Five Years in Prison for a Tweet

sinitsa in dockVladislav Sinitsa in the cage during his custody hearing on August 5. Photo courtesy of Mediazona

Court Sentences Vladislav Sinitsa to Five Years in Prison for Tweet about Children of Security Forces Officers
Mediazona
September 3, 2019

Moscow’s Presna District Court has sentenced Vladislav Sinitsa, a financial manager from the Moscow Region, to five years in a medium-security penal colony for a tweet about the children of security forces officers, reports the Moscow News Agency.

Judge Elena Abramova found Sinitsa guilty of inciting hatred with the threat of violence (punishable under Article 282.2.a of the Russian Criminal Code). The prosecutor had asked her to sentence Sinitsa to six years in prison.

The court handed down the verdict on the second day of the trial per se.

The court questioned two witnesses: Russian National Guardsmen Alexander Andreyev and Artyom Tarasov, who, allegedly, saw Sinitsa’s tweet.

Andreyev said he regarded the tweet as a call to “kidnap the children of National Guardsmen and slaughter them.” However, he was unable to tell the court his own username on Twitter. He claimed he saw the tweet after searching for “Max Steklov,” which is Sinitsa’s username.

Tarasov also said he took the tweet as a threat.

After the witnesses were questioned, the prosecutor summarized the two volumes of the case file, including the findings of forensic experts from the Center for Socio-Cultural Forensic Testing [sic]. They found evidence in the tweet of calls for violent action against the security forces, and signs of threats and incitement of hatred towards them.

It has transpired that the people who performed the forensic examination for the prosecution had no specialized education in the field.

In turn, the defense questioned forensic experts who had examined Sinitsa’s tweets at its request: Elena Novozhilova, a linguist from the nonprofit Independent Forensic Testing Center, and Maria Kulikova, an analyst with the Center for Forensic Examination and Research.

Kulikova harshly criticized the forensic examination commissioned by the prosecution. Both experts spoke of its poor quality.

Mediazona has written at length abut the criminal case against Sinitsa.

On July 31, Sinitsa supplied his own answer to the question of whether it was a good idea to publish the identities of security forces officers in a tweet published under the username “Max Steklov.”

The tweet was quoted on national TV channels.

Later, on August 3, the Russian Investigative Committee opened a criminal investigation. Two days later, the Presna District Court remanded Sinitsa in custody.

Sinitsa has insisted he was not calling on anyone to do anything but had implied popular unrest could arise if the security forces continued beating protesters.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Wave Theory, or, Everyone Is Police

FRANCE. Essonne. Near Juvisy-sur-Orge. 1955.Henri Cartier-Bresson, Près de Juvisy-sur-Orge, France, 1955. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

Can you imagine reading an “expert” opinion, like the one I have translated and reproduced, below, published by a political commentator in a more or less democratic country?

I won’t bother arguing about the accuracy of the analysis. It may, in fact, be wildly inaccurate. Actually, if you read it two or three times in a row, you would find that is ridden with glaring contradictions.

For example, it is strange to accuse Alexei Navalny, who was jailed nearly the entire time, of being on the sidelines during the anti-pension reform protests when, in fact, his team’s activists organized protests all over Russia, some of them quite large, and this despite the fact that dozens of them were also treated to so-called preventive arrests by the Putin regime’s legally nihilistic law enforcers.

It is even stranger to argue that Navalny matters so little to the Kremlin now that it has decided it is high time to send him to prison and throw away the key.

I am no great fan of Jeremy Corbyn’s, alas, but I am grateful, nonetheless, that Theresa May and her minions could not even contemplate framing him on trumped-up charges and sending him down for however many years they think would “neutralize” him.

If you do not understand this essential difference between flat-out authoritarian-cum-fascist countries like Putinist Russia and the world’s democracies, most of them in bad shape, like May and Corbyn’s UK, you should probably disqualify yourself from commenting on politics.

Because this is police, not politics, as Jacques Rancière would have put it, even if it is only expressed as a prediction by a think-thankerette-cum-spin doctor who claims to have inside knowledge of what the Kremlin has been contemplating, but for some reason lives in a suburb of Paris. {TRR}

____________________________________________

Tatiana Stanovaya
Facebook
October 2, 2018

The Kremlin is seriously discussing a tangible prison sentence for Alexei Navalny. There are several key arguments that would favor making such a decision.

First, Navalny was sidelined during the anti-pension reform protests. By and large, no one was able to saddle the wave of discontent. The Kremlin thinks it would be better to neutralize Navalny now while it is not too late. It would be harder later.

Second, Navaly’s negative rating [sic] is high. Television has done its job. The expectations are that, if Navalny were sent down, no serious wave [of protest] would rise up. Society would fail to notice it, and liberals hardly worry anyone, while the liberals who are in power would risk losing a lot [if they came to Navalny’s defense].

