The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Photo by Denis Sinyakov

“I Am Nadya Tolokonnikova, and Pussy Riot Belongs to Everyone, It Belongs to the World”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was released under the amnesty on Monday, December 23rd. By Tuesday, she had already met with another member of the punk group Pussy Riot, Mariya Alyokhina. Alyokhina, [also released], who had been serving her sentence in Nizhegorodskaya Region, flew to visit her friend in Krasnoyarsk, in order to discuss “a joint human rights project.” In a few days, they intend to hold a large press conference in Moscow. In Krasnoyarsk, Tolokonnikova talked with Lenta.ru correspondent Svetlana Reyter.

Immediately after their release, both Nadezhda and Mariya talked about their intentions to continue the battle for the rights of prisoners. In particular, Tolokonnikova plans to get Oleg Simchenkov fired – he’s the head of the Mordovian Department of the Federal Corrections Service. Otherwise, in her view, nothing will change in the Mordovian colonies – “people will be beaten both mentally and physically.”

Tolokonnikova served the last part of her sentence in Krasnoyarsk Hospital. The Pussy Riot member was transferred to Krasnoyarsk after her complaints to the administration of the Mordovian Corrective Labor Colony No. 14 (where she had been held since November 2013); she was able to obtain this transfer as a result of a prolonged hunger strike. In late September 2013, Lenta.ru published a long letter by Tolokonnikova [translated by The Guardian] devoted to the massive violations of the rights of the women prisoners at the colony’s workshops; this was widely discussed in Russia and the West. [For further letters from prison see the Interpreter.]

In an interview with Lenta.ru by Svetlana Reyter, Tolokonnikova described how fairly early on, she began to get interested in politics – with the participation of her father “who is on the whole a decent fellow.” According to Tolokonnikova, the joint human rights organization she and Alyokhina are founding will be called “Right Zone” [“zone” is the word prisoners in Russia use to refer to the labor camp and prison system--Ed]. The main task of the organization is to “force the prison system to work as it should work.” For that, they have to strike “against concrete violations with precise blows.” Tolokonnikova believes that as a result of her activity, the situation in Mordovia has already improved.

SR: Before the interview, I was sitting in the lobby of your hotel and I eavesdropped on a conversation of two men who looked like total gangsters, in white shirts with black bow ties and cigars. One of them, seeing you, asked the second, “Well, how long was she in for, anyway?” The second one replied “Two years.” The first one cried angrily, “XXXX, in Stalin’s day, she’d be shot for what she did! She’s a XXXX, she went into a church, she shit on all the icons, and she gets only two years for that?!”

Do you often find such an aggressive reaction directed at you?

NT: No, as a rule, people don’t say things like that to my face, because it’s bravado.

SR: What do you mean?

NT: It’s bravado, with the cruelty that people easily manipulate when they don’t see a person directly. There have been only a few cases where somebody would say something like that to my face. I believe that you should just ignore those people who can’t tell you their opinion to your face, because you really should take responsibility for what you say. If they are not prepared to discuss this issue with me, then I don’t have to pay attention to them.

 

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina | Photo by Denis Sinyakov
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina | Photo by Denis Sinyakov

 

 

SR: Alright, but if someone says something like this to you looking into your eyes?

NT: Well, then I’ll talk. There was a time like that in pre-trial detention, and I was able to explain my position. I explained the political component of our action, I explained that in reality, everything is not quite like the federal TV channels show, and from the outset, the point of the action was somewhat different. As a rule, people have listened to my arguments. I’m not saying that their opinion then diametrically changed, but without a doubt, they realized that they are dealing with not some insane zombie person with anti-religious ideas in their head, but someone who is prepared to defend her point of view.

SR: I think any person would find it hurtful; she is putting her bright ideals out into the world through the means of contemporary art, and the world, in response, says, “Oh, she has shit on the icons!”

