Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “I won’t be able to forgive myself for the rest of my life if I don’t try and change at least something”
September 26, 2013
On Monday, convicted Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said in an open letter she was going on hunger strike to draw attention to numerous violations at the penal colony where she is serving her sentence. According to her, the workday there lasts sixteen to seventeen hours, production quotas are constantly raised, and convicts are punished for not fulfilling quotas: they can be deprived of the right to go to the toilet, to eat, and to drink. Human rights activists who have visited the penal colony have essentially confirmed what she described. Tolokonnikova also claimed she has received death threats and asked to be provided with protection; she was then transferred to solitary confinement. In a telephone conversation with Slon.Ru, she explained why it had been necessary to complain, why all the other inmates are silent, and how, in her opinion, to fix the system.
Nadya, how do you feel?
So-so: I have aches, dizziness, a headache, and feel like I’ve been poisoned. In fact, this is from the hunger strike, but at Penal Colony No. 14 the conditions are such that a hunger strike is relatively easy to take, because there are so many psychological problems that physical problems somehow don’t bother you that much.
Are you really in solitary confinement?
As always happens, it turned out very funny: I’m in a solitary confinement cell to which this morning, before the inspection commission arrived, they attached a sign that read, “Provision of a safe place.” In fact, it differs from solitary confinement only in the sense I can have my personal belongings here, and after numerous complaints about the cold they have put a heater in here.
Did anything change after the human rights activists visited the penal colony?
I can’t tell you anything about the penal colony: I have simply been isolated in solitary confinement so that I wouldn’t be able to monitor the state of affairs in the penal colony. I have thus been put in a position where I cannot monitor the things I’m demanding in my own hunger strike. All my communication with the other prisoners has been cut off. I only know that they’re undergoing standard preparations for an inspection, preparations that involve eliminating all shortcomings and flaws. But as far as I know, most of the prisoners support me and they still have high hopes that things will change. However, my experience of dealing with the administration tells me this is totally unlikely.
You’ll be getting out soon, but you go and write this letter. Had it really become unbearable, or do you want to help the others you’ll leave behind?
The others are the reason. I realize that six months will elapse and I’ll leave. But these people will remain, and I won’t be able to forgive myself for the rest of my life if I don’t try and change at least something. I won’t guarantee that something will change for the better, but I need to do this.
Yevgenia Khasis [a Russian nationalist sentenced to eighteen years in prison for acting as an accomplice in the murders of Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer, and Anastasia Baburova, a journalist and anti-fascist activist, in downtown Moscow in January 2009 – Trans.] has said to journalists that you’re exaggerating about the intolerable conditions, that you actually don’t have support, and—
You can stop right there. I’m not interested in talking about Yevgenia Khasis, because she has already shown herself in such an extremely negatively light, including in those criminal cases in which she was involved. She is a figure who deserves no respect, and her words mean nothing to me.
Did you really talk the other day with an archpriest [Russian Orthodox Archpriest Alexander Pelin – Trans.]? And he gave you an icon?
Yes, he gave me an icon and conveyed Patriarch Kirill’s blessing, which was very cute during a hunger strike.
He said that, in his opinion, you didn’t write the letter yourself and are even poorly informed about its contents. Did someone help you draft the letter?
I’m quite offended a question like that could occur to you. That was said to vilify me. In fact, I wrote the whole letter from beginning to end in a single passionate outpouring: I wanted to tell people what was going here. And I’m ready to take a lie detector test, if necessary, and prove everything I say there is true.
Has a doctor examined you during the hunger strike?
