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<nettime> Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: Why I have gone on hunger strike
nettime's_observer on Tue, 24 Sep 2013 06:11:02 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: Why I have gone on hunger strike


< http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/sep/23/pussy-riot-hunger-strike-nadezhda-tolokonnikova >

Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: Why I have gone on hunger strike

   In an open letter, the imprisoned Pussy Riot member explains why the
   brutal conditions at Penal Colony No 14 have led her to undertake a
   hunger strike in protest

     Monday 23 September 2013 12.05 BST

   Beginning Monday, 23 September, I am going on hunger strike. This is an
   extreme method, but I am convinced that it is my only way out of my
   current situation.

   The penal colony administration refuses to hear me. But I, in turn,
   refuse to back down from my demands. I will not remain silent, resigned
   to watch as my fellow prisoners collapse under the strain of
   slavery-like conditions. I demand that the colony administration
   respect human rights; I demand that the Mordovia camp function
   in accordance with the law. I demand that we be treated like human
   beings, not slaves.

   It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No 14 in the
   Mordovian village of Parts. As the prisoner saying goes: "Those who
   never did time in Mordovia never did time at all." I started hearing
   about Mordovian prison colonies while I was still being held at
   Pre-Trial Detention Centre No 6 in Moscow. They have the highest levels
   of security, the longest workdays, and the most flagrant rights
   violation. When they send you off to Mordovia, it is as though you're
   headed to the scaffold. Until the very last moment, they keep hoping:
   "Perhaps they won't send you to Mordovia after all? Maybe it will blow
   over?" Nothing blew over, and in the autumn of 2012, I arrived at the
   camp on the banks of the Partsa River.

   Mordovia greeted me with the words of the deputy chief of the penal
   colony, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, who is the de facto head
   administrator of our colony. "You should know that when it comes to
   politics, I am a Stalinist." Colonel Kulagin, the other head
   administrator -- the colony is run in tandem -- called me in for a
   conversation on my first day here with the objective to force me to
   confess my guilt. "A misfortune has befallen you. Isn't that so? You've
   been sentenced to two years in the colony. People usually change their
   minds 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 that I would only work the 8 hours a
   day required by the labour code. "The code is one thing -- what
   really matters is fulfilling your quota. If you don't, you work
   overtime. You should know that we have broken stronger wills than
   yours!" was Kulagin's response.

   My brigade in the sewing shop works 16 to 17 hours a day. From 7.30am
   to 12.30am. 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
   submit petitions to work on weekends "out of [their] own desire". In
   actuality, there is, of course, no desire to speak of. These petitions
   are written on the orders of the administration and under pressure from
   the prisoners that help enforce it.

   No one dares to disobey these orders and not submit such petitions
   regarding entering the work zone on Sunday, which means working until 1
   am. Once, a 50-year-old woman asked to go back to the residential zone
   at 8pm instead of 12.30am so she could go to bed at 10 pm and get eight
   hours of sleep just once a week. She was feeling ill; she had high
   blood pressure. In response, they held a unit meeting in order to take
   the woman down, insult and humiliate her, branding her a parasite.
   "What, do you think you're the only one who wants more sleep? You need
   to work harder, you cow!" When someone from the brigade doesn't come to
   work on doctor's orders, they're bullied as well. "I worked when I had
   a fever of 40C and it was fine. What are you thinking --w ho is going
   to pick up the slack for you?"

   My residential unit in the camp greeted me with the words of a fellow
   prisoner finishing off her nine-year term. "The pigs are scared to
   touch you themselves. They want to do it with the hands of the
   inmates." In the colony, the inmates in charge of the brigades as well
   as their senior members are the ones tasked with depriving fellow
   inmates' rights, terrorising them, and turning them into speechless
   slaves -- all on the orders of the administration.

   For the maintenance of discipline and obedience, there is a widely
   implemented system of unofficial punishments. Prisoners are forced to
   "stay in the lokalka [a fenced-off passageway between two areas in the
   camp] until lights out" (the prisoner is forbidden to go into the
   barracks -- whether it be autumnl or winter. In the second brigade,
   consisting of the disabled and elderly, there was a woman who ended up
   getting such bad frostbite after a day in the lokalka they had to
   amputate her fingers and one of her feet); "lose hygiene privileges"
   (the prisoner is forbidden to wash themselves or use the bathroom);
   "lose commissary and tea-room privileges" (the prisoner is forbidden to
   eat their own food, or drink beverages). It's both funny and
   frightening when a 40-year-old woman tells you: "Looks like we're being
   punished today! I wonder whether we're going to be punished tomorrow,
   too." She can't leave the sewing workshop to pee or get a piece of
   candy from her purse. It's forbidden.

