“I Wanted to Be a Witness”

July 8, 2013
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, prisoner of IK-14, Republic of Mordovia, January 2013 (Elena Masyuk/Novaya Gazeta)

[Eight months remain until Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova is released from imprisonment, but the thought of what she will do when she gets out is already frightening her. During a visit to the prison colony IK-14 in the town of Parts, Tolokonnikova spoke about Lev Tolstoy, “incorrect language,” and her own crisis of creativity. –Ed.]

“Gera has grown unused to me! Gera is shy with me!” [says Nadya about her little daughter.] Nadya herself is shy. It is impossible not to feel shy in these circumstances.

The brief visit (four hours, allowed once every two months) takes place this time in the visitors’ room of the building situated at the extreme edge of the colony – the entrance is right off the foyer, so the visitor to the colony barely enters it and doesn’t see anything except the hallway and the foyer. Further along the hallway, there are several rooms for longer visits (three days, allowed once every three months). Right next to these there is a cafeteria, the pride and glory of Corrective Labor Colony 14 (IK-14), the Mordovian Corrections Service, star of Youtube. They serve blini with condensed milk there, and last time Nadya’s short visit took place there. Now, apparently the times have changed: we are sitting in a cramped room, Nadya at a desk at the far wall, and her husband Petya Verzilov and I at a desk near the door. Between our desks, Inspector Elena Mikhailovna sits on a chair. Right on the wall hangs a screen with a device for video conversations (one of the services provided by a portal with the romantic name “Family Connection”). In the middle of the visit, another prisoner comes in and loudly and emotionally talks with her son and tiny grandson during her allotted 15 minutes, lisping and telling him the most important thing: that they didn’t allow the mosquito lotion and spray through, and he should send the cream and coils.

Creative Person

Elena Mikhailovna allows Gera to take the magic markers, paper, and little coloring book she has brought along and sit with Nadya behind the desk. Nadya picks up the little book and asks, “Who is Andrei Usachev?” Petya is at a loss. I try to reassure Nadya that Andrei Usachev is not contraband (if she could have heard the rhyme from the coloring book which Gera read to me on the last trip: “I am a little dressed-up doll, pretty and neat”), but Nadya opens up the book and quickly discovers two words rhyming in Russian, “ploy” and “children”.

“Why don’t you read the classics? Do you read Kharms?” Petya had faithfully taught Gera the poem by Kharms called “The Bulldog and the Weiner Dog,” but time had passed, Gera had made a trip to the seashore, and the verse had been forgotten by both the children and the adults (but Petya sent it to Nadya separately by email through “Family Connection”). All three try to reproduce it, but make several false starts. “The bulldog sits over a bone/with wrinkles on its brow”. Nadya exclaims: “What, there are wrinkles on the brow of the bone?” None of us can remember what was in fact correct: “Over a bone sits a bulldog”. But Gera finally laughs anyway. And it becomes a little easier.

Nadya draws a bulldog for Gera – she copies it from Usachev’s coloring book, finally finding some use for it, and Gera demands that Nadya draw all the other characters. “What, do you think I’m an artist?” asks Nadya. “Here, realistically ten percent of the people think I’m an artist.” Nadya herself has considered herself an artist, at least, since she was 18, when she became a member of a new group called Voyna [War]. And if here, in the colony, she isn’t an artist, then what is she? A hooligan, evidently.

It turns out that the comment about the ten percent is likely an exaggeration. It turns out to be impossible to explain that actionism, which she was involved with on the outside, was a variety of modern art. So the prisoners who sympathize with her rather consider her a “creative person”.

“It would likely be easier to explain using a movie as an example,” Petya advises.

“Which movie?” Nadya says irritably. “The people here watch ‘Love and Doves,’ and they can endlessly quote “Office Affair,” even the young women. But no one has heard the word ‘arthouse’”.

“They don’t know the word ‘arthouse’?” Petya asks. For a few seconds they plunge into a defeated silence, and I realize that they aren’t kidding; until relatively recently, the stupidest interlocutors in the lives of these very young people were other students at the philosophy department. They had only a poor knowledge of the post-structuralists and weren’t interested in new knowledge at all, but they were familiar with the word “arthouse”.

Who am I?

It’s really nothing to joke about at all: the prisoner Nadezhda Tolokonnikova not only has an identity crisis but a crisis of creativity. If you look at it from the perspective of Mordovia, the entire audience for contemporary art actionists reduces to a tiny dot, and in time becomes entirely invisible. But Pussy Riot thought that they had shaken up the country, and the court, and the television, and the Church, and that President Putin had mentioned the group in various speeches an unprecedented six times all sustained that sense in them. But at a closer look it turns out that the country doesn’t know anything about its upheaval, but listens to the singer Vayenga and the home-grown rapper Dima Kartashova, whose song “Let’s Stay Nothing” is particularly popular here.

