Pussy Riot is the new Black: The “girl” in the above photo is Russian Nadya Tolokonnikova, and her prison story is very Black. Her experience makes the character of Piper Kerman (the author) and Chapman (the TV character, as portrayed by Taylor Schilling) into even more of a spoiled winer than was portrayed in the first season of that great Netflix comedy-drama.
Nadya’s story so far: Three performance artists are charged in 2012 with trumped-up charges because they protested against Uncle Vladimir. Two are sentenced to two years in Russian gulags.
In 2014 Russian-American author Masha Gessen publishes a book, Words Will Break Cement, on the Pussy Riot incident. There are three different segments with three different tones: starting as a social history of post-Gorbachov Russia, through a court-room drama, and finally the blackness of the penal system. I have trusted Masha since her writings as a contributor to The NY Times. Her book on Uncle Vlad, The Man Without a Face, is a great read.
I love Orange/Black, but let’s face it, with season three, the flight from reality is continuing. Did you ever listen to Jian Ghomeshi’s (sigh) interview with author Kerman, trying to divine how much of those first episodes were real? They were. The show still calls attention to problems in the criminal justice system, but we have become numbed to the realty of prison life by all the smoothing of edges.
Not so with Gessen’s book.
It’s the story of three smart and talented “girls” (aka women). I am not sure they were brave during all of their performances: impetuous comes to mind. But once arrested and incarcerated, all women show themselves as amazingly cool-headed, strong, and brave. Each are model characters. Kat becomes a jailhouse lawyer, dismissing her real lawyers, and winning an acquittal on appeal (a security guard had carried her out of the Cathedral before the protest begins). Maria has her Gulag masters tied in knots, forcing them into public trials of their worst practices. But it seems that Nadia has just given up and fallen silent. Then in an Epilogue, Masha introduces a letter* smuggled out of Nadya’s prison:
My whole shift works 16 hours a day in the sewing shops to 12:30 at night. At best we get four hours of sleep a night. We have a day off every month and a half.
Conditions at the prison are organized in such a way that the inmates in charge are tasked by the wardens with terrorizing inmates and turning them into speechless slaves.
“If you weren’t Tolokonnikova, you would have had the shit kicked out of you along time ago,” say fellow prisoners with close ties to the warden. It’s true: other prisoners are beaten up. For not being able to keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, the face. Convicts themselves deliver these beatings and not a single one of them happens without the approval or knowledge of the warden. A year ago a gypsy woman was beaten to death in the third unit.
For the prison warden, managed hazing is a convenient method for forcing convicts to totally obey their lawless regime.
Overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfill inhumanely large quotas, convicts are always on the verge of breaking down. Just recently, a young woman got stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors because she didn’t turn in a pair pants on time. Another tried to cut her own stomach open with a hacksaw.
Sanitary conditions at the prison are calculated to make the prisoner feel like a disempowered, filthy animal. A “common hygiene room” can accommodate five people, but all eight hundred prisoners are sent there to wash up. At times, my dorm unit has been unable to bath for two or three weeks.
My main grievance is that the administration prevents in the harshest possible way all complaints and petitions from leaving the prison. Collective punishment is employed.
In May 2013, my lawyer filed a complaint about the conditions at this prison. The prison’s deputy warden instantly made conditions unbearable. There was search after search, a flood of disciplinary reports on all my acquaintances, the seizure of warm clothes, and threats of seizure of warm footwear. One of my friends was denied parole, which she had been working towards for seven years by diligently over-fulfilling quotas in the manufacturing zone. Another close acquaintance was thrown into the pressure cooker unit for daily beatings because she had discussed with me the Justice Ministry document entitled “Internal Regulations at Correctional Facilities.”
As of September 23, I declare a hunger strike and refuse to be involved in slave labor at the prison.
Already depleted from months of abuse, Nadya soon becomes ill. “Then she disappeared.”
Finally in December, after Gessen completes her manuscript, Nadya is discovered in Siberia, where she finished the last three months of her sentence in relative comfort.
She would have, she could have, died.
Masha Gessen often refers to prisons in Russia as “gulags,” using the old Soviet-era term, that according to Wikipedia, receded in the last decades of the USSR. Masha’s documentation shows that the old practices never really stopped.
Gessen concluded a New York Times column entitled Is It 1937 Yet? (1937 being the start of Stalin’s Great Terror):
While Mr. Putin has done much to restore the ideological mechanisms of the totalitarian system, Russia is not run by means of total terror. It is, rather, a country that sounds like a totalitarian one when it speaks through its media, but has not yet restricted all activity. Russians know … that things can indeed be much worse. The problem with that knowledge … is that it can make life in Russia seem tolerable … . At least until the next firing, trial, deportation or murder happens.
We need to not loose perspective. Maher Arar had things much worse in a Syrian jail.
But in Russia, not that long ago, it had looked like Spring.
What do you think? Drop a comment here.
* Nadia’s letter has been edited, and I avoided using all the usual elements that show what was edited. I did however retain her grammatical anomalies, with the use of the editorial [sic].
Photos of the three Pussy Rioters by Denis Bochkarev and are used under a general-use licence from Wikimedia. I found a group pic of the three in their glass cage at AP Images, but $30 for three months. Yeah. Right.