have become a sex symbol is not lost on many Russians.

To widespread surprise, Nadya and Masha — as the two women are known among friends — have so far shown no interest in seeking to cash in on their worldwide fame as symbols of female political rebellion. The attention seems to have left them unfazed and grounded.

Both have young children: Tolokonnikova a daughter, Gera, 5, and Alyokhina a son, Filip, 8. There was some criticism that they did not rush to be reunited with them immediately after their release, choosing instead to meet in Siberia to discuss their human rights campaign. A German newspaper went so far as to compare them to left-wing female terrorists of the 1970s who neglected their children for their cause.

I asked why they failed to mention the pain of being separated from their children when discussing the hardships of their imprisonment.

“Why should I? That’s too obvious,” Tolokonnikova replied with a hint of irritation. “I see beyond that and want to talk about more global things. Of course I missed her and it was wonderful to be reunited with her. The criticism is condescending and would not be made of a man. Any woman with a career has to make sacrifices. That’s no different for me as a political activist.”

Her husband had brought Gera on regular visits to her in prison.

Both women were lost for words when asked to describe the single best moment since their release. There was a long pause but no answer. How had prison changed them? Again they paused and then explained how they had learnt much from being exposed to people of lower social status and to Soviet-minded state officials.

“We now understand well the psychology of the system which keeps Putin in power,” Tolokonnikova said.

“We are neither broken nor scared and we won’t leave Russia,” Alyokhina said defiantly. “On the contrary, we are both far more focused and determined. We are stronger and more experienced.”

“Most of all those close to us say that we haven’t changed, we’ve remained true to ourselves. That’s nice to hear,” Tolokonnikova added.

“But I, for one, can’t sleep. Only two or three hours, that’s it. When I sleep I feel guilty that I am wasting time. I feel a burden, a sense of responsibility to act. I think of the eyes and the expressions of the women in prison I met who told me of the abuse they put up with. People on the edge of life and death.”