Foreign Agent

What the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov, Russia, did to get branded a “foreign agent” by a local court: it ran a research project entitled Reexamining Social Policy in the Post-Soviet Space: Ideologies, Actors and Cultures, and it published a book entitled The Critical Analysis of Social Policy in the Post-Soviet Space. Don’t let it happen to you.

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There are more details on this particular case here (in Russian). And here is Wikipedia’s helpful summary of the Russian foreign agent law, and RIA Novosti’s roundup of its own English-language articles on the topic.

Photo: Graffiti (“Foreign agent!”) painted on the wall outside the offices of the human rights group Memorial in Moscow (courtesy of Memorial’s web site).

Art Criticism

The best critique of the recent desperate bit of performance art on Red Square has been this brief analysis, by Leonid Bershidsky, of Russia’s dismal economic prospects and the state’s seeming indifference to this state of affairs:

Pavlensky, however, may have been on to something. The apathy and fatalism he so dramatically depicted is clear in the Russian economic ministry’s long-term economic development forecast. The forecast, which stretches through 2030, is a major strategy document meant to serve as the basis for policy decisions — though in this case the most probable scenario does not require much action at all.

In March, when the previous version of the forecast was adopted, the basic scenario was a moderately optimistic one that had the Russian economy growing at an average of 4 percent a year, noticeably faster than developed countries like the U.S. and members of the European Union. The current version is based on a “conservative” scenario, with average growth limited to 2.5 percent annually and a drop in Russia’s share of global output to 3.4 percent in 2030 from 4 percent in 2012. In other words, despite consistently high energy prices  in 2030, the forecast sees oil at $90 to $110 per barrel in 2010 prices  Russia will keep lagging behind other developing nations, especially China and other Asian countries.

While the previous version of the forecast envisioned a net capital inflow of 1.5 percent gross domestic product, the current one says capital flows will be “balanced”  an improvement on the $80 billion capital flight expected this year but not an overly ambitious goal.

Other parts of the forecast look just as dismal. For example, private investment in research and development is not expected to make any contribution to economic growth. Russia will only be able to increase productivity by importing technology, which by 2030 will allow it to reach 66 percent of the U.S.’s productivity level, up from the current 39 percent. There will be more income inequality; incomes and domestic demand will grow about as slowly as the economy as a whole.

“The expected trends in global raw materials markets will not be able to re-emerge as prime drivers of economic growth,” the forecast says. “At the same time, structural constraints to growth have significantly increased. They include undeveloped infrastructure, obsolescent equipment, unfavorable demographics and a growing deficit of qualified personnel. That means in the next 20 years, the Russian economy will not be able to return to the 2000-2008 growth trajectory and even keeping up a lower growth tempo will require significant reforms.”

Such depressing reading gave rise to frustrated and angry comments. “A new strategy for Russia: we have lost the last shred of conscience and we are too lazy even to pretend that we are doing something,” money manager Yulia Bushueva wrote on Facebook. “Don’t bother us, we are busy stealing.”

Welcome to Sochi

An unexpurgated cri de coeur from the Russian internets:

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Вот эту фотографию из подмосковной больницы я бы сделал символом современной России, особенно в свете приближения самой дорогой в истории человечества Олимпиады в Сочи. ( – English translation is below).

Дорогие френды, особенно забугорные – пошлите ее своим друзьям. Пусть расходится по сети. И пусть ухмыляющемуся главарю криминального государства, чье личное воровское состояние оценивается в несколько десятков миллиардов долларов, будет неуютно стоять на трибуне в феврале – оттого, что все уважающие себя политики и знаменитости побрезговали стоять с ним рядом.

Here’s a photo of the local hospital in Boyarkino village not far from Moscow. This is a typical picture, not some extreme one. There are thousands of hospitals, schools and public offices like this in Russia, not only in province, but in major cities as well. I would have made this picture the symbol of modern Russia, especially today, while the most expensive Olympics in the history of mankind are approaching in Sochi.

