Pussy Riot imprisoned member declares hunger strike

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova pens an open letter from Russian penal colony announcing her strike against cruel conditions


Natasha Lennard
September 23, 2013 7:18PM (UTC)

In an open letter from a Russian penal colony where Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is kept prisoner, the punk activist announced her decision to begin a hunger strike Monday. She framed the action as her only option:

"Beginning Monday, 23 September, I am going on hunger strike. This is an extreme method, but I am convinced that it is my only way out of my current situation," Tolokonnikova wrote, one year after being sent to a penal colony following conviction for "hooliganism."

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She and two other Pussy Riot members were arrested in 2012 when Pussy Riot held an unauthorized performance in Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral denouncing Vladimir Putin. Tolokonnikova's hunger strike declaration goes on to describe her harsh incarceration conditions, including extended sleep deprivation and "slave labor"-like work hours:

It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No 14 in the Mordovian village of Parts. As the prisoner saying goes: "Those who never did time in Mordovia never did time at all." I started hearing about Mordovian prison colonies while I was still being held at Pre-Trial Detention Centre No 6 in Moscow. They have the highest levels of security, the longest workdays, and the most flagrant rights violation. When they send you off to Mordovia, it is as though you're headed to the scaffold. Until the very last moment, they keep hoping: "Perhaps they won't send you to Mordovia after all? Maybe it will blow over?" Nothing blew over, and in the autumn of 2012, I arrived at the camp on the banks of the Partsa River.

Mordovia greeted me with the words of the deputy chief of the penal colony, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, who is the de facto head administrator of our colony. "You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist." Colonel Kulagin, the other head administrator — the colony is run in tandem — called me in for a conversation on my first day here with the objective to force me to confess my guilt. "A misfortune has befallen you. Isn't that so? You've been sentenced to two years in the colony. People usually change their minds when bad things happen to them. If you want to be paroled as soon as possible, you have to confess your guilt. If you don't, you won't get parole." I told him right away that I would only work the 8 hours a day required by the labour code. "The code is one thing — what really matters is fulfilling your quota. If you don't, you work overtime. You should know that we have broken stronger wills than yours!" was Kulagin's response.

My brigade in the sewing shop works 16 to 17 hours a day. From 7.30am to 12.30am. At best, we get four hours of sleep a night. We have a day off once every month and a half. We work almost every Sunday. Prisoners submit petitions to work on weekends "out of [their] own desire". In actuality, there is, of course, no desire to speak of. These petitions are written on the orders of the administration and under pressure from the prisoners that help enforce it.

... Thinking only of sleep and a sip of tea, the harassed and dirty prisoner becomes obedient putty in the hands of the administration, which sees us solely as free slave labor. Thus, in June 2013, my salary was 29 (29!) rubles [57p] for the month. Our brigade sews 150 police uniforms per day. Where does the money they get for them go?

... I am going on hunger strike and refusing to participate in colony slave labor. I will do this until the administration starts obeying the law and stops treating incarcerated women like cattle ejected from the realm of justice for the purpose of stoking the production of the sewing industry; until they start treating us like humans.


Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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