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A member of the female punk band "Pussy Riot" Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sits in a glass-walled cage during a court hearing in Moscow, August 17, 2012. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Punk Heroines

Pussy Riot Member Ends Prison Hunger Strike After Falling Ill

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova fell ill and ended her nine-day strike protesting decrepit conditions in the remote penal colony where she is serving a two-year sentence. She has issued new demands to prison authorities, including the request that she be moved away from the colony.

On the ninth day of her hunger strike, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova felt weak and sick. The 23-year-old Tolokno, as she’s known in Russia, is a member of the punk band Pussy Riot, and was jailed last year along with two of her bandmates for their subversive performances. She’s currently serving a two-year sentence in Penal Labor Colony No. 14, a Stalinist-gulag-turned-prison camp in the remote region of Mordova. On the day in question, she lay in bed in the prison infirmary, wearing her trademark black clothes, listless and silent. Her body was covered in red pimples that resembled a chicken pox infection. Prison doctors put Manganese solution on each pimple, which made Tolokno look like a leopard. Yet no diagnosis of her illness could be made, her doctors told her, and no real treatment prescribed unless she ended her hunger strike.

This was the scene that greeted Ilya Ponamarev, a member of Russia’s parliament, during his visit with Tolokonnikova at the infirmary. Flat on her back, she was determined to starve herself because of the decrepit conditions and harsh punishments she said she faced in the penal colony. Her first question to the deputy: whether her protest letter criticizing “slave labor” at Penal Colony No. 14 had made an impact beyond the prison’s bars. Ponamarev assured her that it had.

On Tuesday, Russian media reported that Tolokonnikova had ended her hunger strike, but that she may resume it if her demands are not met. At Ponomarev’s encouragement, she had issued three new requests: that she be moved away from Penal Labor Colony No. 14; that her few supporters among her fellow prisoners not be punished; and that the deputy director of the colony, who allegedly threatened her life, be investigated.

Her body was covered in red pimples that resembled a chicken pox infection.

At least one of three Tolokonnikova’s demands look likely to be fulfilled: according to Ponomarev, she will be kept in the infirmary and will soon be transferred to another colony. “Tolokonnikova has a bad medical condition and requires two months of treatment, and after that she will only have three months left on her sentence—I hope we’ll manage to move her to a different prison,” Ponomarev told The Daily Beast.

Tolokonnikova and Ponomarev have known each other for years. An experienced politician, the 38- year-old Ponomarev is one of a few opposition deputies left in the Duma. Both he and Tolokonnikova opposed Vladimir Putin’s politics, went to the same street protests, and swapped ideas on dissent. But Tolokno’s methods of struggle often sounded too impulsive, if not radical, to Ponomarev’s older generation of politicians.

Very few in Russia have sympathized with Tolokonnikova’s radical interpretation of art. And even fewer understood the messages behind her conceptual projects, such as filming a group sex video in a biological museum to mock then-president Dmitry Medvedev. (Tolokonnikova, nine months pregnant, participated in the nude orgy with her husband, Petr Verzilov, and 18 other activists. Later, she brought her baby girl to an anti-police performance, an act that got her roundly criticized by ordinary Russians.) She has been struggling against Putin’s rule for the past six years; in 2007 she performed as one of the Art Group Voina activists, then, as one of Pussy Riot founders she inspired most of the band’s staged actions.

Another one of the band’s members, Yekaterina Samutsevitch—who was released from jail last October—said, “Nadia won this time. At least she is not going back to that horrible Red Prison, where women slave 17 hours a day sewing police uniforms.”

Samutsevitch twice staged her own hunger strikes in prison, demanding that authorities stop criminal prosecutions against the band. Her demands were never fulfilled. “Even when you leave the prison, the time you served behind bars stays with you for life,” Samutsevitch said. “Especially if you are a feminist."

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