Dear friends, please, share this with your friends. Let it go over the whole network, so for the world’s most corrupt leader of the most criminal state, whose personal fortune is estimated at tens of billions of dollars, it would not be so comfortable to host this Olympics. Let it be uncomfortable for him to stand on the podium in February, because any self-respecting politician or celebrity would be ashamed to stay next to him.

Meanwhile, back in the fascist fairyland, the locals were getting worked up about the upcoming corporate slugfest down south.
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We Have a Saying in Russia

In the queue outside the centre, there is little sympathy for Greenpeace among relatives of other detainees, as they wait to deliver packages. “We have a saying in Russia: you shouldn’t go into someone else’s house and try to live by your own rules,” said one middle-aged woman who had bought a parcel of food for her 33-year-old daughter, who had been inside for five months on charges she did not want to reveal. She had been waiting in freezing temperatures since 4am to ensure she was among the lucky few who got to deliver her package.

Another man, waiting to deliver a package to his brother, suggested the Greenpeace activists were paid by western oil corporations to undermine Russia and should be “shot, or at least sent to a camp”. The opinions reflect surveys which show that the majority of Russians support the piracy charges.

Shaun Walker, “Greenpeace activists await trial among harsh winds, tears and no sympathy,” The Guardian, 18 October 2013

telefon

For some reason, as the country sinks deeper into the Putinist fascist night, this “saying” becomes more and more popular. I’ve personally heard and read it something like six hundred thousand times over the past few years, but it’s hard to remember anyone ever saying such a thing in the nineties. It’s just remarkable how people participate so willingly in their own enslavement and extinction, and with the help of such “sayings.” Yes, “folk wisdom” really does consist in repeating over and over again what some fat cats with soccer teams in England, kids in Swiss schools, and mansions on the Riviera want you to think.

On the other hand, reporters like Shaun Walker wouldn’t have to look that hard for Russians who don’t think this way, even in Murmansk. And it’s pointless, as he does here, and as avid Russian watchers both inside and outside the country love to do, to cite a “public opinion” poll that, allegedly, shows the majority of Russians don’t support the arrested Greenpeace activists. Aside from any other number of methodological and philosophical issues with such polls more generally, not only in Russia, “public opinion” is a nearly meaningless concept in a country lacking all the things that make it a somewhat more meaningful concept in other countries, things like free elections, broadly based political parties, non-astroturfed grassroots groups, much stronger and more militant independent trade unions and, most important, freedom from constant terrorization and brainwashing, in the not-so-distant past and now again, over the past fourteen years, by officialdom, whether in the form of bureaucrats, police or state media.

Why does “the majority” not support the arrested Greenpeace activists? Because they (or, rather, a good number of the people who answered this dubious poll) thought that this was the response expected from them. Why did they think that? Because state and loyalist media have portrayed Greenpeace as the second coming of Al Qaeda, willing dupes of the CIA, and any other baleful thing you can think of. You don’t even have to believe this stuff. You just know that if some “polling organization” calls you up out of the blue, there are strong cues out there in the big media world to which you have access telling you how to respond to such questions. So what’s the point of thinking something different out loud? But then Shaun Walker, hundreds of other reporters, “political analysts,” “sociologists” and so on cite this “public opinion” as if it weren’t obtained under duress. It’s a vicious circle.

Mikhail Kosenko: Closing Statement in Court

On Tuesday, the Zamoskvoretsky District Court in Moscow convicted Mikhail Kosenko, recently declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, of involvement in “mass riots” and use of force against police officers during clashes between police and protesters after a sanctioned opposition march was prevented by police from reaching its end point, on Bolotnaya Square, in Moscow on May 6, 2012, the day before President Putin’s inauguration for his third presidential term. At the request of prosecutors, Kosenko, who suffers from a post-traumatic mental illness that previously required no hospitalization, had been declared mentally incompetent by the court, which has now sentenced him to compulsory psychiatric treatment, thus apparently reviving the state’s punitive use of “psychiatry” against dissidents during the late Soviet period.