Third, the Zolotov factor has played its role. The head of the Russian National Guard was so hurt by Navalny’s exposé that he himself has become a source of concern. The Kremlin believes it is better not to rub him the wrong way, since an angry Zolotov is a danger not only to the regime’s alleged enemies but also to the regime itself or, rather, to various spin doctors [sic].

Fourth and finally, while Putin was previously opposed to sending [Navalny] down, fearing it would make Navalny a hero (this, supposedly, was Volodin’s argument), Putin now sees this risk as too trivial compared with other risks, including an abrupt drop in his own rating and the general sense that everything has been set in motion, and he does not have time for Navalny [sic].

If, in the very near future, something does not happen at the grassroots that would interfere with sending [Navalny] down, it is nearly inevitable. And yes, the current domestic policy spin doctors take Navalny much less seriously than their predecessors [sic].

Tatiana Stanovaya is identified on her Facebook page as a “Columnist/Commentator at Moscow Carnegie Center” and “Former [sic] CHEF DU DÉPARTEMENT ANALYTIQUE, CENTRE DES TECHNOLOGIES POLITIQUES” who lives in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France. Thanks to The Real Russia. Today mailer, compiled daily by Meduza, for the heads-up. Kudos to its editor for realizing suddenly that Russian social media are an important source of information, gossip, and fairy tales about Russian politics. The emphases, sics, and italics in the text are mine. Translated by the Russian Reader

Alexei Gaskarov: What Politics?

Alexei Gaskarov: Many People Ask Whether I Am Going to Take up Politics. But What Politics Are There Nowadays?
Olesya Gerasimenko
Snob
November 1, 2016

Anti-fascist Alexei Gaskarov has been released from prison after serving three and a half years in prison for alleged involvement in the Bolotyana Square riot in Moscow in 2012. Snob asked Kommersant special correspondent Olesya Gerasimenko to meet with Gaskarov to discuss the Bolotnaya Square case, life and education in the penal colony, and the death of the protest movement. 

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob
“Why would they ask me about organizing a riot if they knew no one organized it?”

Was your trial fair?

I regret we agreed to be involved in it. Like Soviet political prisoners, we should have stood with our backs turned and kept our mouths shut, and not treated it as an attempt to get at the truth. I had illusions after Khimki. [In 2010, Gaskarov was arrested and charged with attacking the Khimki town hall during a protest in defense of Khimki Forest, but the court acquitted him. — Snob] Several videos showed clearly that the incidents involving me happened before the riot kicked off, according to police investigators themselves. In the end, I ticked off the evidence, the judge nodded her head, but there was no reaction. The entire trial looked as if the decision had already been made, the sentence written out, and let’s get this over as quickly as possible.

So did you push a policeman and pull a soldier out of the police cordon?

I never denied it from the get-go. A year had passed since the rally on Bolotnaya Square. I was working on an important project. I had a week to go, and it was uncool to have to go to jail. I had to go to work on the Sunday the cops came for me. I had gone to the shop to buy food for the cat, and the whole clown show was waiting outside my building: two jeeps and a van. Young dudes half dressed like boneheads stepped out of the van. I decided they were from BORN [a group of radical right-wing nationalists who carried out a series of murders and assaults — Snob]. I was pondering what moves to make, but they produced their IDs.

Did you feel relieved?

No, just the opposite. I could have run from BORN or done something else. So they detained me and kept mum about what the charges were for a long while. They made me lie face down in the van and  the whole works. There were lots of things they could have detained me for. We had been defending the tenants of the Moscow Silk (Mosshyolk) dormitories from eviction and the Tsagov Forest in Zhukovsky from logging by developers. And shortly before my arrest, people who are now serving in the Azov Battalion attempted to assault my wife and me. I tussled with them, and it ended up on camera. So there were different possibilities. I was not thinking about Bolotnaya at all. When it finally became clear why I had been detained, I stared at them.  It was total rubbish. I told them I agreed to admit what I had done. We had been walking amid the crowd, when a riot cop attacked this dude. A dogpile ensued, and people pulled them apart. I was accused of pulling a policeman’s leg. The evidence was a poor quality video and a forensic report that concluded it was not me. But I knew it was me. So I told them right away, Guys, let’s do this the right way. But they could not have cared less whether I admitted my guilt or not. It would have been a different story if I had confessed to violating Article 212 of the Criminal Code (organizing a riot) or testified against someone else.

Were you asked?

They didn’t even mention it. Why would they ask me about organizing a riot if they know no one had organized it, including from their own wiretaps? They kept the charges to the incident with the leg pulling. Then they found a second incident. A stampede started in front of the police line. People were falling on the ground, and I tugged one policeman by the shoulder to make room. The indictment said I had broken the police line so that everyone could get to the riot. But this line had been at the passage in the other direction.

OIesya Gerasimenko and Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

Did you expect such a sentence?

They had already told me at the Investigative Committee they were going send me down. I said, Well, of course. Later, the Center “E” guys showed up and threatened me with ten years in prison, but I know that could not happen. The rules of the game are still followed, and punishment for a particular crime is usually consistent with ordinary practice.

How do you feel about the case of Udaltsov and his associates?

