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ZONA PRAVA

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova: How to revolutionize the Russian prison system

Reuters/Brian Snyder
Maria and Nadezhda of Pussy Riot.
This article is more than 2 years old.

In Dec. 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 eight hours long, instead of 16.

Alekhina and I got interested in human rights issues while we were serving our prison time.

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] Lenta.ru, and then Grani.ruand Kasparov.ru 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.

Even if Zona Prava managed to do some mega-heroic deed, no one would write about it.

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.

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.

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.

They missed out on the opportunity to crack down on us.

They 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.

There was a time when I would fall asleep clutching Foucault.

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.

Read the rest of the interview post on Meduza. Follow Meduza on Twitter at @meduza_en

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