Gulag Archipelago

10 function () { return leftZeroFill(this.year() % 100, 2); }

Inside the Pussy Rioters’ Russian Prisons

Two jailed members of the Russian punk rock group have been shipped off to remote penal colonies to serve out their sentences. Anna Nemtsova reports on the harsh conditions that await the young mothers in Mordovia and Perm, the ‘gateway to Siberia.’

Two members of the Pussy Riot punk band, convicted to two years in prison for “hooliganism,” have been sent by train from Moscow this week to Russia’s notorious penal colonies. Both of the women, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, are mothers of small children, and they had asked to be allowed to serve their jail terms in Moscow, close to their families and their lawyers. Instead, they are now heading to prisons in the remote regions of Mordovia and Perm, also known as “the gateway to Siberia.”

On Tuesday morning, lawyer Nikolai Polozov visited Moscow authorities to find out where his clients had been sent. They confirmed that Toloknnikova had been shipped out to the Mordovian taiga on Sunday, while Alyokhina was put on a train to Perm, in the frigid Ural Mountains, on Monday. Both regions are notorious for their draconian Soviet-era prison camps. Neither the women’s lawyers nor their families know of their exact destination—there are at least four prisons where they might end up—and defenders and friends are concerned for their safety. “The next time we hear from them might be in two to three weeks,” Polozov said.

It is unclear how the musicians will fare in jail, particularly after being targets of the state media, who blamed the Pussy Rioters for blasphemy and for humiliating the church after the group performed a “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which called for the Virgin Mary to drive President Vladimir Putin from Russia. The band’s three lawyers plan to travel to Perm and Mordovia as soon as they locate their clients, to work on providing security for the women inside the penal colonies.

The prisons will be a dramatic departure from the Moscow pretrial detention center where the Pussy Rioters had been staying, former inmates say. Female prisoners undergo a series of psychologically stressful situations from the first day of arrival, with the transportation and quarantine “stage”—what the Pussy Rioters are now going through—being the most feared and punishing part for most inmates.

Svetlana Bakhmina, a former lawyer for oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company, was sentenced to 6½ years for embezzlement and freed after almost four years in 2009, after more than 98,000 Russians signed and sent a petition for her release to then-president Dmitry Medvedev. Bakhmina recalls her transportation “stage” from Moscow to Mordovia: “They make you jump out of a prison vehicle into the train’s door. You fly with all your bags over about three feet gap, while guards with dogs stand on the ground watching you.” Bakhmina said that in autumn and spring, the temperatures on the prison trains are especially freezing, as the vehicles are not heated until the dead of winter.

“From the moment you stepped into the train, you were no longer recognized as an equal human being—the system treats you as a second-class person,” said Bakhmina. “That is the main feature of Russian prisons that remains from [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.”

Like the Pussy Riot’s Tolokonnikova, Bakhmina was sent to a colony in Mordovia, a region some 250 miles from Moscow. (On Wednesday, it was confirmed that Tolokonnikova ended up in the same colony where Bakhmina did time.) The train ride there took two nights and almost two full days. Women were locked in crowded cages, she said, and only allowed to use the bathroom twice during the trip; otherwise, they had to improvise for sanitation—a calculated humiliation.

Upon arrival at the penal colonies, the Pussy Rioters will have to give away their ordinary clothes and wear dark blue or black prison overalls. They may be allowed to keep sweaters or tights, but only in dark colors. Their hair will be covered by traditional woolen scarves. They will likely not have access to hot water to do laundry, nor any place to dry it. During the first two weeks, called the “quarantine,” the prison will register the newcomers with their units. Each one houses around 100 women who sleep in bunks in a large, open barrack, with anywhere from 15 to 40 women to a room.

Most of the day is occupied with work. Women sew prison uniforms in the Mordovia colonies, while one prison in Perm has a more creative form of labor—drawing animations for cartoons. The workday begins at 6 a.m. with morning exercises outside—no matter how cold it is, and temperatures in Perm can plummet to 20 below—and continue until 4 p.m. Even after the official workday is done, an inmate’s time is carefully constricted, and they rarely find a free hour to read or write a letter home.  

As a result of recently introduced prison reforms, repeat offenders have been separated from first-time inmates. But the prisoners are not divided up according to the gravity of their convictions, so that those convicted of “hooliganism” or economic crimes can end up sharing a unit with violent criminals and murderers. “Conditions in women’s prisons are even harsher than in men’s, where a criminal hierarchy still partly manages order,” said Olga Romanova, the leader of Rus Behind the Bars, a civil movement to defend prisoners’ rights. Without the informal pecking order, sociopaths have free room to maneuver. “Women tend to inform and cooperate with the prison administration,” Romanova says. “There is no doubt that both Tolokonnikova in her Mordovia prison and Alyokhina in her prison in Perm will be watched 24 hours a day.”

Women were locked in crowded cages and only allowed to use the bathroom twice during the trip.

The Pussy Rioters—one of whom is a former philosophy student; the other, a sensitive poet—will surely find their fellow inmates to be very different from their former colleagues. Most women in Bakhmina’s barrack were murderers. “Of the 90 women in my unit, 72 had murder convictions,” she said.  

But the hardest part of prison life for the young mothers will surely be the lack of communication with their children. (Tolokonnikova has a 4-year-old girl; Alyokhina, a 5-year-old boy.) The women will only be allowed to see their families over a three-day visit, which can happen between two to four times a year. And many parents prefer not to bring small children to the gloomy and often unsanitary hotels near the colonies.

Being denied phone calls is another form of subtle torture for jailed mothers. Prison authorities generally allocate no more than an hour a week for each unit, during which time hundreds of convicts want to call their loved ones. At Bakhmina’s jail in Mordovia, dozens of women—eager to hear their children’s voices—lined up to use two phone booths. She remembers her thwarted attempts to talk to her own sons, then 3 and 7.

Even the strongest woman can suffer a nervous breakdown in the prisons’ harsh conditions. “I hope the system will not break such powerful and creative personalities as the Pussy Riot girls,” says Polozov, the band’s lawyer. He believes the decision to send his defendants so far away is “anti-humane and purely political” but insisted his clients were tough. Despite all the frightening stories about the penal colonies, the women did not look afraid during their last meeting with their lawyer, he said. “They sounded brave, and asked me to send their warmest wishes to all their friends. ‘Continue to support us, please,’ was their message.”