Pussy Riot Denied Parole

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Last week, nearly a year since Pussy Riot Members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were found guilty of “hooliganism aimed at inciting religious hatred,” both of them were denied parole. Alyokhina, who is serving a two-year sentence, has been fighting for fair treatment of prisoners, going on several hunger strikes. At hearings, she voices appeal after appeal, to the court’s great annoyance, demanding that proceedings correspond with the law. Although she has made some progress in the prison, her own legal situation is dire. She appeared at her July 24 parole hearing via video. After being prevented from having a confidential consultation with her lawyer, she demanded to leave the hearing. Being denied due process and the right to a defense, she said she did not find it necessary to be present in the court. The judge read the order denying her appeal after she had already disappeared from the screen. 

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s July 26 hearing at the Supreme Court of the Republic of Mordovia was similarly disheartening. She appeared in person, and despite being interrupted by several times, was nonetheless able to give the following speech. The hearing essentially constituted her first public appearance since the Pussy Riot trial in Moscow, in August 2012. Tolokonnikova is to be released March 3, 2014. 

Bela Shayevich


Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

I would like to speak again about “reform.” Once again, I am reaffirmed in my conviction that if true education is at all possible in Russia, it can only take the form of self-education. If you don’t teach yourself—then no one else will teach you. Or if they do teach you, they’ll teach you who knows what. I have a great many stylistic disagreements with the powers-that-be. Their quantity is approaching a critical point.

What can the institutions of the state teach us? How could I possibly be educated by a prison colony, or could you be educated by, let’s say, the Russia-1 TV channel? Joseph Brodsky said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The more substantial an individual’s aesthetic experience is, the sounder his taste, the sharper his moral focus, the freer—though not necessarily the happier—he is.”

In Russia, we have again found ourselves in circumstances in which resistance, including quite importantly aesthetic resistance, has become our one remaining moral option and civic duty.

The style of the Putin regime is a conservative, secret-police aesthetic. By no accident—and actually quite logically—this aesthetic persistently samples and recreates the principles of two previous regimes, both of them historical precedents to the present one: the tsarist-imperial aesthetic and the wrongly understood aesthetic of Socialist Realism, complete with workers from some kind of standard-issue Train-Car Assembly Plant of the Urals. Given the clumsiness and thoughtlessness with which all of this is being recreated, the present political regime’s ideological apparatus deserves no praise. Empty space, in its minimalism, is more attractive and tempting than the results of the aesthetic efforts of the current regime.

This worthless aesthetic is lovingly recreated by each and every state institution in Russia, including of course the prison colonies, which form such an important part of the repressive machine of the state.

And so, if you are a woman, and what is more if you are a young woman and even the slightest bit attractive, then you are basically required to take part in beauty contests. If you refuse to participate, you will be denied parole, based on your disdain for the “Miss Charm” event. In the opinion of the prison colony administration and the court that supports it, non-participation means that you lack a “positive attitude.” However, I claim that in boycotting the beauty contest I express my own principled and painstakingly formulated “positive attitude.” My own position, in distinction from the conservative, secret-police aesthetic of the camp administration, consists in reading my books and journals during moments that I extract by force from the deadening daily schedule of the prison colony.

Everywhere—in schools, prisons and universities, at voting stations and sitting in front of the TV—we are taught to obey, to lie, to bite our tongues, to say “yes” when we want to say “no.” The great cause of our civilization is to foster in ourselves, our children and friends an antidote to this obedience—an obedience that eats people alive.

I demand that things be called by their names. Granted, I did not pass the prison-colony test for loyalty to the conservative, secret-police system of values and, in particular, of aesthetics. But to deny my positive attitude is absurd.

No less absurd are the so-called “violations” that have been attributed to me. Yes, I transported my notes out of the pre-trial detention center—notes that documented the hell and the inhumane conditions that I found in my Moscow pre-trial detention center cell. Of course, the staff of the detention center was extraordinarily enraged and slapped me with a violation, and also completely illegally prohibited me from making any notes at all, even in my own cell, methodically extracting all such texts from my cell in search after search. Yes, when I was hospitalized with extreme headaches in the prison-colony hospital, I did not greet one of the local staff members by bowing to the ground. This offended him. Yes, I went to the Prison-Colony 14 Club. So what? The Zubovo-Polyansky Court, which considered my request for parole, demanded precisely my participation in the club activities of the colony.

My friend Maria Alyokhina has been denied parole because she (horrors!) was at her work-station without a white headscarf. I wonder if the court understands what it is doing when it makes decisions like this.

I know that in Russia under Putin I will never receive parole. But I came here, to this courtroom, in order to cast light once again on the absurdity of the justice of the oil-and-gas-resource kingdom, which condemns people to rot pointlessly in camps, on the basis of notes and headscarves.

He who wields power and the force of repression today should be cognizant of the fact that no one can predict what his situation will be like tomorrow. Power is finite, more certainly than two times two is four. Understanding this, every instance of power should be able to restrain itself, if only in the name of its own future security.

Undoubtedly, the education of a conformist majority, the reform (reform!) of individuality into an obedient mass, will eventually play a cruel joke on the powers-that-be. Because power that is predicated on loyalty and the willingness to obey, rather than on the considered principles and convictions of citizens, is a weak power. If your power is based on the indifference or even fear of the people, that’s very bad news for you. Tomorrow, those who gave their votes to Putin out of simple conformism will take sides with some other man or woman in whom they sense a new power.

Earlier, I was always upset when I heard the argument “If not Putin, then who?” But now, more and more, it makes me happy to hear this. Because this argument signifies not devotion to Putin, but—to the contrary—covert rejection of him. Alternatives are taking shape. They are taking shape as a result, among other things, of the inept, panicky repressive measures of those in power. How absurdly and inconsistently—literally changing their tune mid-song—the powers-that-be are behaving in relation to Alexei Navalny. And he, in contrast, is demonstrating his principled stance, courage and dedication to his convictions, expanding his own political capital at the expense of those in power.

I am proud of all those who are prepared to sacrifice themselves and defend their principles. This is the only way that great transformations in politics, values and aesthetics ever come to pass. I am proud of all those who sacrificed their own comfort and a summer evening to go out into the streets on July 18 [in protest of Navalny’s conviction—Trans.] in order to affirm their own rights and defend their own human dignity.

I know that our symbolic power, rising from conviction and courage, growing stronger with each passing year, will transform into something much greater. And then Putin and his hangers-on will lose state power.

Translated by Kevin M. F. Platt.

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