Back to the Gulag: Where Are the Pussy Riot Convicts Being Sent?

As authorities move Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova out of Moscow, the misery of Russia's prison camps comes back in focus.

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Female inmates walk in a prison colony in the village of Gornoye near the far eastern city of Vladivostok. (Yuri Maltsev/Reuters)

During the two years that Inna Bazhibina spent in a Russian detention center on contraband charges, she met many women who were transferred on to serve out their sentences in penal colonies. In letters back, her friends wrote of unpleasant conditions and grinding "moral" pressure.
 
But Bazhibina, who recorded her recollections in an essay for Russia's Public Post website, says it may be far worse for Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who are soon to leave relatively comfortable detention cells in Moscow for dismal penal colonies hundreds of kilometers from home. She predicted the women would be sent to one of Russia's more notorious penal colonies. "These girls are something different, their case has political connotations. They'll get sent to Mordovia -- that will be the order. It's tougher there -- the climate, swamps, mosquitoes," Bazhibina said. "They say that there's always a problem with water there. With water in general. The girls [there] give up on hot water altogether. Why do they all have short hair? Because there's a problem with washing their hair. And how will you clean yourself? You have to use the kettle to heat water."
 
Twenty-four-year-old Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, 22, are facing two-year prison sentences for their role in a colorful protest against President Vladimir Putin in a prominent Russian Orthodox church.
 
'Isolation From Society'
 
A judge said the "correction" of the women, who were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, was possible "only in isolation from society." A third Pussy Riot member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released on probation last week.
 
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, who both have small children, had asked to serve out their terms in the Moscow detention center, or SIZO, where they have been held since March. But their request was denied, and they are now facing a transfer within weeks to one of 40 women's penal colonies that are part of Russia's massive prison system, where disease, abuse, and recidivism are depressingly commonplace.
 
Federal penitentiary authorities have yet to announce where the Pussy Riot members will be sent. By law, convicts serving more than a six-month sentence must be moved from SIZO centers to colonies close to their place of residence. But speculation is rife that Tolokonnikova, whose permanent residence is in Norilsk, may be sent to one of three penal colonies in Mordovia, some 450 kilometers east of Moscow, which are notorious for their bleak conditions. Alyokhina, a Muscovite, may end up at colonies in either Mozhaisk, 100 kilometers west of the capital, or Shakhovo, 400 kilometers to the southwest.
 
The conditions in Russian penal colonies are considered a vast improvement over the Soviet-era Gulag system, the massive network of forced labor camps run by Stalinist secret police, which exposed inmates to crushing physical work, starvation, and bitter cold.
 
Inmates now work a regulated eight hours, and usually at non-physical labor, like sewing. They receive a small salary for their work, with which they can buy food, cigarettes, and toiletries. Food and sanitary conditions are theoretically regulated by the state. But former prisoners and rights activists say that inmates are still subjected to unhealthy conditions, a complete absence of privacy, and a brutal social hierarchy in which younger or more vulnerable convicts are subject to harassment, abuse, and even rape by prison guards or other inmates.
 
Cells in penal colonies can sometimes hold up to 40 women at a time. Bazhibina says for university-educated women like Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, the biggest difficulty may be being thrown into a mix of women with little education and considerable hostility toward more privileged classes. "Eighty percent of the people there are people with whom you really have nothing to talk about. You can talk about nature and the weather. It's better not to go any further than that," Bazhibina said. "One woman, for example, said that sparrows are just little pigeons, that mice are small rats, and that elephants lay eggs. That's the level you're dealing with. When you laugh, the tears flow, because you're seeing a real cross-section of society."
 
Small Children
 
Part of the public outcry over the Pussy Riot case revolves around the fact that young children are involved. Although federal law allows children under the age of three to remain with their mothers in penal colonies, the provision is of no help to Alyokhina, who has a five-year-old son, or Tolokonnikova, whose daughter is four.
 
Defense lawyers for the two women said on October 16 they have asked for the prison terms to be deferred until the children are 14. But Moscow City Court judges say the fact that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have small children was already taken into account when their sentences were originally handed down.
 
There are also concerns that the Pussy Riot members may be subject to special scrutiny because of their celebrity status -- something that may work to their disadvantage in a demographic that is unusually devout. "These are people who have already gone through all their trials and appeals. God is the only hope they have left," said Bazhibina, adding that Russian state media portrayed the Pussy Riot protest as a religious crime rather than a political statement. Lawyers have repeatedly expressed concern for the safety and well-being of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina if and when they are transferred to penal colonies.
 
Masha Noel, who spent nearly three years in a women's colony in Chelyabinsk for fraud, said much depends on whether prison officials are looking to make an example of their new, high-profile inmates -- and how strong Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova can remain in what will undoubtedly be the difficult first months: "If an instruction is given to 'toughen them up,' then it's going to be hard for them. But on the other hand, we don't have a special place for political prisoners now, and that means for every two terrible guards you'll find eight normal ones," Noel said.
 
"And there's another important point -- people have worked in these places for decades. So these people, fairly often, are more human than people on the outside. A lot of them won't draw any conclusions until they get to know the new arrivals. In short, you need to be strong and survive the initial pressure of the first several months. It happens to everyone, and to girls most of all."




This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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