Anna Karpova: The Unstable Prisoner, the Exclusion Zone, and Infinity

Alexei Gaskarov and Anna Karpova. Photo courtesy of Anna Karpova and PRI
Alexei Gaskarov and Anna Karpova. Photo courtesy of Anna Karpova and PRI

Anna Karpova
The Unstable Prisoner, the Exclusion Zone, and Infinity
Snob.ru
June 18, 2016

“Gaskarov has had reprimands both at the pretrial detention facility and the penal colony. There have been commendations, too. He works hard, studies well, and runs economics seminars for the inmates. But now he gets reprimands, then he gets commendations He is unstable somehow, unstable.”

Lieutenant Colonel Plaksin (I now always pay attention to such things) stared at the table. He was trying to explain to the judge why the wardens of the penal colony were opposed to paroling my husband.

I remember how I was invited to the studios of TV Rain the day the second wave of Bolotnaya Square defendants was sentenced to talk about we would do next. I put on a brave face and said the heck with the sentence. We would get everyone out on parole. But who knew Plaksin would be staring at the table?

There really is an outstanding reprimand in convict Gaskarov’s personal file: for not greeting an employee of the prison administration. When the judge was reading out the report on this terrible incident, I got goosebumps myself. Was this the man I had married?!

In short, the request for parole was denied.

The handful of people to whom the Bolotnaya Square case still matters send us rays of supports and remind us that, in the worst circumstances, we have a little less than four and a half months to wait.  They assure me the time can be done “standing on one leg.” It is nothing compared to the three years already served.

But that is not how it works.

Maybe I have been playing Fallout 3 (a video game about life on earth after a nuclear war) way too much, but I will say this. The trials and hearings, the pretrial detention facilities, and the penal colonies are like exclusion zones, places with elevated radiation levels that (I will tell you a secret) poison and destroy the individual. The more time you spend there, the worse the consequences are. Everyone involved in the process is irradiated. The prisoner and his family have it the worst of all, of course. Friends, acquaintances, and sympathizers are also affected, albeit on a lesser scale. The impact of the “radiation” does not end when the sentence ends.

The radiation sickness caused by the Russian penitentiary system can manifest itself in very different ways. For example, when it is quite hard to admit your absolute helplessness before court and prison functionaries, you might think there was “that one piece of paper” that could have fixed everything, but you fools did not bother about it. The thought eats into your brains and prevents you from working, sleeping, and communicating with each other. Worst of all, you look for someone to blame. Who messed up? The lawyer? The prisoner? His wife? His parents? The incident then comes up in every stressful situation, most likely, after release as well. The gulf between what prisoners have gone through and what their families went through fighting on the outside can be bridged only by the most patient and wisest. The former will never fully understand what it was like for the latter, and vice versa.

Each week spent there, behind the penal colony’s dilapidated fence, means the risk of sustaining all the major injuries and traumas that will make themselves felt in the most unexpected situations for a long time to come. Not to mention the fact that if you suddenly have the most ordinary appendicitis on the inside, you are probably a goner.

When I am asked whether everything is okay, whether there have been problems at the penal colony, it is enough for everyone to hear that my husband has not been transferred to maxim security, and that neither the wardens nor the inmates have been messing with him, but that amounts to only ten percent of possible problems. The other ninety percent have to do with how inmates and their families digest what has happened to their lives. And it not the done thing to talk about it, but an additional four and a half months feel like an infinity and keep on poisoning the lives of those who wait.

This means there is no “only” when we are talking about the remainder of a prison sentence. And it means we must fight for every month of freedom, even for a single month. By the way, that is how it is going to be with us.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Argument Nadezhda Tolokonnikova Wasn’t Allowed to Make at Her Parole Hearing

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Yesterday, April 26, 2013, a district court in Zubova Polyana, Mordovia, denied imprisoned Pussy Riot activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s request for parole. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Judge Lidiya Yakovleva agreed with arguments made by prison authorities that it would be “premature” to release Tolokonnikova given that she “had been cited for prison rules violations and expressed no remorse,” and had not participated in such prison activities as the “Miss Charm Prison Camp 14 beauty contest.” Judge Yakovleva made her ruling without allowing the defense to make a closing argument, thus allegedly violating the Criminal Procedure Code. Tolokonnikova had written her statement out in advance. The translation below is of the Russian original as published in full on the web site of RFE/RL’s Russian Service (Radio Svoboda). Photos courtesy of the Free Pussy Riot Facebook page.

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“Has the convict started down the road to rehabilitation?” This is the question asked when a request for parole is reviewed. I would also like us to ask the following question today: What is  this “road to rehabilitation”?

I am absolutely convinced that the only correct road is one on which a person is honest with others and with herself. I have stayed on this road and will not stray from it wherever life takes me. I insisted on this road while I was still on the outside, and I didn’t retreat from it in the Moscow pretrial detention facility. Nothing, not even the camps of Mordovia, where the Soviet-era authorities liked to send political prisoners, can teach me to betray the principle of honesty.