I have very negative feelings about it, of course. I ran into [Leonid] Razvozzhayev in the pre-trial detention facility, but I wasn’t really able to chat with him, because he was always in very bad shape. Udaltsov and his associates operated like real con men. Before May 6, 2012, they had no clue how the march would go, and there is no mention of sitdown strikes and rushing police lines in the wiretaps. But after everything had happened on Bolotnaya, they began acting in their meetings with Targamadze as if everything had gone according to their plans. Their initial excuse, that they had traveled to Georgia to talk about wine and mineral water, was pure idiocy. Naturally, it is not against the law to have meetings and discuss business. But there is a political ethic that does not let you behave this way. You go meet dudes from the government of another country, a country with whom [your country] recently had a conflict. You ask for money, and you take money. If these meetings had not taken place, the Kremlin would have failed to generate the image of the Bolotnaya Square case that it did. We should not have had to answer for things over which we had no control. The benefits to Udaltsov were personal, but everyone shared the risks.

So you received no money from Givi Targamadze?

Are you kidding? What money?

Who was the anonymous anarchist informer who testifed against you?

I didn’t even find out. I have had nothing to do with them for many years. The guys still have their little movement. Like Tolkien fans, they attend meetings and discuss for hours on end how they should make a revolution. They have been doing this for the last twenty years. It was of no interest to anyone. The FSB sent its people in. They went and had a look at it and said, Well okay, you have a cool club. When Center “E” was established, they went after them big time to push up their arrest stats. All anarchist meetings are open, anyone can come. So they are known to the authorities. The teenager from this scene who went to Bolotnaya and was involved in breaking through police lines was identified in this way. They put the squeeze on him: either we send you down or you tell us what we want to hear. I have no idea why this was necessary, because he just said I was a bad dude and the leader of the anti-fascists and anarchists. But nobody charged me with that.

“The rules of survival are simple: don’t do anyone harm”
Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

 

Tell me about life in prison. Everyone is interested in that. You know, reveille at six, lights out at ten.

Yeah. As you understand, people who are drug addicts, people going through withdrawal, basically live at night. After lights out, they either smoke or brew chifir [a super strong tea brewed in Russian prisons]. You just set that aside. You have your routine, and basically it is good for you. No one limits the amount of exercise you do: there is a horizontal bar, parallel bars, and a few weights. You are either working or busy with your own things. I got into shape there like I never have before. The point is to come up with as many things to do as possible so you have no spare time at all.

What did you read?

The library there was okay, because everyone who does time gets books and then leaves them behind. They see who has been nominated for the Booker Prize and order their books. It’s not hard to find new releases in prison. I also subscribed to several pro-Kremlin publications, and I read lots of your articles, too. And I read The New Times and Novaya Gazeta. I wanted different viewpoints. Plus, there is a legal video link in there. It is limited to fifteen minutes a day, but in fact nobody keeps track of the time.

Who were your cellmates? 

I spent half my sentence in a pre-trial detention facility. The dudes in there had been charged under Article 228 of the Criminal Code [purchase, storage, production, and sale of narcotics — Snob]. Their stories were horrible. One group of teenagers had gotten hash in the mail from Holland, and they had been sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Or there were the dudes who decided to cook amphetamine using a recipe they found on the Internet. They got nineteen years in prison. I was even ashamed to explain what my case was about, because I was surrounded by people facing over ten years in prison.  When the trial began, we were kept in Butyrka Prison. They were thieves, crazies, teenagers, street kids, and Dagestanis in there. I also met defendants in the Rosoboronexport case, the APEC Summit case, and the Sochi Olympics case, and I went to the gym with Alexander Emelianenko.

The general population at the penal colony consisted of three hundred men. Eighty percent of them were local dudes from Tula Region who had attacked somebody while drunk, stolen things from dachas, and committed petty robberies. But what is the catch about the general population? That a homeless man who broke into someone else’s dacha to spend the winter got sent down to the penal colony, and his life there is better than on the outside, and he is in the same place as a big-shot businessman who has lost a billion rubles and used to go sailing on his yacht on the outside.

Does this lead to lots of conflicts?

There are lots of conflicts, but the instigator always takes the rap for a fight. That doesn’t mean there are no fights. They are criminals, after all, and they tend to take risks. But the rules of survival are simple: don’t do anyone harm. If you watch TV after lights out, turn down the sound. Don’t drag in dirt. It’s all basic.

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

Was it easy for you to understand them?

Yeah. In 2010, I was in a pre-trial detention facility with repeat offenders and learned the tricks. And during my early days in the penal colony I read Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn’s stories about the prison camps.

Like a set of rules?

Yes. The Center “E” officer who led the investigation in my case told me a lot and advised me what books to read. When I was on the inside, people asked my advice on how to behave.

When you got out you said the main thing had been to maintain contact with reality and your health. How did you maintain your health? Was the food there okay?

Due to the fact that support from the outside was good, I almost never ate in the cafeteria.

But what about hot meals?

