Skip to main content

From punk rock to prisoners’ rights Pussy Riot’s bid to change the face of Russian criminal justice

Source: Meduza
Photo: Evgeny Feldman / Novaya Gazeta

In December 2013, Pussy Riot members Maria Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova left prison two months before their scheduled release, following an amnesty bill signed by President Vladimir Putin. But the two women felt they were leaving unfinished business they started in prison: from fighting to improve detention conditions to holding officials accountable for mistreating prisoners. Immediately following their release, Alekhina and Tolokonnikova launched Zona Prava, a human rights organization focusing on the Russian criminal justice system. They also established an independent news source called MediaZona, which works closely with Zona Prava and other NGOs, covering court hearings, prison riots, and grisly criminal cases. The energetic chief editor of MediaZona is Sergey Smirnov, who oversees a team of talented young journalists. Meduza's Olga Zeveleva spoke with Sergei Smirnov and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova about their coverage of the criminal justice system and about the darker side of Russian penitentiary practices.

Nadya, you launched the organization Zona Prava and the news source MediaZona. What exactly do they do and how are they connected?

Tolokonnikova: We were freed from the penal colony, and the next day we decided to establish Zona Prava. Alekhina and I got interested in human rights issues while we were serving our prison time; we read a lot of dissident literature and even participated in hunger strikes. My main demand was to make the workday 8 hours long, instead of 16. You see, a Russian prison left alone without any political will is when things really go south. I mean, if there’s no Alekhina there running around with a whip over the warden, if she’s released, then the prison officials are left to do whatever they want. Unfortunately for Alekhina, she was released early—she still had plans for the two months she had left in prison. That’s why we decided to establish Zona Prava and to gather lawyers and attorneys who could travel to the penal colonies and continue to talk about what is going on in the prisons. That way, we could have influence over the courts, the prosecutors, and all the other authorities relevant in each case.

At first, we didn’t exactly know how Zona Prava would be structured. Of course, managing something like this was completely new to us. It was hard to figure out how to build something for the long term. It took us a while, but finally it began to work. Right now, our organization is leading over 20 cases across Russia, and more than 10 are cases in the European Court of Human Rights. These cases focus mostly on [prisoners] who are extremely ill. There is a law that allows people who are ill to be released, but this law is not implemented very often. We are working to get this law to function properly, and we are doing this with the help of the European Court of Human Rights. We also launched a couple of cases against police officers who abused their authority.

After some time, we realized that everything was closing down around us. There was that terrible story with [news source], and then and were blocked. It became apparent that even if Zona Prava managed to do some mega-heroic deed, no one would even write about it, because there simply wouldn’t be anyone left. And that’s where Smirnov came in!

Smirnov: For a few years, we watched what was happening, and after a while—from my point of view—the most important events (for example, the case of Navalny) went to the courts. Politics, real politics—it moved from the city squares to the courts. One case after another. And a huge number of new restrictive legislative measures have been introduced. It became obvious that court practices were the new form of communication between those in power and those in the opposition. And there was a moment when everyone knew exactly what was happening. But when everyone knows what’s happening, one question remains—what do you do next? One possible reaction is to do nothing.

Sergey Smirnov.
Photo: Rita Philippova /

So instead of doing nothing, you decided to cover what everyone knew all along?

Smirnov: Yes, we decided to cover it. We never had any illusions as to how interesting any of this would be for people. We never thought everyone would suddenly want to read about how policemen are killing people, or about how another two dozen people have been put behind bars for many years… Of course, this isn’t the most popular kind of information, but it’s important.

You said that you launched the website when other news sites started facing closure in Russia. Since you launched, have you faced many serious hurdles with your organization’s activities or your news site?

Tolokonnikova: Well, we can’t be a foreign agent because only an NGO can be a foreign agent. They refused to register us as an official NGO in Russia. MediaZona is registered as a media website. As for NGO [status], refusing to register us was really ingenious of the authorities! How they ended up protecting us from all these restrictive laws! [Laughs.] It’s really stupid. They refused to register us as an NGO, and as a result, they missed out on the opportunity to crack down on us by using this very law about foreign agents.

