World News

11.02.13

Pussy Riot Member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova Goes Missing During Prison Colony Transfer

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has disappeared into the gulag transit system between Russia’s penal colonies, and her family is worried that authorities are trying to crush her spirit.

Early in the morning on October 21, prison guards put Nadezhda Tolokonnikova—nicknamed Tolokno, the most famous face of the Pussy Riot band—on a train and sent her away from her Penal Colony#14 in Mordovia  region.

This is the secret “etap,” the gulag-style phase of transit still used in Russia, which ships prisoners off, often to an unknown destination. Tolokonnikova’s husband, Petr Verzilov, told The Daily Beast that the last time he received information about his wife was over a week ago, and that the train had taken her through Ulyanovsk and Ufa to Chelyabinsk. He immediately flew to Siberia to look for his wife. But in spite of all his efforts to find out where she was, officials preferred to keep Tolokonnikova’s location secret. The punk-turned-inmate has effectively vanished.

“This is how the system makes a person disappear without a trace for weeks,” Verzilov said. The time during which an inmate is transported from prison to prison is a veritable gray zone in the Russian corrective system that can last from two weeks to two months, depending on the number of stops at transit prisons on the way. So far it has been 13 days since Tolokonnikova’s lawyer saw her for the last time on October 18th.

“After two hunger strikes she had in October she must be still weak and physically vulnerable—I am very worried about her,”said another Pussy Riot member, Yekaterina Samutsevitch, to The Daily Beast.And Tolokonnikova’s five-year-old daughter, Gera, was upset when she learned that visits with her mother have now been postponed for an uncertain period of time.

Tolokonnikova’s supporters and family say they feel proud that there was a rare, satisfactory reaction to her recent hunger strike: prison authorities fulfilled one of her demands and transferred her to a different colony. The letter she wrote from prison was a declaration of war against violations in prisons. Once again, already from behind bars, Tolokonnikova managed to grab the world’s attention and now an NGO is shaping up in Mordovia to peruse with defense of inmates’ rights.

But there is still a long way to go to win her freedom. And there are seemingly no end to the punishments for that one feminist song the band members attempted to perform in February 2012, in protest against the Orthodox Church at Christ the Saviour Cathedral for interfering with state politics in Russia. Why would officials want to give a harder time to Tolokonnikova now, a few months before her release in March, 2014? “Officials intend to teach Nadia a lesson for her protest behavior even behind the bars,” Verzilov said. “But they have no legal methods except for keeping her locked without a chance for her to stay in touch with us The war goes on.”