There is a microwave there. The Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) now has taken the approach of not keeping you from improving your living conditions. They need to implement their strategy for improving conditions in the penal colonies, but their budget has been trimmed. When you arrive, everything is crappy. Water is dripping from the ceilings, and there is mold. But they don’t mind if you want to invest your own resources. You write everything up as humanitarian aid, and you get electric kettles and microwaves. We had a projector hanging in our cell for watching films.

Now everyone will want to roll back two years to read books and watch films on a projector.

We also purchased a bunch of armchairs from IKEA. So when the head office comes to make an inspection, they show them how cool everything is in their colony.

I think you wanted to get another degree in prison.

Unfortunately, it turned out the university with which the colony collaborates is just a degree mill that sells them for money. I did something else there. At work, I would often teach the basics of entrepreneurship and planning. There were people doing time in the colony with whom it was interesting to talk, bank chairmen and ministry officials. There was a space, an evening school. I brought around fifty people together and asked the wardens permission to run something like seminars. Everyone had to come up with his own project, and over eight months (my sentence was coming to an end) we would try and whip it into shape, with a business plan as the outcome. At first, they turned me down outright, saying I was in for the Bolotnaya Square case and would lead political discussions. But then there was a change in management at the penal colony, and they met us halfway. It was like a little piece of the outside world.

Generally, of course, the colony’s disciplinary and educational function has been tapped out. There are no resources. The majority of guys in there do not have the most basic skills. They cannot write a letter, but there is no one there at all to educate them. There is this option of watching films on the weekends. They show this rubbish, total nonsense. I went to the wardens and said, Let’s make a selection of good films; we can watch ordinary films in our cells. But they could not even decide to do that. They get their action plans from the head office, where the theorists work. They say, Let’s hold a sports day, even though athletic clothing is prohibited in the general population.

“They aren’t winning this game by turning to crackdowns”
Olesya Gerasimenko and Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

While you were away, the Khimki Forest was cut down. The Moscow Silk tenants were evicted. Anti-fascists fell out over Ukraine. Many of the people who rallied on Bolotnaya have emigrated. When you all; were being arrested one by one, everyone said it would be the case of the century, that everyone would close ranks because of you and for your sake, but ultimately you have got out of prison, the Bolotnaya Square case is still underway, and there is no longer any interest in it. Maybe you went to prison for nothing?

What does that mean, “nothing”? I had no choice. It’s good that the anti-fascist thing is no longer on the front burner. Nowadays, there are no more clashes with neo-Nazis, who were killing people in the early 2000s. Back then, they really needed a counterweight. Our job was to point out the problem and make things decent on the streets. We succeeded in doing this. But the anti-fascist movement cannot defeat xenophobia in society.

What do you think about the split among anti-fascists, that one group went to Kiev, while the other went to Donbass? They were at each other’s throats.

I always assumed that very different people joined the anti-fascist movement, and that was fine. There were aspects that just did not make sense to me. For example, why were European leftists strutting their stuff in Donbass? It looks as if they were totally conned.

As for Bolotnaya, choosing to be involved in this movement was fraught with risks. If we draw an analogy with Ukraine (although many people don’t like to do this), I don’t think that if the events on Bolotnaya had gone further those people would have balked at shooting the crowd. A bunch of people were killed in Kiev, while here in Moscow we were supposed to be scared off by prison sentences. They randomly picked a group of people and put them in prison. The rationale is clear. Whoever you are, if you oppose the tsar, you will suffer. How can we respond to this? We have to debunk the myth that such crackdowns are effective.

But that is what happened. Everyone really was afraid of being hit once with a truncheon, to say nothing of prison. Many members of the opposition have said the fight against the regime is not a worth a centimeter of their personal comfort. You are practically the only who does not think this way. Don’t you feel lonely?

Most people haven’t been to prison, and they really imagine it is the end of world. If I go to prison, I can kiss my life goodbye, they think. I just dealt with it more or less normally. But this is how I see it. When the authorities crack down on dissent, people lower their level of activism. They lose the desire to invest themselves in something. Ultimately, the system falls apart, rather than becoming more stable, as the authorities imagine. The country becomes less competitive. In prison, I saw many people who were doing time for economic crimes, and they all said approximately the same thing. People who have satisfied their material needs develop political demands, and that is fine. Everyone wants to be involved in changing things. When this desire for change is blocked, they are blocking the segment of society that generates the most added value. They aren’t winning this game by turning to crackdowns. Especially because the system is not as terrible as it makes itself out to be.

But people need to remain minimally active. It is too bad that many people have chosen the passive way. I have just got out, and it really seems to me that a lot has changed, even in Moscow itself. Although, theoretically, I saw it all ten years ago, only in Europe. We can live this way a long time. Hence the complexity of the political arguments around Bolotnaya. Given the resources we have have, we could live better, but the way things are also suits lots of people. In this case, the system can survive for a long while. We should not get involved in direct confrontations. This was clear to me on Bolotnaya Square as well. We wanted to get the hell out of there, because it was obvious the sitdown strikes and so on were just what the authorities wanted. But there are other ways of doing things. We don’t have to limit ourselves to demonstrations and rallies.