   Thinking only of sleep and a sip of tea, the harassed and dirty
   prisoner becomes obedient putty in the hands of the administration,
   which sees us solely as free slave labor. Thus, in June 2013, my salary
   was 29 (29!) rubles [57p] for the month. Our brigade sews 150 police
   uniforms per day. Where does the money they get for them go?

   number of times. However, the administration has limited itself to
   repainting the sewing machines with the hands of its labourers. We sew
   using physically and morally exhausted machinery. According to the
   labour code, when equipment does not correspond with current industry
   standards, quotas must be lowered in relation to typical trade
   conventions. But the quotas only rise, and suddenly and miraculously at
   that. "If you let them see that you can deliver 100 uniforms, they'll
   raise the minimum to 120!" say veteran machine-runners. And you can't
   fail to deliver, either, or else your whole unit will be punished, the
   entire brigade. The punishment will be, for instance, that all of you
   will be forced to stand in the quad for hours. Without permission to
   use the bathroom. Without permission to take a sip of water.

   Two weeks ago, the production quotas for all colony brigades was
   arbitrarily increased by 50 units. If previously the minimum had been
   100 uniforms per day, now it is 150. According to the labour code,
   workers must be notified of a change in the production quota no less
   than two months before it is enforced. 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 administrators of our "sweatshop" (that's what
   the prisoners call the colony). The number of people in the brigade
   decreases (they are released or transferred), but the quota grows. As a
   result, those left behind have to work harder and harder. The mechanics
   say that they don't have the parts necessary to repair the machinery
   and that they will not be getting them. "There are no parts! When will
   they come? Are you kidding? This is Russia. Why even ask that
   question?" During my first few months in the work zone, I practically
   became a mechanic. I taught myself out of necessity. I threw myself at
   my machine, screwdriver in hand, desperate to fix it. Your hands are
   pierced with needle-marks and covered in scratches, your blood is all
   over the work table, but still, you keep sewing. You are a part of the
   assembly line, and you have to complete your task as well as the
   experienced sewers. Meanwhile, the damn machine keeps breaking down.
   Because you're new and there's a deficit, you end up with the worst
   equipment -- the weakest motor on the line. And now it's broken down
   again, and once again, you run to find the mechanic, who is impossible
   to find. They yell at you, they berate you for slowing down production.
   There are no sewing classes at the colony, either. Newbies are
   unceremoniously sat 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
   administration. It's true: others are beaten up. For not being able to
   keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, in the face. Prisoners
   themselves deliver these beatings and not a single one of them is done
   without the approval and full knowledge of the administration. A year
   ago, before I came here, a gypsy woman in the third unit was beaten to
   death (the third is the pressure unit where they put prisoners that
   need to undergo daily beatings). She died in the medical unit of PC-14.
   The administration was able to cover it up: the official cause of death
   was a stroke. In another unit, new seamstresses who couldn't keep up
   were undressed and forced to sew naked. No one dares complain to the
   administration because all they will do is smile and send the prisoner
   back into the unit, where the "snitch" will be beaten on the orders of
   that same administration. For the colony administration, controlled
   hazing is a convenient method for forcing prisoners into total
   submission to their systemic abuse of human rights.

   A threatening, anxious atmosphere pervades the work zone. Eternally
   sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfill inhumanly
   large quotas, prisoners 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. They stopped her.
   
   Those who found themselves in PC-14 in 2010, the year of smoke and
   fire, said that while the wildfires were approaching the colony walls,
   prisoners continued to go to the work zone and fulfill their quotas.
   Due to the smoke, you couldn't see two metres in front of you, but,
   covering their faces in wet handkerchiefs, they all went to work
   nonetheless. Because of the emergency conditions, prisoners weren't
   taken to the cafeteria for meals. Several women told me that they were
   so horribly hungry they started writing diaries in order to document
   the horror of what was happening to them. When the fires were finally
   put out, camp security thoroughly rooted these diaries out so that none
   of them would make it to the outside.

   The hygienic and residential conditions of the camp are calculated to
   make the prisoner feel like a filthy animal without any rights.
   Although there are "hygiene rooms" in the dormitories, there is also
   "general hygiene room" with a corrective and punitive purpose. This
   room has a capacity of five; however, all 800 colony prisoners are sent
   there to wash themselves. We do not have to wash ourselves in the
   hygiene rooms in our barracks -- that would be too easy. In the
   "general hygiene room", in the eternal press, women with little tubs
   attempt to wash their "nursemaids" (as they call them in Mordovia) as
   fast as they can, heaped onto one another. 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 unit was
   unable to bathe for two to three weeks.

   When the plumbing breaks down, urine splashes and clumps of faeces fly
   out of the hygiene rooms. We've learned to unclog the pipes ourselves,
   but our successes are short-lived -- they soon get stopped up again.
   The colony does not have a snake for cleaning out the pipes. We get to
   do laundry once a week. The laundry is a small room with three faucets
   pouring weak streams of cold water.

   It must also be a corrective measure to only give prisoners stale
   bread, heavily watered-down milk, exclusively rusted millet and rotten
   potatoes. This summer, they brought in sacks of slimy, black potatoes
   in bulk. Then they fed them to us.