The never registered us because the Ministry of Justice has very serious problems with Alekhina and me. We went to court several times, we really tried to register our organization as an official NGO. They would always tell us something like “your aims are not clear.” Our aims were written out in 20 pages! What could be more obvious than protecting prisoners’ rights and providing them with lawyers? But the prosecutors and the judges continued to refuse. We never won the appeals, and now we’re not an NGO, and they can’t do anything to us.

Does this mean you can receive foreign aid without worrying about inspections and retaliation from the government?

Tolokonnikova: We don’t know for sure.

How do you fund the NGO and the news project?

Tolokonnikova: Right now, the funding goes through us. We go to various rock concerts and give public lectures; all of the money we make goes to Zona Prava and MediaZona. We don’t do fundraising in Russia because of the situation with Yandex.Dengi [the Russian parliament has proposed restrictions on individuals and organizations receiving anonymous online donations], and we decided to spare people in Russia the extra scrutiny from the FSB [Federal Security Service].

I want to ask about your mission and your inspiration. In the 1960s, Michel Foucault organized the Prison Information Group, which studied the French prison system and produced reports based on the information it gathered.
 Do you see yourselves as followers of this group? Who else do you draw your inspiration from?

Tolokonnikova: There was a time when I would fall asleep clutching Foucault and would wake up clutching Foucault. Of course, this inspirational story was always in the back of our minds as we thought about establishing a human rights group, while we were still in prison. If you take into account Russia’s specificity, though, it could never have been such a beautiful story. Not now, at least. Foucault wasn’t alone, it was a different historical time, and there was a different dominant public mood. Right now, “revolution” and “reform” carry very different meanings here than they did back then in France—because the definitions of words depend on the current political climate.

In France and the United States, the achievements of the 1960s and of 1968 (which Foucault was a part of) carry a totally different meaning: the word “revolution” has long since become a comfortable word [in the West]. Of course, we want this word to be a comfortable one here, too, but instead we get very different reactions in Russia. If you utter anything about reforming the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service, people look at you as if you’re out to destroy thousands of years of Christian traditions.

Masked members of Pussy Riot perform during their flashmob-style protest inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. February 21, 2012.
Photo: Mitya Aleshkovsky / TASS / Scanpix

Tell me more about the mission of the NGO and the media project. What’s your main goal? Are you trying to help particular people in particular cases? Are you trying to influence reform? Or are you just trying to bring attention to what’s happening in the prison system?

Tolokonnikova: With regard to Zona Prava, if I try to speak for this organization, our current strategy is to gather a critical amount of cases that will snowball in the future and change the situation. Essentially, it’s a movement based on the idea of common law, which isn’t actually practiced in Russia. That’s why we are talking to the European Court of Human Rights; it’s not only to help particular people (that, too, of course), but also to create a critical mass of cases.

How do you see the mission of MediaZona?

Smirnov: Maybe this is a strange idea, but our mission is constantly changing. We have a lot of goals. One of them is to attract attention to court cases, courts, and to problems in this system. How does it work? We’re really happy with Masha Berezina from the project Russian Ebola. She gathers information about deaths that occur in police departments, and we display it on our website. So we inform the public about a specific problem. We [also] do online broadcasting from courts, to show how the courts actually function.

I have another pretty strange idea about our mission, actually. I’ve written a couple of articles about the 19th century, and here’s what I think. If in 10, or 15, or 20 years, our website could help a researcher understand this time period, we would be very happy. They could read our live online broadcasting archives from courtrooms to understand what really happened here, to get an idea of what kind of epoch this was.

Of course, we can only offer a small part of the picture. But capturing the current moment, what’s happening right now—that’s important. I’m convinced we can’t even tell what is and what isn’t important right now, and we don’t know what will be important 10 to 15 years from now for someone studying Russia. In this context, I would like it if researchers would study some parts of our coverage. It’s a strange thought. It’s about understanding society. It’s not a media mission, of course. That’s a big problem, but that’s just how it is.

You mentioned featuring the project Russian Ebola on your website. Are there other organizations you work with? For example, Jailed Russia?