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

What ways?

There are the demands made at Bolotnaya—fair elections and the transfer of power—but there is the option of engaging in specific targeted campaigns in order to develop one’s ideas under the existing regime.

You mean the theory of small deeds?

Among other things. For example, I read that many Bolotnaya activists have gone into charity work. In fact, that is not so bad. What matters is maintaining the energy. Or there is the successful fight against corruption, all those publications that impact the system, whatever you say. Or there are people in the leftist milieu who think there should be progressive taxation: they can also advance their arguments. Or form an anti-war movement given all the conflicts underway.

In prison, I realized how strongly the regime affects people’s brains. There are people who show up there who are not inclined to heavy discussions. Real peasants. All the myths that exist are in their heads. But when you are around them, you don’t even have to argue. Even the most impenetrable guys would change their minds just as a result of conversation. So any work aimed at disseminating information and minimal education is vital.

What did you change their minds about?

A variety of things, including their overall attitude to the opposition. In the beginning, it was even convenient for me, like there were only drug addicts at Bolotnaya, that they all had gone there to score heroin, and everybody would leave me alone [after I would say that]. But over time people see what you read, what films you watch on the Culture channel, that you can help draft a court appeal, and they understand you are not an idiot and would not have gone to a protest rally for a dose of heroin. There were lots of conflicts over Ukraine, especially because there were many people doing time who had managed to fight in Donbas, come back to Russia, and get sent to prison.

Olesya Gerasimenko and Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

For what?

Disorderly conduct, theft, and armed robbery. They were typical soldiers of fortune. We even managed to talk about this most difficult issue and iron out our differences.

Is Crimea ours?

I have a simple position on this issue. People went out on the Maidan because they did not like the current regime. I think what happened to Crimea was Putin’s attempt to punish them for this. The Ukrainian people made their choice, Putin didn’t like it, and [Russia] acted like the interventionists during the Russian Civil War. It is not a matter of what the inhabitants of Crimea wanted. It was an action directed against all the values we tried to defend on Bolotnaya.

So it’s not ours?

I consider it a real violation of international law. It was unethical and wrong. Clearly they did this to stick an example in everyone’s face: see what protests have done to the country. But I don’t have an opinion about what should happen next.

To return it or not?

Well yes. Because it is clear that most people who live there want to be part of Russia.

You went to prison in one country, but came out of prison in another country. What was it like finding out on the news about the historic events that were happening on the outside? Did you feel sorry you were observing them from afar? Or, on the contrary, was it easier?

To be honest, the latter. It was often difficult to make up my mind. For example, when refugees left Ukraine en masse, they would come work in the penal colony. You communicate with them and realize there is ideology, and then there are people’s stories, and it was hard to make up one’s mind. I actually thought it was cool this was going on in the background.

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

What is your work situation? What are you planning to do?

Of course, I would like to do the work I was educated to do, as a financial systems analyst, as it says in my diploma. My old job did not survive the crisis. I will have problems, of course.  I have even asked acquaintances at several companies, but I was told no way, especially in offices that work on state commissions or state projects. So things are rough. I will have to start everything from scratch. But I am sure that the fourteen percent have some businesses. [Gaskarov has in mind VTsIOM’s polling data, showing that 86% of Russians support Putin — Snob.]

Earning money is my priority now. Many people have asked me whether I am going to take up politics. Everyone has so many expectations, but what politics are there nowadays? It is impossible to be involved in politics without having your own resources. Of course, I say you shouldn’t be afraid of prison, but it is a serious setback all the same: three and a half years. A lot of missed opportunities and a backlog of problems.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Gabriel Levy for the heads-up

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: Day Two of the Hunger Strike

PC-14, Day Two of the Hunger Strike

Thank you to everyone who did not remain indifferent to the slave-like living and working conditions in this penal colony and who spoke out in support of me and my demands.

Yesterday, at 9:30 in the evening, I was transferred to a solitary confinement cell, which PC-14’s warden, Colonel Kulagin, calls a “safe place.” I opposed the transfer because I do not consider my being put in a “safe place” an adequate solution to the problem. My relations with my fellow inmates are fine when the administration isn’t attempting to artificially turn them against me. Problems arise for me when the administration uses certain inmates to intimidate me and try and force me to keep my mouth shut, for instance, by threatening to “fuck [me] up and kill [me].”

The greatest threat to my welfare comes from the prison administration. Especially now, when I am breaking through the informational blockade, writing about the illegal conditions in the prison that no other PC-14 inmate has dared to speak openly about for fear of finding herself under incredible duress for the remainder of her time in prison.

In solitary confinement, I am alone against the administration. To me, this does not seem like a safe place.

It is incredibly cold in solitary confinement. It’s an old method, well known to camp administrations since Soviet times. They make the solitary confinement cells so cold that punishment turns into torture. The only difference between myself and someone who is forced into solitary as punishment is that I do not have to wear a special orange uniform. I can keep my regular prison clothes. But even five layers of sweaters do not protect me from the piercing cold.