In that sense, Maria Alyokhina has it easier: her main identity is as a political activist. Before Pussy Riot, she was involved in saving the Utrish Nature Preserve and migratory birds; she would travel to eco-camps and each time devote herself fully to the struggle. She is the same way in prison – she has become what Americans call a “jailhouse lawyer,” a self-taught lawyer endlessly penning complaints and discovering ever-new reasons and new means for fighting for justice at least within the confines of this one colony. In the half year she has been in the colony, Alyokhina has acquired such a clear sense of her own place and her own mission that she is able to endure protracted, heavy battles – such as an 11-day hunger strike – and is capable of enjoying victory.

Verzilov brought a pile of legal papers; he tries to apply here the experience accumulated in Perm Territory, where he is helping Alyokhina. Nadya waves them away with irritation. “I’m not at all interested in that. I don’t believe in courts.” Petya tries to apply different reasoning, including this one: “Masha does not understand how you can’t love legal fine points – she is totally immersed.”

“She’s lucky in that sense,” Nadya admits. “I find justification for myself in the fact that each person has their language.”

“But it’s the circulatory system,” Petya insists. “It enables you to sense how the Russian state is built.”

“I can already feel how the Russian state is built very well!” Nadya chuckles. “I’m already busy with it.” In colony jargon, “to be busy” means to whisper secrets, to nod your heads together and discuss something, to wall yourself off in a separate world for a minute with your fellow inmate.

“Indy” and “Rez”

“Everyone has the goal of making time pass faster here,” explains Nadya. “In that sense, any trips to courthouses and the like are not good because then time comes to a standstill.”

“I thought that time comes to a standstill because of the monotony,” Petya admits.

“No. The days go by quickly here.”

The days consist of work in the industrial zone, nicknamed the “indy” and the residential area dubbed the “rez”. At the beginning and end of every shift, the gates are opened between the “indy” and the “rez”. This is called the “divorce.” “For the first time in my life, I was divorced to work,” chuckles Nadya.

In the “indy,” the inmates sew work uniforms, and the workload is more or less, depending on the size of the orders coming in, for example, from the police. Periodically, other chores are added to the work at the “indy” – now, for example, the prisoners are dragging in stones to repair the shop and removing piles of earth which have formed as a result of digging trenches for gas pipelines into the colony, which they decided to run underground. Both the stones and the earth are being carried in bags – huge sacks just like those in which the prisoners keep their personal items and food in the storerooms. In the winter, they haul snow in these same sacks. When I asked if there weren’t dollies in the zone, Nadya and Petya both laugh as if I had asked if the colony had its own airplane.

After the indy and the chores, there isn’t any personal time left at all, and that means the days really do pass quickly. Looking at Gera, Nadya kept repeating, “When I get out…” And then what? She will teach Gera to read, finally, and read what she should, and not some Usachev. But what she’ll do with herself – that’s not so clear.

“I understand that when I get out, I can find people who will understand me, with whom I can act together. But I understand that only a limited circle will understand us. It’s a kind of crisis. I’m not interested in the classic forms of art, but that is the way to explain everything to people. I have a task facing me using ‘pop mechanics,’ to make something my own. It’s a complex technical task, therefore I am in a certain consternation.”

And it so happens, that this conversation in the visitors’ room at IK-14, conducted over the head of Elena Mikhailovna, and at a volume loud enough to be heard over the yelling of the prisoner who is explaining to her folks that she needs mosquito cream, leads us to Lev Tolstoy, which we do study for a good hour. We speak of his sortes out to the people – this inspires Nadya, but War and Peace doesn’t inspire me at all, although Petya claims that it is impossible to read Tolstoy’s pamphlets. We speak of Tolstoy’s estrangement from the Church. “That was in fact when he was marked as a ‘blasphemer,’” says Petya. “Before, my goal was to be noticed,” replies Nadya. “And here I learned that to be noticed is the worst thing that can happen to you.”

It’s this topic which the circumstances of our talk enable us to speak about with less embarrassment than I think we would have experienced on the outside. I note that the task faced by Lev Tolstoy at least was not complicated by the fact that the language in which he tried to speak with the people was not systematically being used for lying, in order to call black white.

“Language here is very keenly felt,” says Nadya, picking up the theme. “It is an inverted language. And at every step as the conversation descends, people feel it, but they are afraid of losing the status that they gain exactly from this incorrect use of language.”

I ask if that was the reason why, in her closing statement at the trial in August in Khamovnichesky Court, three times the archaic word “sincerity” was used, and Nadya unexpectedly grew embarrassed.

“In my closing statement, I had a burst of absolutism. That is because I grew overheated. I began to speak about truth. It is because of these streams of lies…”

“Now that’s very strange for me,” Petya puts in. “These are completely not political concepts. This is some sort of modernist discourse.” “Modernist” in this context is a word that is rather a curse word, something like “unintelligent”.

“I wanted to be a witness,” Nadya acknowledges. “I could have used the construct of modern philosophy which describes this more accurately. But I wanted to be a witness.”

Only in prison does it become clear what a great rarity it is to become a witness. Possibly, that is precisely the freedom of which Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is deprived.