So I have not admitted and will not admit the guilt imputed to me by the Khamovniki district court’s verdict, which was illegal and rendered with an indecent number of procedural violations. At the moment, I am in the process of appealing this verdict in the higher courts. By coercing me into admitting guilt for the sake of parole, the correctional system is pushing me to incriminate myself, and, therefore, to lie. Is the ability to lie a sign that a person has started down the road to rehabilitation?

It states in my sentence that I am a feminist and, therefore, must feel hatred towards religion. Yes, after a year and two months in prison, I am still a feminist, and I am still opposed to the people in charge of the state, but then as now there is no hatred in me. The dozens of women prisoners with whom I attend the Orthodox church at Penal Colony No. 14 cannot see this hatred, either.

What else do I do in the colony? I work: soon after I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14, they put me behind a sewing machine, and now I am a sewing machine operator. Some believe that making political-art actions is easy, that it requires no deliberation or preparation. Based on my years of experience in actionism, I can say that carrying out an action and thinking through the artistic end-product is laborious and often exhausting work. So I know how to work and I love to work. I’m no stranger to the Protestant work ethic. Physically, I don’t find it hard to be a seamstress. And that is what I am. I do everything required of me. But, of course, I cannot help thinking about things while I’m at the sewing machine (including the road to rehabilitation) and, therefore, asking myself questions. For example: why can convicts not be given a choice as to the socially useful work they perform while serving their sentences? [Why can they not chose work] in keeping with their education and interests? Since I have experience teaching in the philosophy department at Moscow State University, I would gladly and enthusiastically put together educational programs and lectures using the books in the library and books sent to me. And by the way, I would unquestioningly do such work for more than the eight hours [a day] stipulated by the Russian Federation Labor Code; I would do this work during all the time left over from scheduled prison activities. Instead, I sew police pants, which of course is also useful, but in this work I’m obviously not as productive as I could be were I conducting educational programs.

In Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn describes how a prison camp detective stops one convict from teaching another convict Latin. Unfortunately, the overall attitude to education hasn’t changed much since then.

I often fantasize: what if the correctional system made its priority not the production of police pants or production quotas, but the education, training, and rehabilitation of convicts, as required by the Correctional Code? Then, in order to get parole, you would not have to sew 16 hours a day in the industrial section of the colony, trying to achieve 150% output, but successfully pass several exams after broadening your horizons and knowledge of the world, and getting a general humanities education, which nurtures the ability to adequately assess contemporary reality. I would very much like to see this state of affairs in the colony.

Why not establish courses on contemporary art in the colony?

Would that work were not a debt, but activity that was spiritual and useful in a poetic sense. Would that the organizational constraints and inertia of the old system were overcome, and values like individuality could be instilled in the workplace. The prison camp is the face of the country, and if we managed to get beyond the old conservative and totally unifying categories even in the prison camp, then throughout Russia we would see the growth of intellectual, high-tech manufacturing, something we would all like to see in order to break out of the natural resources trap. Then something like Silicon Valley could be born in Russia, a haven for risky and talented people. All this would be possible if the panic experienced in Russia at the state level towards human experimentation and creativity would give way to an attentive and respectful attitude towards the individual’s creative and critical potential. Tolerance towards others and respect for diversity provide an environment conducive to the development and productive use of the talent inherent in citizens (even if these citizens are convicts). Repressive conservation and rigidity in the legal, correctional, and other state systems of the Russian Federation, laws on registration [of one’s residence] and promotion of homosexuality lead to stagnation and a “brain drain.”

However, I am convinced that this senseless reaction in which we now forced to live is temporary. It is mortal, and this mortality is immediate. I am also certain that all of us—including the prisoners of Bolotnaya Square, my brave comrade in arms Maria Alyokhina, and Alexei Navalny—have the strength, commitment, and tenacity to survive this reaction and emerge victorious.

I am truly grateful to the people I have encountered in my life behind barbed wire. Thanks to some of them, I will never call my time in prison time lost. During the year and two months of my imprisonment, I have not had a single conflict, either in the pretrial detention facility or in prison. Not a single one. In my opinion, this shows that I am perfectly safe for any society. And also the fact that people do not buy into state media propaganda and are not willing to hate me just because a federal channel said that I’m a bad person. Lying does not always lead to victory.

Recently, I got a letter containing a parable that has become important to me. What happens to things different in nature when they are placed in boiling water? Brittle things, like eggs, become hard. Hard things, like carrots, become soft. Coffee dissolves and permeates everything. The point of the parable was this: be like coffee. In prison, I am like that coffee.

I want the people who have put me and dozens of other political activists behind bars to understand one simple thing: there are no insurmountable obstacles for a person whose values  consist, first, in her principles and, second, in work and creativity based on these principles. If you strongly believe in something, this faith will help you survive and remain a human being anywhere.

I will surely use my experience in Mordovia in my future work and, although this will not happen until completion of my sentence, I will implement it in projects that will be stronger and politically larger in scale than everything that has happened to me before.

Despite the fact that imprisonment is a quite daunting experience, as a result of having it we political prisoners only become stronger, braver, and more tenacious. And so I ask the last question for today: what, then, is the point of keeping us here?

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Translated by The Russian Reader