I am writing on a cold, narrow bench. I am not allowed to sit on the bed, and especially forbidden from lying on it. It is very hard to sit in the cold all day while on hunger strike. My body temperature is low and I’m dizzy. The light is cold and dim, and the water in the faucet is cold, too. This is what solitary confinement is like.

I believe that in order to avoid further persecution from the PC-14 administration, I need to be transferred to another prison colony. It’s clear to me that the camp administration here will spend the remaining five months of my incarceration taking revenge on me for creating problems for them.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
Solitary Confinement Cell, PC-14
September 24

Translated by Bela Shayevich

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: Why I Am Going on Hunger Strike

On Monday, September 23, I am declaring a hunger strike. This is an extreme method, but I am absolutely convinced it is my only recourse in the current situation.

The prison wardens refuse to hear me. But I will not back down from my demands. I will not remain silent, watching in resignation as my fellow prisoners collapse under slave-like conditions. I demand that human rights be observed at the prison. I demand that the law be obeyed in this Mordovian camp. I demand we be treated like human beings, not slaves.

It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14 [henceforth, PC-14 — Trans.] in the Mordovian village of Partsa. As the women convicts say, “Those who haven’t done time in Mordovia haven’t done time at all.” I had heard about the Mordovian prison camps while I was still being held at Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 6 in Moscow. They have the harshest conditions, the longest workdays, and the most flagrant lawlessness. Prisoners see their fellows off to Mordovia as if they were headed to the scaffold. Until the last, they keep hoping: “Maybe they won’t send you to Mordovia after all? Maybe the danger will pass you by?” It didn’t pass me by, and in the autumn of 2012, I arrived in the prison country on the banks of the Partsa River.

My first impression of Mordovia was the words uttered by the prison’s deputy warden, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, who actually runs PC-14. “You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist.” Colonel Kulagin, the other warden (the prison is administered in tandem) called me in for a chat my first day here in order to force me to confess my guilt. “A misfortune has befallen you. Isn’t that right? You’ve been sentenced to two years in prison. People usually change their views 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 I would work only the eight hours a day stipulated by the Labor Code. “The code is the code. What really matters is making your quota. If you don’t, you work overtime. And we’ve broken stronger wills than yours here!” Colonel Kulagin replied.

My whole shift works sixteen to seventeen hours a day in the sewing workshop, from seven-thirty in the morning to twelve-thirty at night. 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 “voluntarily” apply to work on weekends. In fact, there is nothing “voluntary” about it. These applications are written involuntarily on the orders of the wardens and under pressure from the inmates who help enforce their will.

No one dares disobey (that is, not apply to go to the manufacturing zone on Sunday, meaning going to work until one in the morning). Once, a fifty-year-old woman asked to go back to the dorm zone at eight p.m. instead of twelve-thirty p.m. so she could go to bed at ten p.m. and get eight hours of sleep just once that week. She was not feeling well; she had high blood pressure. In response, a dorm unit meeting was called, where the woman was scolded, humiliated, insulted, and branded a parasite. “What, do you think you’re the only one who wants more sleep? You need to work harder, you’re strong as a horse!” When someone from the shift doesn’t come to work on doctor’s orders, they’re bullied as well. “I sewed when I had a fever of forty Centigrade, and it was fine. Who did you think was going to pick up the slack for you?”

I was welcomed to my dorm unit by a convict finishing up a nine-year sentence. “The pigs are scared to put the squeeze on you themselves. They want to have the inmates do it.” Conditions at the prison really are organized in such a way that the inmates in charge of the work shifts and dorm units are the ones tasked by the wardens with crushing the will of inmates, terrorizing them, and turning them into speechless slaves.

There is a widely implemented system of unofficial punishments for maintaining discipline and obedience. Prisoners are forced to “stay in the local until lights out,” meaning they are forbidden to go into the barracks, whether it is fall or winter. [The “local” is a fenced-off passageway between two areas in the camp — Trans.] In the second unit, where the disabled and elderly live, there was a woman who ended up getting such bad frostbite after a day in the local that her fingers and one of her feet had to be amputated. The wardens can also “shut down sanitation” (forbid prisoners to wash up or go to the toilet) and “shut down the commissary and the tearoom” (forbid prisoners to eat their own food and drink beverages). It’s both funny and frightening when a forty-year-old woman tells you, “So we’re being punished today! I wonder whether we’ll be punished tomorrow, too.” She can’t leave the sewing workshop to pee or take a piece of candy from her purse. It’s forbidden.

Dreaming only of sleep and a sip of tea, the exhausted, harassed and dirty convict becomes obedient putty in the hands of the administration, which sees us solely as a free work force. So, in June 2013, my monthly wages came to twenty-nine rubles [approx. sixty-seven euro cents]twenty-nine rubles! Our shift sews one hundred and fifty police uniforms per day. Where does the money made from them go?