Smirnov: Yes, we met with Olga Romanova [the founder of the civil rights organization Jailed Russia] just last week. Her organization is a classic human rights organization. The problem is that not all of their stories can become news media stories. As a news source, we have to grapple with that issue. The organization systematically helps prisoners, and we agreed to work together. We’ll be happy to take on some of their stories and cover them. We would also be really happy if there would be more websites doing what we do. We need more people writing about this, the more the better. There are a lot of problems to cover.

Tolokonnikova: When we were launching our organization, we were told there are five other organizations working on prisons already. But five is such a small number for a country as large as Russia. Of course we really want new organizations to emerge, and we are in contact with all the ones that are doing work now: Baikal Human Rights Center, Kazan Human Rights Center, Committee Against Torture (which said recently it is going to close down). Pavel Chikov of Agora [a human rights group that provides legal advocacy to victims of suspected human rights abusers] coordinates a lot of our legal action. Also, we are in touch with local public monitoring committees in regions where they have managed to stay independent from the police. There can be 20 people in such a group, and sometimes not a single one of them is ready to work with us, because they are all either former Penitentiary System employees or former public prosecutors. But in some regions, civil society representatives are ready to give us a lot of information.

We have one project right now, for example, in which we’re making maps of all institutions, prisons, and penal colonies in Russia. There are thousands of them. We’re gathering as much information as we can about every single one, building a full profile. From the size of a solitary confinement cell, to how cold it is in the winter, to how bad mosquitoes are in the summer. We’re even including criminal investigations into the leadership of the colonies, about their bribery history. Sometimes, these people even take bribes in the form of sheep! Can you believe it?

Based on all the information you’ve gathered and covered, what would you say are the three main problems of the Russian prison system?

Tolokonnikova: The first problem is medicine. It’s really difficult to get medicine from your relatives through [inspection]. It took me several months to just get some headache pills. I had terrible headaches, and despite the fact that my support group really tried to get the pills to me, there were always problems. And, of course, you have to understand that in famous cases, they are not so harsh; so you can imagine that their attitude towards other prisoners is ten times worse. People who have a difficult time walking or using the stairs, for example—they don’t get any help. There aren’t any elevators. So if you can’t move and you need to get to the medical facility downstairs, you very well may die, because no one is going to help you get down those stairs. Pavel Chikov managed to get a couple of those people out, but, unfortunately, most of them don’t have any strength or any resources; they don’t even know they can use our hotline. They don’t believe that it’s free. So they just die without getting any legal or medical help.

The next problem is labor. I started my hunger strike because people were dying at work. Not figuratively, but literally—they would simply carry them out from the sewing shop in body bags. The leadership of the prison didn’t care if you had any medical conditions or serious illnesses that prevented you from performing hard physical labor, like a weak heart or HIV. People in the fourth stage of HIV would work for 16 hours a day, just like everybody else. Of course, the number of weak people working dwindled every day. At some point, they would just be taken to a hospital, since the penal colony doesn’t want any bad death statistics, so they would pass away elsewhere. I saw a few of these people off. A few of these deaths happened in my unit. These were people I‘d known for several months—they would die before our very eyes. In places where you can use prison labor, they use it to the max. And it’s not regulated in any way, so all control falls to local officials and to the people in charge of certain facilities. They are the ones who work out the details of how labor will be used, and that’s that.

Inmates working in a prison sewing factory. Mordovia, Russia, March 20, 2007.
Photo: Yuri Tutov / PhotoXPress

I’m conflicted about what we should call the third problem. I can’t decide between [flaws in] living conditions and the complaints system. Really, they’re linked. Disease, for example, is connected to the fact that people simply have nowhere to go to the bathroom. When you go to your bathroom in the building and you’re told, “Sorry, but you can’t use this bathroom. You have to use the one on the other side of the prison.” You’re sent to some totally unsanitary place with a hole in the floor.

I can’t even imagine how many illnesses you can contract by being in there, but that’s where we had to go. There was also a rule where if you didn’t work enough in a week, you weren’t allowed to bathe. These women would walk around hiding a bottle of water from the guards, and they would try to wash up secretly, while standing over the rotting hole in the floor. This is so unsanitary. And you can’t do anything about it. Because you can’t complain.