During Tuesday’s court hearing, Mr. Kosenko made the following statement, which was recorded by Novaya Gazeta reporter Yulia Polukhina and published in the original Russian on the newspaper’s web site. My translation is illustrated with sketches by artist Victoria Lomasko, who was also present at the hearing. I thank her for permission to reproduce them here.

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The most valuable thing in the country is freedom. This is what the majority of our population is deprived of to one degree or another. This applies in particular to prisoners. A huge number of people are in prisons and camps for no reason, and no one will help them. And those who are there for crimes they have committed do not deserve the conditions [in which they are imprisoned]. As the prisoners themselves say, no one [is] able to recover after imprisonment. The plight of the mentally ill in incarceration is hard; the most difficult thing for them is haloperidol, a banned substance. There are side effects from it and many fatalities. It causes muscle cramps, rigidity, and pain.

galoperidol

Mikhail Kosenko: “The hardest thing is halperidol. It causes muscle spasms and pain.”

Our people are used to suffering. An eastern model of society is being built in Russia—lack of freedom in exchange for a sated life. The authorities base their propaganda on material measures—money spent and its results. That happiness doesn’t lie in money is an ancient idea, although one now challenged. Happiness lies in people’s freedom. There are many countries where the material standards are lower than in Russia but the level of satisfaction with life is much greater. Our people are used to living in poverty, and they imagine that a little prosperity is a big achievement.

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Prosecutor: “Kosenko is a danger to himself and others.”  (Judge Ludmila Moskalenko, who found Kosenko guilty, is seated on the right.)

Freedom is freedom from evil. Real opportunities… Our country has great potential, and different kinds of freedom are needed to realize it, but they either do not exist or are restricted. Freedom of the media… The most important medium is television, but there is censorship on [Russian television], which is prohibited [by law].

The authorities impose their strategy on television reporters. That is why pickets, rallies and marches are so important for the opposition. It was on this ground that the authorities decided to tussle with the opposition. Rallies and marches organized by the authorities are underwhelming, so they took the routе of creating all kinds of obstacles [for the opposition]. The authorities decided it was they who determined the location of rallies, even though the law says otherwise. The opposition wants to hold a rally on one square, and the authorities force a different square on them. Our society, accustomed to laws being violated, was not much bothered by this. Then the authorities have used obstacles, nuisances and coercion to make rallies ineffective and to limit the area where they are held, as happened on May 6, 2012.

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Defense lawyer Dmitry Aivazyan: “Kosenko will be in the same condition ten years from now. There is nothing to treat.”

While drastically limiting the area of the rally, as opposed to what had been agreed, the authorities considered its illegal demands the law. Because the authorities think they are the law. When, amidst the crush [on May 6, 2012, on Bolotnaya Square], dozens of people broke through police lines, the authorities decided they now had the right to disperse the tens of thousands of people who had come to the rally. With their tactics and politically motivated actions, the authorities constantly irritated people, who stood up to these illegal actions. The authorities break the law, but when they are rebuffed, they pretend to be legalists themselves, what with their Article 318 [use of violence against authorities – Editor] Riot policemen perceived the demonstrators as their enemies, meaning that they had been coached ahead of time to act so harshly, to react so harshly. The riot police on Bolotnaya Square obviously were not the law. Their superiors had politically encouraged the actions of the riot police on Bolotnaya Square. It was a political confrontation. The demonstrators were protesting against unfair elections. The demand for fair elections is the most just demand. The authorities oppose fair elections, because [if fair elections are held], they will have to resign. The regime consists largely of incompetent people, of the people who break the law. What we need is rotating governments, not the everlasting tenure of a single regime. With the current regime, Russian will be unable to deal the major challenges that will be inevitable in the future.

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Defense lawyer Alexei Miroshnichenko: “No one can be held liable for the same crime twice.” Seated to his right is Kosenko’s sister Ksenia.

Combined with low efficiency, the huge exertions the authorities sometimes display lead to significantly poorer results than could be otherwise. In our country’s history, power has never passed to the opposition legally. The current regime has set many anti-records: the highest consumption of heroin in the world, and it is the same thing with alcohol. And such a regime is competent? And should remain in power forever? The people protesting against it are wrong?