The prison has been allocated funding to buy completely new equipment a number of times. However, the administration has only had the sewing machines repainted, with the convicts doing the work. We sew on obsolete and worn-out machines. According to the Labor Code, when equipment does not comply with current industry standards, production quotas must be lowered vis-à-vis standard industry norms. But the quotas only increase, abruptly and suddenly. “If you let them see you can deliver one hundred uniforms, they’ll raise the minimum to one hundred and twenty!” say veteran machine operators. And you cannot fail to deliver, either, or else the whole unit will be punished, the entire shift. Punished, for instance, by everyone being forced to stand on the parade ground for hours. Without the right to go to the toilet. Without the right to take a sip of water.

Two weeks ago, the production quotas for all prison work shifts were arbitrarily increased by fifty units. If previously the minimum was one hundred uniforms a day, now it is one hundred and fifty. According to the Labor Code, workers must be notified of a change in the production quota no less than two months before it is goes into effect. At PC-14, we just woke up one day to find we had a new quota because the idea happened to have popped into the heads of the wardens of our “sweatshop” (that’s what the prisoners call the penal colony). The number of people in the work shift decreases (they are released or transferred), but the quota grows. As a result, those who remain have to work harder and harder. The mechanics say they don’t have the parts to repair the machinery and will not be getting them. “There are no spare parts! When will they come? What, you don’t live in Russia? How can you ask such questions?” During my first few months in the manufacturing zone, I nearly mastered the profession of mechanic, out of necessity and on my own. I would attack my machine, screwdriver in hand, desperate to fix it. Your hands are scratched and poked by needles, your blood is all over the table, but you keep on sewing. You are part of an assembly line, and you have to do your job alongside the experienced seamstresses. Meanwhile, the damned machine keeps breaking down. Because you’re the newcomer and there is a lack of good equipment in the prison, you end up with the worst equipment, the most worthless machine on the line. And now it’s broken down again, and once again you run off looking for the mechanic, who is impossible to find. You are yelled at and berated for slowing down production. There are no sewing classes at the prison, either. Newcomers are immediately plunked down in front of their machines and given their assignments.

“If you weren’t Tolokonnikova, you would have had the shit kicked out of you a long time ago,” say fellow prisoners with close ties to the wardens. It’s true: other prisoners are beaten up. For not being able to keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, in the face. Convicts themselves deliver these beatings and not a single one of them happens without the approval and knowledge of the wardens. A year ago, before I came here, a Gypsy woman was beaten to death in the third unit. (The third unit is the “pressure cooker”: prisoners whom the wardens want subjected to daily beatings are sent there.) She died in the infirmary at PC-14. The administration was able to cover up the fact she had been beaten to death: a stroke was listed as the official cause of death. In another block, new seamstresses who couldn’t keep up were undressed and forced to sew naked. No one dares complain to the wardens, because all they will do is smile and send the prisoner back to the dorm unit, where the “snitch” will be beaten on the orders of those same wardens. For the prison warden, managed hazing is a convenient method for forcing convicts to totally obey their lawless regime.

A threatening, anxious atmosphere pervades the manufacturing zone. Eternally sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfill inhumanly large quotas, the convicts are always on the verge of breaking down, screaming at each other, fighting over the smallest things. Just recently, a young woman got stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors because she didn’t turn in a pair of pants on time. Another tried to cut her own stomach open with a hacksaw. She was stopped from finishing the job.

Those who found themselves at PC-14 in 2010, the year of smoke and wildfires [throughout Russia — Trans.] said that when the fire would approach the prison walls, convicts continued to go to the manufacturing zone and fulfill their quotas. Because of the smoke you couldn’t see a person standing two meters in front of you, but, covering their faces in wet kerchiefs, they all went to work anyway. Because of the emergency conditions, prisoners weren’t taken to the cafeteria for meals. Several women told me they were so horribly hungry they started keep diaries to document the horror of what was happening to them. When the fires were finally put out, prison security diligently rooted out these diaries during searches so that nothing would be leaked to the outside world.

Sanitary conditions at the prison are calculated to make the prisoner feel like a disempowered, filthy animal. Although there are hygiene rooms in the dorm units, a “general hygiene room” has been set up for corrective and punitive purposes. This room can accommodate five people, but all eight hundred prisoners are sent there to wash up. We must not wash ourselves in the hygiene rooms in our barracks: that would be too easy. There is always a stampede in the “general hygiene room” as women with little tubs try and wash their “breadwinners” (as they are called in Mordovia) as fast as they can, clambering on top of each other. We are allowed to wash our hair once a week. However, even this bathing day gets cancelled. A pump will break or the plumbing will be stopped up. At times, my dorm unit has been unable to bathe for two or three weeks.

When the pipes are clogged, urine gushes out of the hygiene rooms and clumps of feces go flying. We’ve learned to unclog the pipes ourselves, but it doesn’t last long: they soon get stopped up again. The prison does not have a plumber’s snake for cleaning out the pipes. We get to do laundry once a week. The laundry is a small room with three faucets from which a thin trickle of cold water flows.