The fact that you can’t file an official complaint is another overarching problem. You can’t appeal to the Attorney General’s Office because most likely your complaint will just be ripped up before it gets there. So there’s no feedback. They can do whatever they want at a penal colony. That’s why MediaZona is so important; simple new coverage can lead to real results. They’ll build a bathroom, renovate a building, or reduce working hours. That’s what happened after my open letter and my hunger strike in 2013. Many things improved, and I never even expected simple news coverage to lead to these changes.

Sergei, based on the news coverage you do, what problems do you see in the system?

Smirnov: Nadya named the main ones, but I will approach the topic from a slightly different angle: I think one of the most serious problems is in the law and the system that puts people in prison in the first place. Consider, for example, Article Number 228 [of Russia’s Criminal Code] on narcotics. It’s a classic law that is used only for (a) launching criminal cases, (b) meeting quotas for the number of cases brought against suspects, and (c) issuing a certain number of criminal sentences in a given time period. No one actually thinks that the criminal code is there to punish crimes. The narcotics law is an enormous issue in itself, since about 30-40 percent of the people who are locked up in prison are there for drugs.

Tolokonnikova: In women’s penal colonies, it’s 60-70 percent.

Smirnov: Maybe in 50 percent of cases, people are put in prison because investigators have to launch a case and bring it to court, so [prosecutors] use stories about drugs for their own statistics and quotas. It’s a big problem. And there’s no control over these agencies. They can write basically anything they want in the case files.

Tolokonnikova: We can basically close the district attorney’s offices and the courts because they have no function anymore.

Smirnov: This is the main problem: people don’t know how to work anymore. We can see this in the general level of work done in the courts. Investigators don’t really know how to investigate anymore. They aren’t taught, and they don’t have any real opponents. It’s a completely failed system. Even when young investigators come in, they see right away that, after they open a case, it doesn’t matter at all what they write in the files. I’ve seen so much nonsense in protocols over the past year. When it comes down to it, when they actually have to search for someone in a real criminal case, they don’t know how to do it. Because people have gotten used to working in a system where everything is scripted.

I’ve also seen a lot of judges, and so many of them are just so desperate. They know they can’t declare anyone innocent; they know they can’t make their own calls when sentencing. I have a feeling that when judges get any kind of freedom to make a decision, they get really happy and brighten up. Seriously.

There’s a wonderful case where a judge gave a different sentence than what everyone expected. This judge had put away every defendant who ever came before him, fifty times over. Judge Karpov was famous for always extending everyone’s sentences. In the famous Bolotnaya Square case [a series of criminal proceedings against 33 people who allegedly took part in clashes between protesters and police at an opposition march in 2012], all the men were put away in pretrial detention centers. The last defendant was Ivan Nepomnyashchikh. When he appeared in court, everyone was convinced he’d be put away. And, suddenly, he gets put under house arrest, instead. Why? There’s only one explanation. This was the one case where the judge didn’t get any orders. And he took this one tiny chance to make his own decision. Judges don’t usually get to make their own decisions in this country.

There’s a case in court right now concerning four people: two roofers and two people who allegedly assisted them. They supposedly painted a star on top of a high-rise building in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The building also has a courtyard, and every couple of days, people used to jump off that rooftop with parachutes and land in the courtyard, as [base-jumping] practice. These parachute people came that day, they jumped, and police arrested them afterwards, when they were taking pictures of each other against the backdrop [of the star atop the building]. The police officers knew they had nothing to do with [the painting prank]. Everyone knows they had nothing to do with it, and no one can do anything about it. Why? It’s very simple. One police chief told another police chief they caught the guys, and after you hear the words “we caught the guys,” there’s no turning back.

Tolokonnikova: You see, it’s not just political cases. This happens all the time. Judges cannot declare anyone innocent because they’ll get in trouble for it later. Judges can even lose their job for it. They think the only reason to declare anyone innocent would for a bribe. And if someone pays the judge a bribe, the judge gets in trouble for not sharing it with the others.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in a single confinement cell at her penal colony in the village of Partza. September 25, 2013.
Photo: Ilya Shablinsky / AFP / Scanpix

I want to ask you about women’s rights. Is there any way you work with women’s prisons specifically?

