Bleak is the New Black: Nadya Tolokonnikova describes life in a Russian penal colony

Nadya Tolokonnikova at her July 2013 parole hearing. Photo Andrey Stenin, RIA Novosti.

Nadya Tolokonnikova at her July 2013 parole hearing. Photo Andrey Stenin, RIA Novosti.

While we have tried to maintain a critical distance from some of the more outright provocations of and around the Pussy Riot group (for the obvious reason that sometimes indulging the more spectacular aspects of the case keeps the attention off the objects of the group’s critique), this latest round of letters from Nadya Tolokonnikova caught our eye, then turned our stomach.

Currently serving out her two year sentence (which ends already this March), Tolokonnikova had corresponded earlier about how one of the reasons she was denied probation was her refusal to participate in the prison’s Miss Charm pageant. From the comfort of our laptops, Tolokonnikova’s account (and the photos our subsequent research into the pageant unearthed) seemed like something one might see in an episode of Orange is the New Black, with the plucky, privileged heroine refusing to stay quiet about the absurdities of system.

The letter Tolokonnikova published on September 23, 2013 (find the Russian original on, and the English translation, courtesy of n+1‘s Bela Shayevich, here), however, sooner made us think of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In this letter, Tolokonnikova describes the condition of life in the penal colony, including gross abuses of the rights guaranteed to prisoners, such as set working hours (the mandated 8 hours instead of the actual 16-17 daily shifts), fair pay (Tolokonnikova reports receiving less than $1 as her monthly pay for helping sew 150 police uniforms a day) and even things as simple as permission to drink water or use the toilet. The prison relies on communal punishment, punishing one’s entire unit as a way to maintain a type of self-regulation. Tolokonnikova acknowledges that she herself receives special privileges (“If you weren’t Tolokonnikova, you would have had the shit kicked out of you a long time ago”), but that those who associate with her are less fortunate.

We could summarize more, but we feel it best just to direct you to the letter, in English translation, here.

The letter concludes with Tolokonnikova’s resolution to go on a hunger strike, as a way to draw attention to these abuses. Instead, her letter was met with mixed responses from many Russians, who felt that someone who broke the law has no right to invoke it. Others wondered why someone with only 160 days to go would bother to complain so publicly, as she was clearly only making the matter worse for herself (or, as journalist Maxim Kononenko so crassly put it: “why this obstinate little girl, always looking for ways to get her pretty little ass in trouble, would, with only 160 days left on her sentence, go and get herself into this jam.”)

There is some truth to Kononenko’s concerns. Just one day after the letter went public, the second day of her hunger strike, Tolokonnikova was moved to solitary confinement for her “protection.” “In solitary confinement, I am alone with the administration. I do not think this is a safe place for me at all,” she writes in a letter her husband Petr Verzilov just published.

We tried to find more info on Penal Colony No 14, and found two videos. One shows how the prison now features “a cozy cafe,” the sign that life there is really not so far removed from the rest of the world, and the video below, in which women report on how they have a healthy lifestyle and are delighted to receive fair compensation for the work they do there. Both left us with the impression that Nadya’s story was one we wanted to help spread, particularly in a moment when the Russian art scene has stayed silent.

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1 Response to Bleak is the New Black: Nadya Tolokonnikova describes life in a Russian penal colony

  1. Pingback: Black is the New Orange: Post-Prison Pussy Riot | Baibakov Art Projects

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