Convicts are always given stale bread, generously watered-down milk, exceptionally rancid millet and only rotten potatoes for the same corrective ends, apparently. This summer, sacks of slimy, black potato bulbs were bought to the prison in bulk. And they were fed to us.

One could endlessly discuss workplace and living conditions violations at PC-14. However, my main grievance has to do with something else. It is that the prison administration prevents in the harshest possible way all complaints and petitions regarding conditions at PC-14 from leaving the prison. The wardens force people to remain silent, stooping to the lowest and cruelest methods to this end. All the other problems stem from this one: the increased work quotas, the sixteen-hour workday, and so on. The wardens feel they have impunity, and they boldly crack down on prisoners more and more. I couldn’t understand why everyone kept silent until I found myself facing the mountain of obstacles that crashes down on the convict who decides to speak out. Complaints simply do not leave the prison. The only chance is to complain through a lawyer or relatives. The administration, petty and vengeful, will meanwhile all the means at its disposal for pressuring the convict so she will see that her complaints will not make anything better for anyone, but will only make things worse. Collective punishment is employed: you complain about the lack of hot water, and they turn it off altogether.

In May 2013, my lawyer Dmitry Dinze filed a complaint about the conditions at PC-14 with the prosecutor’s office. The prison’s deputy warden, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, instantly made conditions at the camp 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. At work, they get revenge with complicated sewing assignments, increased quotas, and fabricated defects. The forewoman of the neighboring unit, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov’s right hand, openly incited prisoners to sabotage the items I was responsible for in the manufacturing zone so there would be an excuse to send me to solitary confinement for damaging “public property.” She also ordered the convicts in her unit to provoke a fight with me.

It is possible to tolerate anything as long as it affects you alone. But the method of collective correction at the prison is something else. It means that your unit, or even the entire prison, has to endure your punishment along with you. The most vile thing of all is that this includes people you’ve come to care about. One of my friends was denied parole, which she had been working towards for seven years by diligently overfulfilling quotas in the manufacturing zone. She was reprimanded for drinking tea with me. Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov transferred her to another unit the same day. Another close acquaintance of mine, a very cultured woman, was thrown into the pressure-cooker unit for daily beatings because she had read and discussed with me a Justice Department document entitled “Internal Regulations at Correctional Facilities.” Disciplinary reports were filed on everyone who talked to me. It hurt me that people I cared about were forced to suffer. Laughing, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov said to me then, “You probably don’t have any friends left!” He explained it was all happening because of Dinze’s complaints.

Now I see I should have gone on hunger strike back in May, when I first found myself in this situation. However, seeing the tremendous pressure put on other convicts, I stopped the process of filing complaints against the prison.

Three weeks ago, on August 30, I asked Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov to grant the prisoners in my work shift eight hours of sleep. The idea was to decrease the workday from sixteen to twelve hours. “Fine, starting Monday, the shift can even work eight hours,” he replied. I knew this was another trap because it is physically impossible to make our increased quota in eight hours. So the work shift would lag behind and face punishment. “If they find out you were the one behind this,” the lieutenant colonel continued, “you definitely will never have it bad again, because there is no such thing as bad in the afterlife.” Kupriyanov paused. “And finally, never make requests for everyone. Make requests only for yourself. I’ve been working in the prison camps for many years, and whenever someone has come to me to request something for other people, they have always gone straight from my office to solitary confinement. You’re the first person this won’t happen to.”

Over the following weeks, life in my dorm unit and work shift was made intolerable. Convicts close to the wardens incited the unit to violence. “You’ve been punished by having tea and food, bathroom breaks, and smoking banned for a week. And now you’re always going to be punished unless you start treating the newcomers, especially Tolokonnikova, differently. Treat them like the old-timers used to treat you back in the day. Did they beat you up? Of course they did. Did they rip your mouths? They did. Fuck them up. You won’t be punished for it.”

I was repeatedly provoked to get involved in conflicts and fights, but what is the point of fighting with people who have no will of their own, who are only acting at the behest of the wardens?

The Mordovian convicts are afraid of their own shadows. They are completely intimidated. If only the other day they were well disposed toward me and begging me to do something about the sixteen-hour workday, they are afraid even to speak to me after the administration has come down hard on me.

I made the wardens a proposal for resolving the conflict. I asked that they release me from the pressure artificially manufactured by them and enacted by the prisoners they control, and that they abolish slave labor at the prison by reducing the length of the workday and decreasing the quotas to bring them into compliance with the law. But in response the pressure has only intensified. Therefore, as of September 23, I declare a hunger strike and refuse to be involved in the slave labor at the prison until the administration complies with the law and treats women convicts not like cattle banished from the legal realm for the needs of the garment industry, but like human beings.

This is an extensive revision of the translation, by Bela Shayevich, originally published here.

The original Russian of Ms. Tolokonnikova’s letter can be read here, among other places.

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