Tolokonnikova: Smirnov talked about drugs being one of the most common ways of landing behind bars. I want to add that, in the case of women’s penal colonies, the next biggest group of prisoners after those who got sentenced for drugs are those who suffered from domestic abuse, who were beaten by their husbands or other family members for decades, and at some point they couldn’t take it anymore. What can they do? I have a lot of acquaintances who came to the police and the police would seriously tell them, “Hey, you haven’t been killed yet! Come back once you’re dead.” This is such a typical phrase for the police. It’s almost like they get special instructions on how to answer when someone comes in with domestic abuse complaints.

I know a girl my age. We work with her. She’s a musician. She kept a knife under her pillow for years, trying to protect her mother. And she could have seriously slashed up the guy who would come over and just beat her mom. It’s pure luck that she never did it, otherwise she would be serving 7 years in a penal colony and sewing in Mordovia. These people are not protected in any way.

The other scary thing about victims of domestic abuse is that they have nowhere to go, once they’re out of prison. They have nobody, and it’s very likely that something very bad will happen to them. They could commit another crime because they simply won’t have anything to eat. And there’s no system to reintegrate them into society.

There’s no NGO that helps these kinds of victims?

Tolokonnikova: It’s a very expensive undertaking. Of course, it would be helpful to have shelters for these women. But in addition to competent management, you also need psychologists and specialists, and that’s very expensive. The state probably won’t finance this.

Nadya, are your activities in Pussy Riot connected in any way to your human rights activities? What’s the link between Pussy Riot and MediaZona or Zona Prava?

Tolokonnikova: It depends how widely or narrowly you define Pussy Riot. While we were in prison, many people identified themselves with Pussy Riot, so that’s one connection. There’s also a physical connection, because I’m sitting here right now. But if you understand Pussy Riot narrowly as a performance group, then there is a connection through personal experience and also through general goals. Pussy Riot emerged as a group wanting to make serious changes in Russia’s political system, and we cannot realize Zona Prava’s aims without serious political change, either. To change the prison system, to make policemen stop torturing people at police stations, you need political will. In that way, all of this is connected with the call for “Mother of God, drive Putin away!” [a lyric from “Punk Prayer,” the song Pussy Riot performed in 2012 at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, leading to the famous criminal case].

Sergei, does the connection with Pussy Riot make it more difficult to do your work? Do you have any trouble with getting journalist-accreditation or access to courts because your project was launched by Masha and Nadya?

Smirnov: No. We have no problems at all. I don’t even remember that we were ever really seriously connected in people’s minds with Pussy Riot—not even really in any of the Kremlin’s extremely yellow press, [where they’re always] jousting for state resources. So no, that’s not really a trend. We have no problems. Again, I think we often misunderstand political will and political relations in Russia. There’s no system. There’s no conspiracy against us. They make small tactical decisions in any given period, when specific questions come up. There’s no great strategy—that’s not how it works in Russia.

Moreover, this whole story with restrictive regulations against the media or the new law with NGOs—maybe this is a rash thing to say, but I don’t think there’s anything scary about it, necessarily. The organizations will just reorganize themselves, and the stronger ones will continue working. I mean, you’ve been living in this kind of environment for a while now, is this really something new? Everyone has only opened their eyes to what’s going on in the past two years, but in reality, there was always pressure on civil society. Always. So I remain pretty calm.

Tolokonnikova: So far, we’ve only gotten one warning from Roskomnadzor [the federal government’s media watchdog].

You can live with that.

Tolokonnikova: We can live with that, and we can live with it, even if they take away our registration. That won’t be so bad. We had good laugh when they refused to register our NGO. You’d think we wouldn’t be able to work without this registration or something. I don’t see the difference between having official registration as an NGO and not having it.

Smirnov: Those who want to work, who want to help—they’ll go on working. I don’t think the latest restrictive measures are some big tragedy or anything. It’s just another period of crackdowns; it only means we’re inching closer towards a time of freedom.

Olga Zeveleva