Long Read: Pussy Riot’s New Project

Masha Gessen, in Slate:

… She is one of Russia’s most famous political prisoners, famously released in advance of the Olympic Games in Sochi. With Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, her collaborator in the balaclava-clad art group Pussy Riot and co-defendant in the trial that captured the world’s attention in the summer of 2012, Alyokhina is now refashioning herself as a prisoners’ rights activist. When the two women were arrested, just under two years ago, they were college students who had come up with a prank. It was a prank that changed the way much of the world viewed Russia—and changed their own lives profoundly—but it was still a prank. They emerged from prison on Dec. 23 as political activists seasoned by time behind bars, surrounded by public and media attention in Russia and abroad, and motivated by a need to address the pain and abuse they have experienced and witnessed in prison…

Russian President Vladimir Putin released the members of Pussy Riot—as well as nearly 30 international Greenpeace activists, held since September, and Russia’s other most famous political prisoner, businessman and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky—in a last-minute scramble to save the Winter Olympics, which begin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Feb. 7… The Greenpeace activists went home to their respective countries; Khodorkovsky went to Germany, into what appears to be involuntary exile. Only Alyokhina, 25, and Tolokonnikova, 24, remain in Russia, speaking out. Their message is: Do not buy the newly varnished façade. Russia is continuing to abuse the rights of its own people in ways most cannot even imagine. And anyone who goes to the Olympics, whether as an athlete, a spectator, or an official, in effect condones these abuses.

“I was worried that no one would be interested in prisoners’ rights,” Tolokonnikova says. “I thought this might be just something Masha and I want to work on because we have experienced it.”

But prison is an object of almost universal fear and interest in Russia. The country has one of the world’s highest percentages of its population behind bars—not as high as the United States, but a key difference is that in Russia the risk of landing in prison cuts across class lines. No one knows the exact figures, but human rights advocates estimate that more than 15,000 and possibly more than 100,000 of Russia’s roughly 700,000 inmates are entrepreneurs sent to jail by competitors or extortionists. And then there are the political prisoners, a population that is growing despite recent high-profile pardons. Opposition activists are arrested seemingly at random; many of them are not leaders but ordinary grassroots activists or even one-time participants in a demonstration.

The goal of this tried-and-true Soviet tactic is to frighten people away from any and all opposition activity. It’s effective, but its flip side is that when Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova speak about the abuse of prisoners, they grab the attention of millions of Russians who fear winding up behind bars themselves. Since leaving prison, they have appeared in public wearing borrowed or donated clothes, all of them unfailingly trendy because the donors are their fans in the media and fashion industries. This sends a stark message: When two young, well-turned-out women talk about being subjected to what amounts to torture, they really call attention to the fact that it can happen to anyone…

“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…

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39 replies
  1. 1
    Narcissus says:

    I hope they have some kind of exit strategy

    Just in case

  2. 2
    Keith G says:

    First the princedoms of the Rus then Russia proper have been a wreck of a society (over 1200 years) with no avenue for improvement in sight.

    An amazing and often very turbulent and sad narrative.

  3. 3
    mainmata says:

    I worked in Russia in the 1990s. My main partner was Russia’s first environmental economist who had to be a member of the KGB during the Soviet period. She was fabulous and what we could call a progressive. Russians are a real work in progress and we’re not going to have a “Euro” relationship for a while. There are a lot of terrific people there but also an appalling lot of brutes and autocrats. Hmmm actually not unlike some folks in this country except that the Russian system has so fewer civil/human rights.

    Otherwise, it is a huge country with a large population and lots of ethnic groups like us.

  4. 4
    Belafon says:

    But, remember, Obama is the real tyrant because the people on Fox get to say so every hour of every day.

    //

    @Narcissus: Yeah, it doesn’t sound like they would even be allowed to make it to their second trip to prison.

  5. 5
    Yatsuno says:

    The more these stories leak, the more Putin’s perfect society looks more and more flawed. I wonder who the next placeholder prime minister will be since Vlad has to give up the throne to a puppet here in a couple of years.