NT: First, in order to change this situation, you have to transfer power at the federal TV channels to people whose political views radically differ from those accepted in the government. Second, there has always been, is, and will be negative reaction to contemporary art. A modern artist is not a hundred-dollar bill for everyone to like. Traditionally, since the start of the 20th century, the modern artist is a person who asks questions, who provokes society, who divides it. This began with the avant-garde which the Dadaists developed rather well, saying outright that art is a bomb that has to explode. Otherwise, it is not art. Now the Dadaists make up the classics of modern art – whether we like this or not, we have to come to terms with this. Somebody didn’t like the way Aivazovsky painted…

ST: And somebody doesn’t like what Marcel Duchamp did. Do you believe that your action has already become a classic of modern art?

NT: I think it’s already a decided fact.

ST: As far as I understand, you were the chief ideologue of the Pussy Riot group.

NT: We began to express ourselves consistently beginning from the moment when this monstrous castling took place, and Putin started his third term. Most of the people in the country were not asked their opinion, they were simply presented with a fait accompli. Given this fact, the group Pussy Riot started to exist, and our actions were dictated by the emotions that overcame us when we heard [that] declaration of will which was said on everyone’s behalf without asking them.

At that moment I realized that I can’t go on living like I had lived before, and all my time that I can get and manage to tear away, I had to spend on screaming as loud as possible about this, and to do everything that was in my powers. What arsenal did I have? The arsenal of the means of modern action, aktionism. The group did not have a name yet then; we discussed it for awhile and decided that we have to use what is already worked out, since it is too late to conquer new heights, there is no time. We reacted as best as we could.

Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband, interrupted the conversation. “Should I order you some food? What do you want?” Tolokonnikova replies curtly, “I don’t care. I just don’t want somebody to talk when I’m talking.” Verzilov says, “Sorry, sorry” in English.

ST: What is it exactly that you, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, don’t like Putin for?

NT: Now it seems it’s fairly easy for me to answer that question: after I sat in prison for awhile, and suffered some fairly serious trials at the will… I will not say – of that person. Because when I say “Vladimir Putin,” I don’t mean one specific person, but the whole system built by him. Artists are known to speak in metaphors; when we say “sail,” we mean “ship,” and when we say “Putin,” we mean the political system built by him. I think that person took away several years of my life, spent in prison, and that is a rather weighty fact. To be sure, we acquired a certain experience and we will use it in a positive vein – and we will not try to forget about it with all our might like others do.

And what was there before, prior to this experience? I began to take an interest in politics fairly early. It so happened…Perhaps my father drew me into it, he’s a great guy in general, and when I was 13 years old, no, probably about 10 years old, and I asked him for the umpteenth time, “Papa, buy me Cosmopolitan,” and he said, “What Cosmopolitan?! Read Vlast’, Itogi.” He taught me to listen to Ekho Moskvy; I didn’t understand anything, but since my papa’s authority was high, I got used to it.

Then I came to the philosophy department where the details of social philosophy interested me. Obviously, without comprehension of the political system in philosophy, you don’t get very far at all. And I was wildly frustrated by the fact that the philosophy department, where I had gone with insane hope, turned out to be incredibly unprogressive – a huge amount of key texts are not translated into the Russian language to this day. I saw who was doing the translations of these philosophical texts. These are insane people who aren’t paid a kopeck, who pay money themselves in order to publish books which are hellishly important for modern Russian culture. And these people, they are almost holy fools, because they publish books with almost religious trepidation.

Some of the books I studied in the English language, and the question arose for me: why is it that at the philosophy department of Moscow State University, which is the most progressive university in the country, such hellishness is going on, such obscurantism?

SR: And what is Putin’s connection to this?

NT: It’s very simple: the country’s system is very tightly bound with how the system of education as a whole functions. The structure of the functioning of the philosophy department can be applied to any other institutions – the development of real thought in students is officially not encouraged in any way. If that happens, then it happens in spite of, and not thanks to [the government].

SR: Several days after you wrote your famous letter about the state of affairs in the colony, another prisoner from the same zone, the nationalist Yevgeniya Khasis, wrote a reply. According to that reply, everyone was living fine, and here some sort of madwoman comes and starts running around with a mattress and shouting, “I’ll save you all!”