Supporters of the government say there is no one else to run the country. This is doubtful. Russia has huge numbers of talented and strong-willed people, and they can get into power only through honest and fair elections. I want to thank everyone who has supported me—my lawyers, my sister, and everyone who has come to these hearings. As for my sanity, I ask the court to consider me sane.

Ivan Ovsyannikov: Russia’s Welfare Chainsaw Massacre

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev holds

Welfare Chainsaw Massacre
Ivan Ovsyannikov (Russian Socialist Movement)
September 30, 2013
anticapitalist.ru

A “welfare chainsaw massacre” is exactly what we might call the government’s actions and statements over the last few months. The ruling class is once again attempting to pay for the latest uptick in the economic crisis from out of the pockets of workers.

On September 1, while speaking to students at the Far East Federal University, Putin announced the transition to a policy of austerity and reduced social spending. “The world economy has slumped a bit, and ours is hunkering down behind it,” the president said in his typical manner by way of explaining the upcoming unpopular measures. And he supported an earlier proposal, voiced by Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov, to replace the “maternity capital” program with “targeted assistance to poor families.”

However, a few days later, Dmitry Medvedev said that the maternity capital program would not be cancelled. “But it will be modified,” Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Maxim Topilin added in a whisper.

The fact that public opinion has been probed on such a sensitive point is quite significant. The maternity capital program is almost the only widely publicized social achievement of the Putin era. Putin has repeatedly stated it was his idea. And now this essential element of Putin’s social populism has been openly questioned.

No less provocative looking are the experiment with introducing social norms for electricity consumption (see Andrei Zavodskoi, “Cruel Economy”) and the de facto raising of the retirement age, which has long been discussed and is today closer than ever to realization. According to Deputy Primer Minister Olga Golodets, “We are not discussing raising the [retirement] age for any category of workers. We’ve gone another direction by promoting voluntary postponement of retirement. That is our principled position, and the government’s position.” However, such tricks are unlikely to mislead anyone.

The most scandalous revelations, however, are the statements made by government officials concerning labor relations. If, until recently, Mr. Topilin based his ministry’s decision not to index Russia’s penny-ante unemployment benefits on the fact that “at present there remains a high probability of finding employment in the labor market,” Mr. Medvedev has now said the exact opposite. He argues it is time to get away from the policy of preserving employment at all costs and not be afraid of cutting inefficient jobs: “The times all of us now face are not the easiest. […] Some people—perhaps a significant portion of the population—will have to change not only their jobs but also their professions and place of residence.” There is no doubt we have fallen on hard times, but the Prime Minister is clearly disingenuous when he talks about “all of us.” Russia’s ruling elite has no intention of depriving itself of jobs and handsome profits. So, in a conversation with François Fillon, Mr. Putin elegantly hinted that he would “not exclude” the possibility of seeking a fourth term as president.

But has the Russian economy “hunkered down” badly enough to warrant such painful experiments on the population? Isn’t “stagnation” only a plausible excuse for implementing the longstanding plans of the gentlemen from the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs?

As was reported in late August, the Ministry of Finance planned to save 1.1 trillion rubles [approx. 25 billion euros] over three years by eliminating the maternal capital program and reducing expenditures on pensions. At the same time, federal and regional budget expenditures on preparations for the 2018 World Cup should amount to 438 billion rubles, that is, almost half a trillion. The mass protests and riots in Brazil, sparked by excessive government spending on the 2014 World Cup, are still fresh in everyone’s minds. Russians could learn a lesson or two from Brazilians.