   The living and working-condition violations at PC-14 are endless.
   However, my main and most important grievance is bigger than any one of
   these. It is that the colony administration prevents any complaints or
   claims regarding conditions at PC-14 from leaving colony walls by the
   harshest means available. The administration forces people to remain
   silent. It does not scorn stooping to the very lowest and cruelest
   means to this end. All of the other problems come from this one -- the
   increased quotas, the 16-hour work day, and so on. The administration
   feels untouchable; it heedlessly oppresses prisoners with growing
   severity. I couldn't understand why everyone kept silent until I found
   myself faced with the avalanche of obstacles that falls on the prisoner
   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 use all of its
   mechanisms for putting pressure on the prisoner so she will see that
   her complaints will not help anyone, but only make thing worse. They
   use collective punishment: you complain there's no hot water, and they
   turn it off entirely.

   In May 2013, my lawyer Dmitry Dinze filed a complaint about the
   conditions at PC-14 with the prosecutor's office. The deputy head of
   the colony, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, instantly made conditions at
   the camp unbearable. There was search after search, a flood of reports
   on all of 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 malfunctions. The
   leaders of the unit next to mine, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov's right
   hands, openly requested that prisoners interfere with my work output so
   that I could be sent to the punishment cell for "damaging government
   property." They also ordered prisoners to provoke a fight with me.

   It is possible to tolerate anything as long as it only affects you. But
   the method of collective punishment is bigger than that. It means that
   your unit, or even the entire colony, is required to endure your
   punishment along with you. This includes, worst of all, people you've
   come to care about. One of my friends was denied parole, for which she
   had been awaiting seven years, working hard to exceed her work quotas.
   She was reprimanded for drinking tea with me. That day, Lieutenant
   Colonel Kupriyanov transferred her to another unit. Another close
   acquaintance of mine, a very well-educated woman, was thrown into the
   "stress unit" for daily beatings because she was reading and discussing
   a Justice Department document with me, entitled: "Regulations for the
   code of conduct at correctional facilities." They filed reports on
   everyone who talked to me. It hurt me that people I cared about were
   forced to suffer. Grinning, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov told me then,
   "You probably don't have any friends left!" He explained that
   everything was happening because of Dinze's complaint.

   Now I see that I should have gone on hunger strike in May when I was
   first found myself in this situation. However, the tremendous pressure
   that the administration had put on my fellow prisoners due to my
   actions led me to stop the process of filing complaints about the
   conditions in the colony.

   Three weeks ago, on 30 August, I asked Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov to
   grant the prisoners in my work brigade eight hours of sleep. We were
   discussing decreasing the workday from 16 to 12 hours. "Fine, starting
   Monday, the brigade will only work for eight hours at a time," he
   replied. I knew this was another trap because it is physically
   impossible to fulfill the increased quota in 8 hours. Thus, the brigade
   will not have time and subsequently face punishment. "If anyone finds
   out that you're the one behind this, you'll never complain again," the
   Lieutenant Colonel continued. "After all, there's nothing to complain
   about in the afterlife." Kupriyanov paused. "And finally, never request
   things for other people. Only ask for things for yourself. I've been
   working in the camps for many years, and those who come to me asking
   for things for other people go directly from my office to the
   punishment cell. You're the first person this won't happen to."

   Over the course of the following weeks, life in my unit and work
   brigade became impossible. Prisoners with close ties to the
   administration began egging on the others to get revenge. "You're
   forbidden to have tea and food, from taking bathroom breaks, and
   smoking for a week. Now you're always going to be punished unless you
   start behaving differently with the newbies and especially with
   Tolokonnikova. Treat them like the old-timers used to treat you. Were
   you beaten? Of course you were. Did they rip your mouths? They did.
   Fuck them up. You won't get punished."

   Over and over, they attempt to get me to fight one of them, but what's
   the point of fighting with people who aren't in charge of themselves,
   who are only acting on the orders of the administration?

   Mordovian prisoners are afraid of their own shadows. They are
   completely terrified. If only yesterday they were well-disposed toward
   you and begging, "Do something about the 16 hour work day!" after the
   administration started going after me, they're afraid to even speak to
   me.

   I turned to the administration with a proposal for dealing with the
   conflict. I asked that they release me from the pressure manufactured
   by them and enacted by the prisoners they control; that they abolish
   slave labour at the colony by cutting the length of the workday and
   decreasing the quotas so that they correspond with the law. The
   pressure has only increased. Therefore, beginning 23 September, I am
   going on hunger strike and refusing to participate in colony slave
   labor. I will do this until the administration starts obeying the law
   and stops treating incarcerated women like cattle ejected from the
   realm of justice for the purpose of stoking the production of the
   sewing industry; until they start treating us like humans.


   Translation: Bela Shayevich of n+1 magazine, which has covered the
   Pussy Riot case extensively


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