Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was denied parole on Friday. No surprise. This is not to say that the court session was without drama. In fact, it appears that Judge Lidiia Yakovleva of the Zubovo-Polyansky District Court in Mordovia suffered from a bout of schizophrenia. The court ran eerily by-the-book until, well, it didn’t.
From the beginning, Masha Gessen described the court proceedings as running “well and even very well.”
At first, it seemed to me that I was on a taping of “Court Hour,” joked Irina Khrunova [Tolokonnikova’s lawyer] . . . ‘The bailiffs please hand me the documents,’ doesn’t happen in real life. In real life who presents the documents hands them [to the judge].” Judge Yakoleva conducted herself as if this was a show trial, in the educative-demonstrative sense, not in the other meaning. Like a judge on television, except that, perhaps, in America.
According to Gessen, the whole thing was surreal. The court’s press secretary brought journalists extra chairs. The court staff was polite and proper as opposed to the usual provincial rudeness. All of this had a “mystical effect,” wrote Gessen, “at some point the court’s participants, and the spectators behind them started to suddenly believe they were in a real court where decisions aren’t predetermined.” During testimony period, Gessen described a scene where the defense lawyers and prisoner representatives discoursed without interruption. “It was as if [the judge] disappeared.”
Then Judge Yakovleva’s other personality suddenly kicked in.
Then something strange happened although no one could avoid noticing it was all strange from the beginning. Yakovleva declared a break so she could familiarize herself with the documents Khrunova presented. What was strange about this was that no one asked her for a break. Was she taking courtesy to a new level?
After ten minutes the judge came back a different person. She didn’t hide her impatience and began to shout at the court participants. Her hands trembled. She gave the floor to the prosecutor, who testified against parole, but didn’t give it to anyone after. She announced that the court would retire to render a decision. At first, Khrunova, after quickly saying something the fleeing judge about having another statement, stood speechless. Cameras snapped pictures from tripods and spectators whispered to each other. “What is this?” They led Tolokonnikova away, and then Khrunova started shouting about fifteen years and about procedure.
Voina tweeted this last bit: “This is the first time I’ve seen this in fifteen years of practice,” Khrunova about the fleeing judge who refused the defense the last word.”
“ВИЖУ ТАКОЕ ПЕРВЫЙ РАЗ ЗА 15 ЛЕТ ПРАКТИКИ” – адвокат Хрунова про убежавшую судью, отказавшую в последнем слове осужденной.
— группа война (@gruppa_voina) April 26, 2013
Tolokonnikova had prepared a statement to read before the court, but the judge, who suddenly left, refused to hear it. Tolokonnikova was ultimately denied parole because she hadn’t sufficiently “repented.”
Has the convict started down the road to rehabilitation?” This is the question asked when a request for parole is reviewed. I would also like us to ask the following question today: What is this “road to rehabilitation”?
I am absolutely convinced that the only correct road is one on which a person is honest with others and with herself. I have stayed on this road and will not stray from it wherever life takes me. I insisted on this road while I was still on the outside, and I didn’t retreat from it in the Moscow pretrial detention facility. Nothing, not even the camps of Mordovia, where the Soviet-era authorities liked to send political prisoners, can teach me to betray the principle of honesty.
So I have not admitted and will not admit the guilt imputed to me by the Khamovniki district court’s verdict, which was illegal and rendered with an indecent number of procedural violations. At the moment, I am in the process of appealing this verdict in the higher courts. By coercing me into admitting guilt for the sake of parole, the correctional system is pushing me to incriminate myself, and, therefore, to lie. Is the ability to lie a sign that a person has started down the road to rehabilitation?
It states in my sentence that I am a feminist and, therefore, must feel hatred towards religion. Yes, after a year and two months in prison, I am still a feminist, and I am still opposed to the people in charge of the state, but then as now there is no hatred in me. The dozens of women prisoners with whom I attend the Orthodox Church at Penal Colony No. 14 cannot see this hatred, either.