  6. 6
    Redshirt says:

    I could beat Putin in a fight. 3 Rounds, points, bring it V, if you dare*.

    *Your lack of response indicates your fear.

  7. 7
    Violet says:

    Really wonder how Sochi is going to go. Russia is so big and there are so many pieces to the unhappy puzzle.

  8. 8
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Keith G: Please explain how the princedom of Kyivan Rus under the Rurikids was any worse than any contemporary European dynasties (i.e. “wreck of a society.”)

  9. 9
    fleeting expletive says:

    Jon Stewart just did a great piece on income inequality and how Republicans frame income inequity. Would that cable would just get over CC already.

  10. 10
    Yatsuno says:

    @Violet: There is going to be a bombing. That is a certainty. The real question is how bad the casualty count will be.

  11. 11
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Gin & Tonic: Charlemagne was a paragon of chivalry and shit. Rurik wasn’t. Rollo and the rest of the Norse who went to Normandy got a bit Frenchified so they were cool.

  12. 12
    Cassidy says:

    @Yatsuno: I’m betting hostage crisis with a brutal massacre by Alpha Group.

  13. 13
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Yatsuno: Looking back, it was inevitable that there would be a bombing in Atlanta in ’96. Enough right wing crazies running around, cosmopolitan and tolerant atmosphere around the OV and Games. It was bound to happen and it did.

    @Cassidy: That’s a repeat of 1972. More or less.

  14. 14
    Cassidy says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: True, but Spetsnaz are a special kind of mean.

  15. 15
    srv says:

    Snowden needs to start dating both of them.

  16. 16
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Good one.

  17. 17
    Culture of Truth says:

    Opposition activists are arrested seemingly at random; many of them are not leaders but ordinary grassroots activists or even one-time participants in a demonstration.

    Scary. Police state. Domestic terror.

  18. 18
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @srv: I doubt that this girl would date Snowden.

  19. 19
    dr. luba says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: When Anna, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, was married to the King of France, she was appalled at the culture she had married into. Per Wikipedia: She wrote to her father that Francia was “a barbarous country where the houses are gloomy, the churches ugly and the customs revolting.” Anna complained that the French could not write and read, and did not wash themselves. Anna of Kiev could write and read five languages, including Greek and Latin, while her husband Henry the First and his entire court could not write and read, and signed themselves with a cross. At her wedding banquet, she was shocked to have only three dishes, while at her father’s court in Rus’, she had five dinner dishes every day. Anna could ride a horse, was knowledgeable in politics, and actively participated in governing France, especially after her husband died. Many French documents bear her signature, written in old Slavic language (АНА РЪИНА, that is, Anna Regina, Anna the Queen). Pope Nicholas II, who was greatly surprised with Anne’s great political abilities, wrote her a letter: “Honorable lady, the fame of your virtues has reached our ears, and, with great joy, we hear that you are performing your royal duties at this very Christian state with commendable zeal and brilliant mind.” Henry the First respected his wife Anna so much that his many decrees bear the inscription “With the consent of my wife Anna” and “In the presence of Queen Anna”. French historians point out that there are no other cases in the French history, when Royal decrees bear such inscriptions.

    And Rus=/=Russia. Modern day Russia/Rossiya is the former Muscovy.

  20. 20
    Yatsuno says:

    @Cassidy: @Omnes Omnibus: The Games in Atlanta were woefully underprepared security-wise, but those were corners the organisers were willing to cut. I’m just afraid with all the crony grifting that has already happened security will be a joke. I think an effective bombing could happen during the Opening Ceremonies with the promise of more to come and because the security is so lax it will get worse from there. Maybe even a bombing of the gold medal hockey match. I shudder to think of it, but there is no way the security is going to be tight enough to keep it from happening, especially if the rubles fly around.

  21. 21
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @dr. luba:

    And Rus=/=Russia. Modern day Russia/Rossiya is the former Muscovy.

    I am aware of that. And recalibrate your snark meter.

