Some of the most impressive struggles by working people this year have been fights by those in the most difficult of circumstances, the workers behind bars. With few means for making their protests heard at their disposal, prisoners on opposite sides of the globe have this year turned to the most desperate means of all to assert their humanity: the hunger strike.
In Russia, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the members of the Pussy Riot group, began a hunger strike on September 23.
The political punk band Pussy Riot drew world attention for performing a ‘punk prayer’ in a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow in February 2012. The performance was a protest against political repression under the regime of Vladimir Putin. Such ‘performance art’ protests have become more common in Russia in recent years. The reason why this one particularly captured world attention was not difficult to see: it was because of the fearless defiance demonstrated by the band members in the events that followed.
Where some saw Putin as a towering tyrant with a vast repressive apparatus at his disposal, the Pussy Riot group saw the nature of Putin and his regime more clearly: a tyrant, certainly, vindictive and spiteful, but also mean and contemptible, with limits to his power. They set out to probe those limits with full knowledge of the consequences that could befall them.
Tolokonnikova and two other band members were convicted of ‘hooliganism’ – a catch-all charge for political protesters, the same one used against protesters against Arctic Ocean oil drilling more recently – and sentenced to two years imprisonment. Tolokonnikova was sent to the notorious Penal Colony No. 14 in Mordovia, 450 km east of Moscow. Another band member, Maria Alyokhina, was sent to Perm, 1160 km from Moscow, where she undertook a hunger strike in June protesting her conditions.
Russia’s prison system is apparently little changed from the Stalinist era. “You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist,” one of the wardens told Tolokonnikova on arrival in Mordovia. Another told her, “We’ve broken stronger wills than yours here!”
Tolokonnikova’s statement about why she was going on hunger strike can be read here, and it is well worth reading in full. “I will not remain silent, watching in resignation as my fellow prisoners collapse under slave-like conditions. I demand that human rights be observed at the prison. I demand that the law be obeyed in this Mordovian camp. I demand we be treated like human beings, not slaves,” she begins.
She describes the prison regime in detail. “My whole shift works sixteen to seventeen hours a day in the sewing workshop, from seven-thirty in the morning to twelve-thirty at night. At best, we get four hours of sleep a night. We have a day off once every month and a half.”
Tolokonnikova reports another prisoner warning her, ‘The pigs are scared to put the squeeze on you themselves. They want to have the inmates do it.’ “Conditions at the prison really are organized in such a way that the inmates in charge of the work shifts and dorm units are the ones tasked by the wardens with crushing the will of inmates, terrorizing them, and turning them into speechless slaves.”
“A threatening, anxious atmosphere pervades the manufacturing zone. Eternally sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfill inhumanly large quotas, the convicts are always on the verge of breaking down, screaming at each other, fighting over the smallest things. Just recently, a young woman got stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors because she didn’t turn in a pair of pants on time. Another tried to cut her own stomach open with a hacksaw. She was stopped from finishing the job.”
“Sanitary conditions at the prison are calculated to make the prisoner feel like a disempowered, filthy animal. Although there are hygiene rooms in the dorm units, a ‘general hygiene room’ has been set up for corrective and punitive purposes. This room can accommodate five people, but all eight hundred prisoners are sent there to wash up.”
“Convicts close to the wardens incited the unit to violence. [They tell the other prisoners,] ‘You’ve been punished by having tea and food, bathroom breaks, and smoking banned for a week. And now you’re always going to be punished unless you start treating the newcomers, especially Tolokonnikova, differently. Treat them like the old-timers used to treat you back in the day.’ ”
Most revealing is this comment she reports from some fellow inmates: “ ‘If you weren’t Tolokonnikova, you would have had the shit kicked out of you a long time ago,’ say fellow prisoners with close ties to the wardens. It’s true: other prisoners are beaten up.”
With this admission, the jailers unwittingly give recognition to the limits on their power to torture and humiliate the prisoners. The special ‘protection’ given to Tolokonnikova derives from the fact that she is well-known outside the prison, and across the globe. Millions of people are watching her fate. The brutes are thereby restrained from dealing to her the same punishments that they mete out to the unknown prisoners. Whether they like it or not – clearly not – they are sensitive to political pressure.
It is their sense of this potential support and solidarity in the wider world that is the source of the exemplary courage shown by Tolokonnikova and the rest of the Pussy Riot band in face of the persecutions of the Russian prison system. The wider known these facts about their imprisonment become, the more difficult it becomes for Putin and his thugocracy. Only in conditions of darkness and isolation can Putin and his cops and jail wardens ‘break wills stronger than yours.’
In October, after resuming the hunger strike, Tolokonnikova was transferred to a hospital in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, where she is being treated for medical complications arising from her first hunger strike. Her sentence is due to expire in March 2014.
As Yekaterina Samutsevich, the third member of Pussy Riot said in an interview before Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were jailed, “The evil plan of our authorities, to jail us so as to break us and sour us, has already failed miserably…unlike Putin, we’re not chickenshit.” That has certainly been proven true in the months since then.
While these events were unfolding, another struggle for the human dignity of workers behind bars was under way in California. I will discuss this in a future post.