NT: First of all, I never shouted that I will save you all, I didn’t impose my help on anyone. The thing is, it was an ethical decision achieved through suffering: I realized that if I do not commit this radical gesture, if I don’t try to change the very stylistics of relations between prisoners and the administration in that colony, then likely in the near future nothing good will ever happen in that colony – the regimen in the colony was growing harsher, the number of working hours was growing every month.

SR: What do you think, why was it that your letter hit the mark? After all, before that, many human rights activists tried to draw attention to the women’s prison. It worked for you, it didn’t for them.

NT: Most likely this is because the letter was a personal gesture; it was accompanied by a hunger strike, and I was threatened with danger for what I was doing. It’s one thing when a human rights defender goes into a colony and then leaves it and then describes what’s happening in a colony. It’s another thing when the person who is directly in this place writes the letter, and is expecting vicious reprisal at any minute on the part of the representatives of the administration.

Pyotr Verzilov, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Mariya Alyokhina | photo by Denis Sinyakov
Pyotr Verzilov, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Mariya Alyokhina | photo by Denis Sinyakov

 

SR: You were in the punishment cell.

NT: I was placed there, and they called this isolation cell “a safe place.” It was terribly cold there, as it is usually in the punishment cells in Mordovia. It is an old prison custom: usually the prisoners in the punishment cell are punished not by isolation, but by incredible living conditions – in the first place, constant cold. This is convenient to do in the fall, but also the winter – at Corrective Labor Colony No. 2, for example, they love to freeze women. They simply open both doors to the street – the wardens themselves freeze – but the prisoner must be frozen out, after all, therefore the administration could care less. The wardens go around in their sheepskins, but the women jump up and down in the cell in their underwear and orange dresses. By the way, I have never, anywhere, seen such dresses – usually prisoners are allowed to wear ordinary [prison] clothing – the usual overalls, pants, and jacket. That is warmer than that American dress made out of rubberized fabric which doesn’t keep you warm at all. It’s as if they made this especially so that a person dies from cold.

When I was put in the punishment call, what was positive for me was that I could wear my usual uniform. The next day, I wrote a statement about how I was tortured by cold and then I was brought a heater. You have to go to radical measures there all the time in order to get what is allowed for a normal person.

SR: While you were in prison, how did you and Masha [Alyokhina] regard the impressive PR campaign run around your names by your husband, Pyotr Verzilov? From the outside, in places this looked artificially stirred up by some interested party.

NT: Does it never enter your heads, all of you, that the letters that a person writes from the colony, she writes only from considerations of her own motivation? You aren’t interested in the external reasons – especially when you are in prison and especially in a place like Mordovia. You express what is inside you, with a motivation very much achieved through suffering.

SR: Tell me, what happened with the third member of your group, Yekaterina Samutsevich? Even if you look at the news, it’s obvious that you already have almost nothing in common – you are getting out under the amnesty, she is suing your former attorney, Nikolai Polozov, for 1.5 million rubles.

NT: I think you have to ask Katya [Yekaterina] about that; it’s her head, her deeds, her actions. I have a normal attitude toward my former attorneys; I am grateful for the help which they provided me.

SR: The issue is rather not about attorneys but whether she is a member of Pussy Riot as before.

NT: I myself do not insist that I am a member of the group Pussy Riot. I am Nadya Tolokonnikova, and Pussy Riot belongs to everyone, it belongs to the world. The group from the outset positioned itself as not attached to an individual – our participation in the group was not to have been exposed in any way. The fact that specifically Nadya took part in this group was not to have been known to anyone; we covered our faces, and we did not give out our biographies.

SR: Today an administrator from your Hotel Kupecheskaya came up and asked me, “Are you a journalist? Are you going to write about that [Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova]? But could you not write that this is all taking place in our hotel?”

