Pussy Riot Prisoner’s “Slavery-like Conditions” and the Limits of Political Speech

Members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot went to prison last year for the crime of disrupting a church service to sing a protest song. Now, one member has revealed astonishing details of a cruel prison environment that is closer to that of the gulags of the Soviet past than to anything you might find on Orange Is the New Black.

Exposing an environment of pervasive oppression, abuse, and manipulation, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova writes of sleep limited to nightly 4-hour shifts, paired with 18-hour days working on decrepit equipment to produce uniforms for officers of the state. Systems rigged to produce punishment include impossible-to-meet, ever-increasing production quotas, worsened by random deprivations that take away food, water, hygiene privileges, rest, and warm clothing in intense cold. While realizing that her fame protects her from the beatings that are routine in the camp, Tolokonnikova details that “others are beaten up. For not being able to keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, in the face. Prisoners themselves deliver these beatings” with the knowledge and encouragement of guards. She describes a system of “collective punishment” in response to official complaints she has filed about the abuses. In one disturbing passage, Tolokonnikova writes of the consequences of her attempts to report the violations:

It is possible to tolerate anything as long as it only affects you. But the method of collective punishment is bigger than that. It means that your unit, or even the entire colony, is required to endure your punishment along with you. This includes, worst of all, people you’ve come to care about. One of my friends was denied parole, for which she had been awaiting seven years, working hard to exceed her work quotas. She was reprimanded for drinking tea with me. That day, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov transferred her to another unit. Another close acquaintance of mine, a very well-educated woman, was thrown into the “stress unit” for daily beatings because she was reading and discussing a Justice Department document with me, entitled: “Regulations for the code of conduct at correctional facilities.”

Now, she’s embarked on a hunger strike that some hope will lead to reform. The song that landed Tolokonnikova in prison was 40 seconds long. Her ordeal, and that of other convicted bandmates, will be at least 2 years long. The nature of her crime — criticism of the existing system of power — might seem innocent to most Americans. Yet the question of the limits of political speech (and the morality of punishing it) has been raised in reference to recently-targeted leakers and whistleblowers in the United States. Sometimes, extreme cases like that of Pussy Riot can expose fundamental flaws in the way governments view and respond to acts of political protest. The question becomes: will these discoveries lead to reform, or a tightening of restrictions on those who take the risk of speaking out?

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