A doctor examined me today: he said my blood sugar level was 2.2. As far as I know, this is fairly low. He didn’t say anything else interesting. But I want to tell you about a strange incident that happened today and, frankly, shocked me somewhat. Tonight, the administration resorted to violence against me for the first time. The on-duty inspector entered my cell and demanded I surrender my water to him. As you know, I can drink water while on hunger strike. So I couldn’t understand why I had to give him the water that had been given to me by [journalist and Presidential Human Rights Council member] Elena Masyuk. I asked him to show me a warrant for confiscating the water. However, in response, he just snatched the water by force: he grabbed me by the arms and legs and pulled me away, while a convict who works as an orderly in the solitary confinement wing just made off with the water. I tried to get it through their heads that their actions were illegal, and they were confiscating my things without a warrant. However, they continued these actions until all the water I had in the cell had been confiscated.
You say the prisoners generally support you. How do they show their support?
After the letter was published, I was isolated. Our paths could cross only when people were going through the penal colony and could say a few words—“Nadya, you’re beautiful!” or something like that.
That has happened?
That has happened a number of times. Things like that happen quite often when I walk through the penal colony. People have hopes. Their hope doesn’t fade, although, of course, the mind makes them act differently, so when an inspection commission comes, they’re afraid to tell the truth. They would simply be destroyed in here for telling the truth. And yet they support me, hoping that I alone will pull them through. Although I know very well that without their help, without their testimony, my words do not mean much, as long as I am the only one. They really do fear for their health and their lives. It’s a stalemate, and I just can’t imagine how to get out of it. So I went on hunger strike.
This morning, human rights activist [Ilya] Shablinsky said he was shown new bathrooms and so forth in the penal colony, but that he had strong suspicions that everything had been prepared specially for the commission’s arrival. Could this be?
Those are in units where they really have new bathrooms, so naturally it’s not hard for them to take a human rights activist to those very units. In my dorm unit, the sewer periodically clogs up so that the shit—excuse my language—comes gushing out. There are no new bathrooms in my unit, and if the prisoners were not afraid of reprisals against them, they would have said the same thing.
Have you seen Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin’s letter?
I know the gist of what he said. Let God be his judge. I am not going to make any judgments on this score.
Is there a church in the penal colony? Have you had talked with the priests?
There is a church here, but the priests are not particularly willing to talk to me. Honestly, there is no time for it. Vital issues—sleeping, eating, and working—occupy my attention. There are things that are on the front burner: I really want to help someone. But intellectual and spiritual issues have receded into the background. Now the question of survival is front and center.
Are there many believers in the penal colony? What have they said about your story?
These things are generally not discussed in the penal colony. It is not what is discussed. What gets discussed is whether we’ll be punished today by being forbidden from eating our own food, whether we’ll be able to drink tea today, whether we’ll work today until one in the morning or whether we’ll be let off work at eight in the evening once this week. There is no space here at all for intellectual dialogue.
Have they tried to talk you out of the hunger strike?
Of course, this happens all the time.
In what form?
They leave me food for two hours: it sits in the cell and stinks. Today, I wrote a complaint to the penal colony warden saying that I’m being tortured psychologically. I’ll see what fruit this complaint bears.
Do you and your fellow inmates know whom you’re sewing for? Today, [the newspaper Izvestia] wrote that you’re working for a former State Duma deputy.
I think that is not important in this case. If our production quotas are reduced and we’re given a decent amount of working hours, it won’t matter for whom we’re sewing. That is an ideological issue. Maybe it is not clear to you people on the outside, but here issues of survival are the priority.
How can all this be fixed? Are people the problem, or is it the whole system?
I think that solutions for all this can only be centralized, coming directly from the central authorities, because without great political will it is impossible to seriously reverse this. Discrete changes, great and small, are possible, but a rollback is inevitable, unfortunately, without great political will.
Meaning, if Putin says something about humanizing the penal system in his [upcoming state of the nation] address. . .
I think that until Putin is removed, nothing will change. He has a stake in this system’s being as punitive as possible.
But if he’s removed, no Stalinist wardens will be left in the penal colonies?
If he’s removed, there is a vast number of ways things could evolve. But I think that if we take matters into our own hand, we will be able to reform the system the right way.