NT: That really looks like a gesture from the system, which does have something to hide. It does not have any rational sub-text. Most likely this comes from back in the Soviet times, when openness and transparency were always bad, because you could get a reprimand from the bosses for that.

SR: Or, for example, the regulars will stop staying in this hotel where the “blasphemers” stayed.

Pyotr Verzilov once again joins the conversation. “I think there are two reactions. In the first case, they come up to you and say politely, ‘Here are your things, we are forced to ask you to leave,” and in the second, they close their eyes, even though they themselves are against it. Those people subconsciously have chosen not the worst option for us.”

SR: What is the project that you want to found along with Mariya Alyokhina?

NT: It’s called “Right Zone” and consists of forcing the prison system to work as it should work. How can this be done? By accurate strikes against specific violations which we expose in a large quantity. As far as I know, the situation in Mordovia has improved; there is hope that the wages will be more acceptable. Now the main task is not to rest on our laurels. We want to help those people whom we met in prison, and those people who decide to appeal to us. If there are people who have something to report, I would like to ask them to appeal to us.

SR: You were just let out under the amnesty, but you hardly feel any deep gratitude.

NT: Absolutely not. I feel like a bag of potatoes which was picked up from one place and carried to another. Both I and Masha would have refused this amnesty if someone had asked us whether we needed it. That amnesty is needed by other people, in particular, the defendants in the Bolotnaya Affair charged with Art. 318 [use of violence against a representative of authority], those who are threatened with something terrible. I saw how they treat political prisoners in the colony, it’s a very specific treatment – both the attention and the pressure force the term to drag on longer. You are constantly in a state of tension, and I would like to see people who have wound up behind bars for nothing not to experience this hellish pressure, since they didn’t deserve it.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina | Photo by Denis Sinyakov
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina | Photo by Denis Sinyakov

SR: Here in Krasnoyarsk on all the television channels, people are betting on whether you will do a new action or not.

NT: I haven’t had time to watch Krasnoyarsk television. I slept only a few hours, I had a terrible feeling that I am not managing to do something.

SR: If suddenly, new girls in balaclavas are found who will cover up everything you did, will you be offended?

NT: Not at all. I will be utterly delighted.

SR: A year ago, I did a report on Olga Zelenina, an expert in the “Opium Affair” who was in prison in the same investigation isolation facility as you. She complained to me that you reproached her for being too old-fashioned and religious.

NT: I never saw her cross herself. She and I really did have some discussions, but for a completely different reason – on the topic of the increased level of homophobia in Russian society. At that time we were in prison together with Kurt; this personage appeared in my life when I went to the investigation isolation prison after my sentence, with the “deuce” [two years of prison]. I arrived in a completely insane state, I went into the cell and I see this guy. He says with a accent, “Hello, my name is Kurt.” It turns out that he was a citizen of Sweden who was been intending to change his gender soon, but he wound up in pre-trial investigation under Art. 159, part 3 [fraud committed with the use of official position.] He and I discussed the issues of the social system, the possibility of not disrupting the social self-awareness of people starting in childhood – and how these models are used in the countries of Scandinavia. Open-mouthed, I wrote down everything he said, I still have kept those notes. From time to time, Zelenina, who was in the same cell as us…

Tolokonnikova is interrupted by Verzilov. “Listen, this is really interesting! Time magazine wants to put Nadya and Masha on the cover of the first issue in 2014! Time magazine is the main magazine of the planet. Out of Russians, only Stalin, Gorbachev, and Putin have been on the cover.”

NT: Let’s not talk about that, Kurt is much more interesting! So, there I was, open-mouthed, writing down everything he said. And Olga [Zelenina] would periodically butt into our conversations, and say that a wife should be in the shadow of her husband and all the rest like a stone wall.

Food is served. Not seeing the forks, Nadya says, “What, do they think I’m still a prisoner?!” Then she finds the fork and knife. “When I was in the colony, I ate with a knife and fork, and everyone else thought I was showing off. And I told them, ‘Try it, it’s much more convenient.’”