Russia’s 2013 Gulag Mentality

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“I demand that we be treated like human beings, not slaves. It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No 14 in the Mordovian village of Parts. My brigade in the sewing shop works 16 to 17 hours a day. From 7.30am to 12.30am. At best, we get four hours of sleep a night. 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. When the plumbing breaks down, urine splashes and clumps of faeces fly out of the hygiene rooms. We’ve learned to unclog the pipes ourselves, but our successes are short-lived — they soon get stopped up again. This summer, they brought in sacks of slimy, black potatoes in bulk. Then they fed them to us. The living and working-condition violations at PC-14 are endless.”

Sorry to disappoint – but this isn’t actually an excerpt from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago but part of a open letter written recently by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. It isn’t fiction either – the author is one of three members of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk band that has been getting a lot of attention recently. Considered “hooligans” by Russian authorities, Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, fellow band member, are currently serving two-year sentences in what seem to be brutal and inhumane labor camps.

Why? Because of a stunt that lasted no longer than one minute. Because of their “punk prayer” performance in Moscow’s largest Orthodox Cathedral. Because of a demonstration that did not hurt anyone and that could be described, at best, as an expression of freedom of speech, something we are all entitled to. Newsflash – this is 2013, not 1950. But for Pussy Riot members, it might as well be the 1800s. The punishment inflicted on these “punks” is cruel, excessive and extremely out of date, considering the reasons why they were thrown in jail. Fifty seconds of singing landed them two years of savageness and injustice in 2013’s own updated version of the Mordovian Gulag.

But apparently, this doesn’t matter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who returned to power last May. He likes his punks where he puts them – in jail, and he isn’t freedom of expression’s number one fan. He fully supports the women’s cruel punishment and violation of human rights, as documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Tolokonnikova’s terrifying account of what is happening to her is more proof that Russia’s increasingly strict rules about freedom of speech are to be taken seriously. Interfering with freedom of speech and basic rights should never be taken lightly, and we should be aware that such violations are occurring as we speak.

Tolokonnikova’s letter explains her motives for her hunger strike of last month. Her strike did not go unnoticed: she was hospitalized and only released last week, when instead of embarking on another hunger strike, she received the news that she would be transferred to another penal colony.

Perhaps these women did commit crimes (minor felonies at best), and perhaps they are to be considered hooligans. But were they able to access a fair legal process? No. Should their actions be so severely reprimanded? No. Should basically innocent members of a punk music band be receiving death threats from prison officials and working like slaves? Absolutely not.

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