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People & Ideas

Nov 22, 2012

Exiled punk rockers are just the beginning in Putin’s Russia

Terrible conditions inside Russian prison colonies and a bust-up with lawyers. Russian-born freelance journalist Sasha Petrova discovers that things aren't looking so good for punk band Pussy Riot.

Two years living in a communal barrack with 50 women — half of whom are infected with HIV — and 12-hour days sewing buttons onto uniforms: this is the life of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of two Pussy Riot singers exiled to a Russian prison colony.

But only days after Mark Feygin, one of the group’s lawyers, told Crikey about his visit to the Mordovian camp for Tolokonnikova’s 23rd birthday, an internal tension that has been brewing for some months between the punk singers and their legal team erupted. The three defence lawyers have marched away from representing the women.

Prior to that climax, Feygin confirmed Tolokonnikova’s conditions at the prison camp; originally reported in the Russian newspaper Izvestiya, together with the first photographs taken of her and band member Maria Alyokhina (serving her sentence in a separate camp in Siberia) behind barbed wire. Feygin explained that most of the convicted women in Tolokonnikova’s barracks are there under Article 228 of the Criminal Code — trading in narcotics.

For all the widespread disease, the prison colony (that Feygin estimates holds 500 women) has only one doctor. He noted the biggest issue is the absence of women’s specialists. “It’s a problem of resources,” he said.

In direct contrast to these concerns, Russia expelled USAID from the country in September, saying that the aid agency had undermined Russia’s sovereignty by acting to politically influence its citizens (the agency was helping to fund an NGO monitoring the Russian elections). But one of USAID’s more prominent roles in Russia was to provide funding for medical treatment of those infected with TB and HIV.

This expulsion of a foreign agency is among a few moves by President Vladimir Putin in his conspicuous process of lowering the iron curtain. The latest instalment: an act broadening the definition of treason and espionage within the already harshly applied existing law. While the law officially attributes treason to those sharing state secrets with foreign bodies, commentators and human rights groups have expressed alarm that the wording is so loose, it could be used to convict virtually anybody engaging in foreign contact.

By all accounts, Feygin’s conversation with Crikey is potentially grounds for four years imprisonment under the law. However, that wasn’t the reason a later email requesting Feygin’s response to questions about the fate of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s sentence went unanswered.

“For me Pussy Riot is over. This page has turned. I will not comment on it any further,” he tweeted on Monday in among a line of several other bitter declarations reiterating much the same thing. “Once again I want to say that the story of the PUSSY RIOT BRAND, with my participation and the participation of my wife is finally over!”

He’s referring to an application he lodged with Russia’s patent agency to register the band’s trademark under the name of his wife’s company.

Yekaterina Samutsevich — the third band member whose sentence was suspended — has since criticised the move as a duplicitous ploy to profit from the group’s label, now worth an estimated $1 million. Feygin, and the team of lawyers (Violetta Volkova and Nikolai Polozov), responded by calling her a liar who wishes to ruin their reputation.

The exact details over who is the wronged party are murky, but the scandal does offer up one certainty. The commoditisation of the Pussy Riot label is threatening to drown out the original intent of their protest. An act of inconceivable bravery is in danger of being reduced to a mere fashion statement, the cause lost in among Free Pussy Riot printed T-shirts, sold in company with their long meaningless Che Guevara counterparts.

“If they want to find you guilty, they will spit in the face of the law and do it. I mean look at Pussy Riot.”

While the country’s media is drenched in petty monetary squabbles, Twitter feeds of artists and activists announce their up-and-coming potential arrests with shockingly disturbing cheerfulness. “Who will I go to the movies with on Friday if they put Artem in prison again,” tweeted a friend of Artem Loskutov, an artist and activist from Novosibirsk, Siberia.

Loskutov was framed and jailed for drug possession in 2009, making Russian headlines and garnering mass support. He was charged under Article 228 (the one used to convict Tolokonnikova’s barrack companions). In 2010, he was again arrested for ostensibly upsetting some policemen (he had merely asked on what grounds he was being searched).

Yesterday, he faced court for a related charge and undoubtedly the same motive. “It’s all the consequence of the actions of the organisation of Novosibirsk street artists,” he explained to Crikey. “The police have reacted to us from the beginning.”

Loskutov’s art group is affiliated with Voina (War), the collective from which Pussy Riot emerged. Earlier this year, the city of Novosibirsk had fined him 1000 rubles for displaying art works depicting members of Pussy Riot as religious symbols. His group has been staging demonstrations since 2004 — an alternative to the traditional May 1 parades left over from Soviet times. “The government doesn’t like this because it’s enough of a big group of people disloyal to the government,” Loskutov said.

Indeed in June, as a response to the ongoing mass demonstrations against Putin’s re-election and inauguration, the state DUMA toughened the laws on street protests increasing the already hefty fines to 300,000 rubles. The average Russian has an annual salary of 23,000 rubles.

For upsetting the police, the court prohibited Loskutov from leaving his town of residence during an investigation of the incident. Failing to return on the due date from Moscow, Loskutov’s lawyer faxed the court to explain the situation.

From here on in things became conveniently messy and the various forms of correspondence sent on behalf of Loskutov were purportedly “lost” or “misplaced” by the courts. Consequently, he recently received a summons for “evading court order”. But court hearings in Russia are perfunctory; the outcome decided beforehand.

“I have some news: my court summons has been announced, as well as the measure in which I will be restrained and held under guard; even a designated prison cell in which I am to be placed. But at the moment I’m not writing from there,” Loskutov blogged under a photograph of the documents of his summons.

Before yesterday’s hearing, he told Crikey he hopes the judge would consider the appeal lodged by his lawyer and change his decision. “But at the same time, I’m ready to be imprisoned, because that’s the way trials work in our country. If they want to find you guilty, they will spit in the face of the law and do it. I mean look at Pussy Riot. The whole country was following their trial — it was a stupid, idiotic trial — but still they gave them two years.”

Loskutov will know of the court’s decision later today.

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5 thoughts on “Exiled punk rockers are just the beginning in Putin’s Russia

  1. Matt

    Two years living in a communal barrack with 50 women — half of whom are infected with HIV — and 12-hour days sewing buttons onto uniforms: this is the life of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of two P-ssy Riot singers exiled to a Russian prison colony.

    Why the reference to the HIV status of a proportion of the other prisoners?

  2. Kez

    Why not mention their HIV Status, Matt? Afterall it is a communicable virus and this is a group of people living in very close quarters who might end up sharing body fluids. You’ve got a pretty high chance of going in HIV-free and coming out riddled with the virus and that wouldn’t be the relative picnic it is in Australia.

  3. mook schanker

    No needle exchange program in the clink?

  4. AR

    Presumably no dental dams either.

  5. sottile6

    Where are all the cold war warriors now? Is it ok for modern Russia to lock artists up on trumped up charges because they are not communists? I am sick of the left being accused of hypocrisy but who in the west is outraged by the very existence of these gulags now? Where are the right wingers who are so reasonable, where are the libertarians who love to attack the left with their torrents of complaint about social democrats? If anyone bothered to make a fuss about the fascist state that is modern Russia, then they would be supporting artists, trade unions and journalists. The hypocrisy sickens me.