  22. 22
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    If someone could help with the moderation thing I would appreciate it.

  23. 23
    Yatsuno says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Apparently FYWP is having another of its snits.

  24. 24
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Yatsuno: I put in a link to a pic of one of the members of the band this thread is about. It has the p-word. Cool photo though.

    BTW you should really rethink buying a horse.

  25. 25
    Violet says:

    @Yatsuno: Not sure the bombing will be in Sochi, though. Sounds like security there is tight. I know money could buy them off, but it might be easier to bomb Moscow or elsewhere.

  26. 26
    Yatsuno says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Well my mother sold my beautiful Cody boy, but have no fear: I am not purchasing an equine any time soon. Not at least until I have a decent property of my own, which is a few years in the future yet. A new computer may be in the cards however.

  27. 27
    Narcissus says:

    From everything I’ve seen Sochi is already an armed camp. I sort of expect any shenanigans to happen outside the games proper.

  28. 28
    Cassidy says:

    @Yatsuno: The Russian security apparatus is very experienced. I’d think a brutal crackdown/ takedown is more likely. Hopefully, everyone is wrong.

  29. 29
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @srv: I doubt that this girl would date Snowden.

    TinyURL may fix things.

    ETA: Woohoo!

  30. 30
    Yatsuno says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: One other detail: she’s married. I think all three of them are.

  31. 31
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Cassidy:

    I hope I’m wrong, too, but there are plenty of disgruntled groups in the Russian Federation (and in the states of the former Soviet Union) who would not mind one bit giving Putin a black eye in or around Sochi.

    You have to remember, this is the successor regime to the state that had such an airtight air defense that a Cessna from West Germany (!) landed on Red Square in the 80’s.

  32. 32
    Citizen_X says:

    @Redshirt:

    I could beat Putin in a fight. 3 Rounds, points, bring it V

    Don’t take him lightly. He’s a black belt in judo, and very active in promoting the sport in Russia.

    One of the few things I actually admire about him.

  33. 33
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Yatsuno: Even ignoring, that is a “¡No Pasarán!” tee something that indicates compatibility with a right leaning libertarian?

  34. 34
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Oh, yippee, it got fixed.

  35. 35
    Yatsuno says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: I guess. He’s not necessarily all that attractive IMHO. Then again I’m not much for people who willingly break oaths. Kinda ruins the whole trust thing knowwhatImean?

  36. 36
    Citizen_X says:

    but it was still a prank

    Oh, fuck off, Slate lady. It was a protest, one very explicitly aimed at Putin’s use of the Russian Orthodox Church to make himself seem more legitimate.

    And that’s a problem that stretches from Russia to Saudi to Texas. As a matter of fact, I’ll make a deal with the clergy: you stop preaching in biology class, and we won’t play punk rock in your churches.

  37. 37
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Citizen_X:

    you stop preaching in biology class, and we won’t play punk rock in your churches.

    Nope. Punk rock can say many things. Some of which belong in a church.

    @Yatsuno: She’s lovely.

  38. 38
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Citizen_X: I think you’re being unfair to Gessen, whose new pro-PR book ‘Words Will Break Cement‘ is not her first about Russian politics. What she’s saying is that Pussy Riot’s ‘punk prayer’ was the act of several young artists epater-ing la bourgeoisie — quite successfully, but there’s a limit to how much one accomplishes just by shock. What Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova want to accomplish now, with their new prison-reform project, is much harder, but hopefully will have more of a long-term effect.

  39. 39
    Mart says:

    “But prison is an object of almost universal fear and interest in Russia. The country has one of the world’s highest percentages of its population behind bars—not as high as the United States, but a key difference is that in Russia the risk of landing in prison cuts across class lines.”

    I am proud to live in a country that has the highest % of folks in jail, and most people could care less – as it only applies to the blahs and poor white trash.

    Also too proud to live in a country that wages endless wars with a volunteer Army.

    Obviously those people deserve what they are getting, so I won’t let it bother me or mine.

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