But maybe massive sports venue construction projects will generate many new jobs and return the taxpayer money spent on them? No, they will not. Unlike the great construction projects of the Soviet era, when funds were invested primarily in developing production, Olympiads, Universiades, and World Cups are, by definition, loss makers for national governments. Many analysts trace the current economic disaster in Greece to the 2004 Summer Olympics, which enriched transnational corporations while depleting public finances. The London Olympics have also been declared unprofitable. As for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, its unprofitability has been recognized by nearly all serious experts, including Vnesheconombank chair Vladimir Dmitriev, who said in an interview with Vedomosti newspaper that “a serious percentage of [Olympics-related construction] projects are calculated to make a loss.” According to Dmitriev, “Given the current model and market trends, there are big problems with returns on investments. For example, one million square meters of hotel space are being built in the Imereti Lowland. When this space goes onto the market after the Olympics, a sixty percent occupancy rate will be hard to achieve. The costs of many projects have seriously risen as they have been implemented. […] For many sites, there is no complete project documentation or confirmed cost estimates. All this confirms our doubts.”

As for jobs, they really will be generated—for thousands of migrant workers. Federal Law No. FZ-108, adopted specifically for the World Cup, leaves no doubt about that. First, the law establishes special lightweight entry requirements for foreign workers involved in preparations for the World Cup. Second, it limits the applicability of a number of existing labor laws, effectively legalizing slavery. As the Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR) declared in their statement on the subject, “The potential for runaway importation and recruitment of cheap labor, undermining the national labor market, and leading to a decrease in wages and legal guarantees in the area of labor relations, and an increase in the level of unemployment among the population, has been legally enshrined in the Russian Federation.”

The government could not care less about the fortunes of workers during the crisis, and it does almost nothing to hide it. How else can we account (to cite just one example) for Mr. Topilin’s proposal to deny free health care to all informally employed and unemployed people not registered with an employment bureau?

In light of the foregoing, the Kremlin’s actions aimed at reconciliation with the liberal opposition also become intelligible, as do unexpected initiatives to put the “against all” option back on voting ballots. The authorities fear that public discontent will grow and want to channel it in a direction that presents no danger to the ruling elite. Whether this political maneuver succeeds depends in part on the willingness of leftist political forces and trade unions to win over public opinion and make the fight against austerity measures as much of a mobilizing factor as it has been in Greece, Spain, and other countries facing the consequences of the capitalist system’s crisis.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of deviantart.net

The Continuation War

-1Yuri Melnichuk: “If Finland declares war on Putin, I’ll volunteer.”

Things don’t look good on that front, Yuri:

Finnish President Greets Russian President in Russian
Jun 26, 2013

The presidents of Finland and Russia, Sauli Niinistö and Vladimir Putin, met at the residence of the Finnish leader in Turku, RIA Novosti reports. “Very beautiful and pleasant weather. That is a good signal for Moscow,” Niinistö said in Russian when greeting Putin.

“We recently recalled out previous meeting and it became clear that certain results and progress is apparent in the achievement of what we agreed upon then,” the Finnish president continued. Vladimir Putin in turn admitted that since childhood he has known a handful of Finnish words, albeit not enough for conversation. He also pointed out the St. Petersburg and Turku have been closely connected for many years.

Vladimir Putin participated in events honoring the 60th anniversary of the sister city relationship between St Petersburg and Turku, the Kremlin press service reports. In addition, a ceremony was held at one of Turku’s central squares, where a plate with. Mr Putin’s name was laid in recognition of his efforts to protect the Baltic Sea environment.

The President of Russia was also presented with a Turku city medal. The medal is given to political and public figures for their services to the city, as well as the heads of foreign nations who make a major input into developing relations between their nation and Finland on arrival to Turku.

Russkiy Mir Foundation Information Service

Source

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The Lentua Nature Reserve is part of the Friendship Park, which consists of five separate nature reserves. The Friendship Park is the Finnish part of the Finno-Russian Friendship Nature Reserve. The emblem of the Friendship Nature Reserve features two wild forest reindeer, reflecting the friendship between the two countries and their cooperation for the benefit of nature conservation. One of the fundamental goals of the Friendship Nature Reserve is to protect the wild forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus) and its habitats, which makes this animal a natural choice for the emblem.

Source

Thanks to Sergey for the whole thing (or most of it).

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.