What else do I do in the colony? I work: soon after I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14, they put me behind a sewing machine, and now I am a sewing machine operator. Some believe that making political-art actions is easy, that it requires no deliberation or preparation. Based on my years of experience in actionism, I can say that carrying out an action and thinking through the artistic end-product is laborious and often exhausting work. So I know how to work and I love to work. I’m no stranger to the Protestant work ethic. Physically, I don’t find it hard to be a seamstress. And that is what I am. I do everything required of me. But, of course, I cannot help thinking about things while I’m at the sewing machine (including the road to rehabilitation) and, therefore, asking myself questions. For example: why can convicts not be given a choice as to the socially useful work they perform while serving their sentences? [Why can they not chose work] in keeping with their education and interests? Since I have experience teaching in the philosophy department at Moscow State University, I would gladly and enthusiastically put together educational programs and lectures using the books in the library and books sent to me. And by the way, I would unquestioningly do such work for more than the eight hours [a day] stipulated by the Russian Federation Labor Code; I would do this work during all the time left over from scheduled prison activities. Instead, I sew police pants, which of course is also useful, but in this work I’m obviously not as productive as I could be were I conducting educational programs.
In Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn describes how a prison camp detective stops one convict from teaching another convict Latin. Unfortunately, the overall attitude to education hasn’t changed much since then.
I often fantasize: what if the correctional system made its priority not the production of police pants or production quotas, but the education, training, and rehabilitation of convicts, as required by the Correctional Code? Then, in order to get parole, you would not have to sew 16 hours a day in the industrial section of the colony, trying to achieve 150% output, but successfully pass several exams after broadening your horizons and knowledge of the world, and getting a general humanities education, which nurtures the ability to adequately assess contemporary reality. I would very much like to see this state of affairs in the colony.
Why not establish courses on contemporary art in the colony?
Would that work were not a debt, but activity that was spiritual and useful in a poetic sense. Would that the organizational constraints and inertia of the old system were overcome, and values like individuality could be instilled in the workplace. The prison camp is the face of the country, and if we managed to get beyond the old conservative and totally unifying categories even in the prison camp, then throughout Russia we would see the growth of intellectual, high-tech manufacturing, something we would all like to see in order to break out of the natural resources trap. Then something like Silicon Valley could be born in Russia, a haven for risky and talented people. All this would be possible if the panic experienced in Russia at the state level towards human experimentation and creativity would give way to an attentive and respectful attitude towards the individual’s creative and critical potential. Tolerance towards others and respect for diversity provide an environment conducive to the development and productive use of the talent inherent in citizens (even if these citizens are convicts). Repressive conservation and rigidity in the legal, correctional, and other state systems of the Russian Federation, laws on registration [of one’s residence] and promotion of homosexuality lead to stagnation and a “brain drain.”
However, I am convinced that this senseless reaction in which we now forced to live is temporary. It is mortal, and this mortality is immediate. I am also certain that all of us—including the prisoners of Bolotnaya Square, my brave comrade in arms Maria Alyokhina, and Alexei Navalny—have the strength, commitment, and tenacity to survive this reaction and emerge victorious.
I am truly grateful to the people I have encountered in my life behind barbed wire. Thanks to some of them, I will never call my time in prison time lost. During the year and two months of my imprisonment, I have not had a single conflict, either in the pretrial detention facility or in prison. Not a single one. In my opinion, this shows that I am perfectly safe for any society. And also the fact that people do not buy into state media propaganda and are not willing to hate me just because a federal channel said that I’m a bad person. Lying does not always lead to victory.
Recently, I got a letter containing a parable that has become important to me. What happens to things different in nature when they are placed in boiling water? Brittle things, like eggs, become hard. Hard things, like carrots, become soft. Coffee dissolves and permeates everything. The point of the parable was this: be like coffee. In prison, I am like that coffee.
I want the people who have put me and dozens of other political activists behind bars to understand one simple thing: there are no insurmountable obstacles for a person whose values consist, first, of her principles and, second, of work and creativity based on these principles. If you strongly believe in something, this faith will help you survive and remain a human being anywhere.
I will surely use my experience in Mordovia in my future work and, although this will not happen until completion of my sentence, I will implement it in projects that will be stronger and politically larger in scale than everything that has happened to me before.
Despite the fact that imprisonment is a quite daunting experience, as a result of having it we political prisoners only become stronger, braver, and more tenacious. And so I ask the last question for today: what, then, is the point of keeping us here?
Photo: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA