Category Archives: feminism, gay rights

The Argument Nadezhda Tolokonnikova Wasn’t Allowed to Make at Her Parole Hearing

[Originally published by The Russian Reader]

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Yesterday, April 26, 2013, a district court in Zubova Polyana, Mordovia, denied imprisoned Pussy Riot activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s request for parole. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Judge Lidiya Yakovleva agreed with arguments made by prison authorities that it would be “premature” to release Tolokonnikova given that she “had been cited for prison rules violations and expressed no remorse,” and had not participated in such prison activities as the “Miss Charm Prison Camp 14 beauty contest.” Judge Yakovleva made her ruling without allowing the defense to make a closing argument, thus allegedly violating the Criminal Procedure Code. Tolokonnikova had written her statement out in advance. The translation below is of the Russian original as published in full on the web site of RFE/RL’s Russian Service (Radio Svoboda). Photos courtesy of the Free Pussy Riot Facebook page.

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“Has the convict started down the road to rehabilitation?” This is the question asked when a request for parole is reviewed. I would also like us to ask the following question today: What is  this “road to rehabilitation”?

I am absolutely convinced that the only correct road is one on which a person is honest with others and with herself. I have stayed on this road and will not stray from it wherever life takes me. I insisted on this road while I was still on the outside, and I didn’t retreat from it in the Moscow pretrial detention facility. Nothing, not even the camps of Mordovia, where the Soviet-era authorities liked to send political prisoners, can teach me to betray the principle of honesty.

So I have not admitted and will not admit the guilt imputed to me by the Khamovniki district court’s verdict, which was illegal and rendered with an indecent number of procedural violations. At the moment, I am in the process of appealing this verdict in the higher courts. By coercing me into admitting guilt for the sake of parole, the correctional system is pushing me to incriminate myself, and, therefore, to lie. Is the ability to lie a sign that a person has started down the road to rehabilitation?

It states in my sentence that I am a feminist and, therefore, must feel hatred towards religion. Yes, after a year and two months in prison, I am still a feminist, and I am still opposed to the people in charge of the state, but then as now there is no hatred in me. The dozens of women prisoners with whom I attend the Orthodox church at Penal Colony No. 14 cannot see this hatred, either.

What else do I do in the colony? I work: soon after I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14, they put me behind a sewing machine, and now I am a sewing machine operator. Some believe that making political-art actions is easy, that it requires no deliberation or preparation. Based on my years of experience in actionism, I can say that carrying out an action and thinking through the artistic end-product is laborious and often exhausting work. So I know how to work and I love to work. I’m no stranger to the Protestant work ethic. Physically, I don’t find it hard to be a seamstress. And that is what I am. I do everything required of me. But, of course, I cannot help thinking about things while I’m at the sewing machine (including the road to rehabilitation) and, therefore, asking myself questions. For example: why can convicts not be given a choice as to the socially useful work they perform while serving their sentences? [Why can they not chose work] in keeping with their education and interests? Since I have experience teaching in the philosophy department at Moscow State University, I would gladly and enthusiastically put together educational programs and lectures using the books in the library and books sent to me. And by the way, I would unquestioningly do such work for more than the eight hours [a day] stipulated by the Russian Federation Labor Code; I would do this work during all the time left over from scheduled prison activities. Instead, I sew police pants, which of course is also useful, but in this work I’m obviously not as productive as I could be were I conducting educational programs.

In Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn describes how a prison camp detective stops one convict from teaching another convict Latin. Unfortunately, the overall attitude to education hasn’t changed much since then.

I often fantasize: what if the correctional system made its priority not the production of police pants or production quotas, but the education, training, and rehabilitation of convicts, as required by the Correctional Code? Then, in order to get parole, you would not have to sew 16 hours a day in the industrial section of the colony, trying to achieve 150% output, but successfully pass several exams after broadening your horizons and knowledge of the world, and getting a general humanities education, which nurtures the ability to adequately assess contemporary reality. I would very much like to see this state of affairs in the colony.

Why not establish courses on contemporary art in the colony?

Would that work were not a debt, but activity that was spiritual and useful in a poetic sense. Would that the organizational constraints and inertia of the old system were overcome, and values like individuality could be instilled in the workplace. The prison camp is the face of the country, and if we managed to get beyond the old conservative and totally unifying categories even in the prison camp, then throughout Russia we would see the growth of intellectual, high-tech manufacturing, something we would all like to see in order to break out of the natural resources trap. Then something like Silicon Valley could be born in Russia, a haven for risky and talented people. All this would be possible if the panic experienced in Russia at the state level towards human experimentation and creativity would give way to an attentive and respectful attitude towards the individual’s creative and critical potential. Tolerance towards others and respect for diversity provide an environment conducive to the development and productive use of the talent inherent in citizens (even if these citizens are convicts). Repressive conservation and rigidity in the legal, correctional, and other state systems of the Russian Federation, laws on registration [of one’s residence] and promotion of homosexuality lead to stagnation and a “brain drain.”

However, I am convinced that this senseless reaction in which we now forced to live is temporary. It is mortal, and this mortality is immediate. I am also certain that all of us—including the prisoners of Bolotnaya Square, my brave comrade in arms Maria Alyokhina, and Alexei Navalny—have the strength, commitment, and tenacity to survive this reaction and emerge victorious.

I am truly grateful to the people I have encountered in my life behind barbed wire. Thanks to some of them, I will never call my time in prison time lost. During the year and two months of my imprisonment, I have not had a single conflict, either in the pretrial detention facility or in prison. Not a single one. In my opinion, this shows that I am perfectly safe for any society. And also the fact that people do not buy into state media propaganda and are not willing to hate me just because a federal channel said that I’m a bad person. Lying does not always lead to victory.

Recently, I got a letter containing a parable that has become important to me. What happens to things different in nature when they are placed in boiling water? Brittle things, like eggs, become hard. Hard things, like carrots, become soft. Coffee dissolves and permeates everything. The point of the parable was this: be like coffee. In prison, I am like that coffee.

I want the people who have put me and dozens of other political activists behind bars to understand one simple thing: there are no insurmountable obstacles for a person whose values  consist, first, of her principles and, second, of work and creativity based on these principles. If you strongly believe in something, this faith will help you survive and remain a human being anywhere.

I will surely use my experience in Mordovia in my future work and, although this will not happen until completion of my sentence, I will implement it in projects that will be stronger and politically larger in scale than everything that has happened to me before.

Despite the fact that imprisonment is a quite daunting experience, as a result of having it we political prisoners only become stronger, braver, and more tenacious. And so I ask the last question for today: what, then, is the point of keeping us here?

tolokonnikova-udo2

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Dolly Bellefleur, “Stop, Stop, Stop, Putin!”

On April 8, 2013, thousands of people protested in Amsterdam against President Putin’s homopobic laws and the general lack of human rights and free speech in Russia. “Beauty with Brains” Dolly Bellefleur made a protest song especially for this occasion

Thanks to the Free Pussy Riot! Facebook page for the heads-up.

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Hello, Amsterdam!

Amsterdam welcomes the Russian president:

Thanks to Comrades Alexander and Elena for the heads-up. This posting was edited on April 14, 2013, after the Vimeo video originally featured here was removed.

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Godfull: Shape Shifting God as Queer (New York)

www.utsnyc.edu

The Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York presents:

Godfull: Shape Shifting God as Queer
A performative symposium convened and moderated by artist Carlos Motta and minister Jared Gilbert

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Participants: Lovett/Codagnone, Darnell L. Moore, Ernesto Pujol, Robert Sember, Union Queer Caucus and FIERCE, Samita Sinha and Linn Tonstad

Friday, April 12, 2013, 7:00–11:00pm

James Chapel
Union Theological Seminary
3041 Broadway at 121st Street, New York, NY, 10027, USA

Admission is free but reservation is required, please visit this link to reserve.

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The Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary presents Godfull: Shape Shifting God as Queer, a performative symposium convened by artist Carlos Motta and minister Jared Gilbert featuring performative lectures and performances by a group of academics, activists, artists and theologians to explore the intersections of queer politics, spirituality and social justice.

The regulation of sexual activity is the primary system for controlling bodies within religions and the societies they influence. Such regulations often authorize violence against bodies as well as the depravation and social stratification of gender and sexual identities. As lesbians and gays have gained unprecedented visibility and in some cases legislative recognition, American faiths have by and large opened their doors to those homosexuals who manage to comply with institutionalized systems of social respectability. These faiths are now unwittingly complicit in new forms of heteronormative oppression.

Queer sexuality, bodies and activism form the ground from which queer art, spirituality and political narratives nurture new visions of a just society. At the same time queer communities remain in constant tension with these visions, always exploring the evolving and deviant backside of spiritual, political and social spaces.

Godfull: Shape Shifting God as Queer explores queerness as a constant force of disruption in theology and sexual politics. The participants speak of a “queerness” in theology that is particular and explicit of the queer body, a “queerness” that represents a constant pursuit of new social and spiritual revelations through deviant, subversive and indecent affirmations that will continue to challenge repressive notions of morality and respectability.

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The Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice was founded in the spring of 2009 under the leadership of AA Bronson and Kathryn Reklis. The Institute’s mission is to explore the relationship between art and religion through the lens of social justice. In particular, the Institute is concerned with creating dialogue between the worlds of contemporary art and religion, and between artists and theologians. The Institute commissions and supports contemporary art projects and practices that focus attention on the interdependent themes of art, religion and social justice.

 

Image: Lovett/Codagnone, For You, 2003, performance, courtesy of the artists

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International Women’s Day Special: The Professors in the Ikea Balaclavas

March 8 marked the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. This is the fourth in a series of posts focusing on the work and plight of several different women involved in political and social activism in Russia today.

On February 21, 2013, the first anniversary, of Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” protest, TV Rain’s Maria Makeyeva interviewed Irina Karatsuba, an ecclesiastical historian and Ph.D. in cultural studies, and Elena Volkova, an expert on religion and artistic culture. Earlier in the day, Karatsuba and Volkova had been detained at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in balaclavas while attempting to lay flowers on the altar as way of showing their solidarity with the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. They were later released from Khamovniki police precinct after questioning.

Мaria Makeyeva: What made you, two female academics, go to Christ the Savior Cathedral? I understand that police were expecting someone to show up there on the anniversary of Pussy Riot’s protest action, but it was you, two scholars, whom they found. Was this a scholarly action or a form of research? What was it?

Elena Volkova: It was, first of all, a human action. We wanted to express our solidarity with Maria [Alyokhina] and Nadezhda [Tolokonnikova] on this day, to show them that people remember and appreciated what they did a year ago, that there are people who sympathize with them, share their views, and support the [protest] action they performed in Christ the Savior Cathedral. We went there in solidarity, support, and sympathy. As scholars, we’ve spent the past year on educating people. I ran a “Pussy Riot school” on the Web, where I tried to explain [what they did], because it seemed to me that people perceived the punk prayer so aggressively simply because they didn’t know church history, the history of resistance within the church, the history of the holy fools, Biblical prophecy, and ecclesiastical counterculture. I wanted to educate people, and so as scholars we have been actively involved in outreach the whole [past] year, and we carried balaclavas in our bags.

Makeyeva: As a historian of the church, what do you think of what Pussy Riot did a year ago?

Irina Karatsuba: I think there are several important dates in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the twentieth century. For example, the Church Council of 1917–1918, at which the Patriarchate was restored and a reform program was drafted, but none of these reforms was carried out. This continues to haunt us today. Or Metropolitan Sergei’s 1927 declaration, in which the church bowed down before an atheist state and thanked it: this is a very important milestone in the history of our church’s apostasy from Christ. Or 1943, when Comrade Stalin allowed the Church Council to convene and elect a new patriarch. He thus bound the church firmly to the atheist state, and the church firmly attached itself to it.

Makeyeva: But what about the “punk prayer”?

Karatsuba: The “punk prayer” completes this sequence. It tries to put everything in its place: render unto God what is God’s, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. And it calls on members of the church not to support Caesar, thus closing the books on a very important feature of church-state relations in the twentieth century. Moreover, the girls told the truth, and told it in such a way that everyone heard it. We experts had been writing about this for the past five years, six years, but very few people hear what experts have to say. But [Pussy Riot] were able to say it in a way that everyone heard it, and that is to their great credit.

Makeyeva: You both were expert witnesses in the Pussy Riot case.

Karatsuba: We were expert witnesses for the defense whose testimony no one wanted to hear. We sat in the stairways at the Khamovniki district court for two days along with [famous Russian novelist] Ludmila Ulitskaya, who is seventy today, God bless her, and Irina Levinskaya, who had written an expert opinion on the expert opinion [commissioned by the prosecution]. She showed how meaningless what the court-appointed experts had dashed off was.

Makeyeva: Could you say more about the balaclavas you carried in your bags for a whole year?

Volkova: We made them for an opposition rally, before the ban on covering one’s face [was introduced]. We made them from Ikea pillowcases five minutes before going to the rally.

Karatsuba: Elena came over to my house and quickly made two balaclavas from an Ikea pillowcase I had.

Volkova: Later, we put them on outside the courthouse when we went there to support the girls. And then I carried it in my bag as a talisman, as a way of maintaining my connection with the persecuted women.

Makeyeva: And where are they now?

Volkova: The guards at Christ the Savior Cathedral tore them off and didn’t give them back to us, unfortunately. The tulips they threw at our feet: we had bought brightly colored tulips by way of stylizing Pussy Riot’s bright outfits.

Makeyeva: And then what happened?

Volkova: And then for some reason one of the cleaning ladies began frantically removing flowers from the icons, apparently fearing we were going to take them from their vases and throw them on the altar. Then the police took us to the paddy wagon, where two strange men appeared. One of them asked why we did it. We talked about the historical role of the “punk prayer,” that Russia had changed after this, that it has had a huge impact on Russian history. To which he replied. . . It was Ira who engaged him in a dialogue from that point on.

Karatsuba: He said that it wasn’t history that had changed, but something in our brains. “That’s okay,” he said, “we treat such alterations at the Serbsky Institute [for Forensic Psychiatry].”

Makeyeva: You mean they introduced themselves as specialists from the Serbsky Institute?

Karatsuba: They didn’t introduce themselves at all. It was just a remark he made.

Makeyeva: Were they in plain clothes?

Karatsuba: Yes, we decided we were going to be taken to the Serbsky Institute for treatment, but for now we haven’t been taken there.

Makeyeva: And then what happened?

Volkova: Then we were taken to the Khamovniki police precinct, where we spoke with a young name from Center “E,” the Center for Combating Extremism, who introduced himself as Ilya. He asked me different questions. As a teacher, it takes me approximately an hour to answer a question. I gave him a lecture on the history of the church, on the history of the holy fool tradition.

Karatsuba: I stood behind the door and listened with delight. Lena expressed herself one hundred percent: it was an amazing lecture.

Volkova: He asked questions and took notes. He asked me what the symphony between church and state was, and wrote down various dates and concepts. I think he liked it. He said he was in charge of religion at Center “E.” I told him he needed to get a religious studies education and advised him to enroll at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He said, “Can you give me the names of people to talk to [there]?” And with that he gave himself away, because this was clearly the question an investigator would ask: Whom did you meet with? What is your connection? What is this faction you mentioned?

Makeyeva: Irina, did you talk with this same young man?

Karatsuba: Yes. I didn’t really want to talk to him, and so our conversation didn’t really gel. He kept pestering me with questions. If I was so devout, he asked, why didn’t I go with those girls to prison? To which I replied that it reminded me of Ivan the Terrible’s logic from the correspondence with Prince Kurbsky: if you’re so righteous, why didn’t accept a martyr’s death at the hands of me, the wicked king, and ascend to heaven?” To which he replied, “And whose side are you? Ivan the Terrible’s or Kurbsky’s?” “I’m on Gagarin’s side,” I said. He sighed and said, “Our conversation hasn’t panned out.”

Makeyeva: And with that they just let you go?

Karatsuba: [Former Pussy Riot lawyer] Violetta Volkova, God bless her, arrived and quickly set the entire Khamovniki precinct straight. The police really wanted our fingerprints, but she said we didn’t have to let them fingerprint us.

Volkova: And that we shouldn’t have talked to the man from Center “E”—we didn’t know that. But it’s okay: we educated and enlightened him a little.

Makeyeva: So Violetta Volkova helped you?

Volkova: Yes, and Mark Feygin. They heard about it on the news and came and found us themselves. Violetta Volkova was the first to arrive. She had two warrants allowing her to act as our attorney, and we followed her advice.

Karatsuba: We wrote statements saying we refused to be fingerprinted, and we were released. Things could develop in different ways: they might summon us again; they might not. We’ll see.

Makeyeva: Irina, you mentioned that both you and Elena are Orthodox. Is this an active part of your lives? Do you go to church and confess?

Volkova: Yes, it’s an active part of our lives. We’ve been in the church for many years, and besides that we are teachers. Irina taught history for many years, including church history. My specialty is the Bible, Christianity, and literature. We taught for thirty years at Moscow State University, which we recently left.

Makeyeva: Why did you leave?

Volkova: There were many reasons, including the fact that they had begun telling us whom to invite and whom not to invite, what to say and what not to say.

Makeyeva: Whom to invite where?

Volkova: To speak at the university.

Makeyeva: This had nothing to do with Pussy Riot?

Volkova: No, it was before that, in 2011. We are not just Orthodox believers, people who practice Orthodoxy. For many years, I organized the Sunday school at one church, and I taught seminarians, who came to Moscow and attended my lectures on Christianity and English poetry. I have had many priests as students, and we were very active in the church for many years. It’s another matter that in the past year we realized that the church has completely turned away from Christian principles and values. Our hopes were very slight, so we stepped up our criticism of the church. When the “punk prayer” happened, we realized that the girls had sung about what we as experts had been saying for many years. People didn’t listen to us, but they heard what [Pussy Riot] said. We were really glad that someone had finally been able to make themselves heard. So we support them by all means, and as a believer, I am certain that it was Christ who sent them to Christ the Savior Cathedral, that they are God’s children, who came from God and said what needed to be said.

Police escort university professors Yelena Volkova and Irina Karatsuba after detaining them inside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow

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International Women’s Day Special: Victoria Lomasko on Women’s Lives in Small-Town Russia

March 8 marked the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. This is the third in a series of posts focusing on the work and plight of several different women involved in political and social activism in Russia today.

Below, artist Victoria Lomasko reflects in words and pictures on the lives of women in small Russian towns and cities like the one where she grew up, a hundred kilometers south of Moscow.

Lomasko’s series Feminine is featured in a special Eighth of March/feminist issue of Volya (Liberty), the newspaper edited by our friend and comrade Vlad Tupikin. Yesterday, during an authorized opposition rally to mark International Women’s Day, Tupikin was detained by Moscow police for the “criminal” act of attempting to distribute this newspaper.

A special thanks to Victoria Lomasko for permission to reproduce her work here.

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Victoria Lomasko

Feminine

svidanya

“When I was young, I had a date lined up on every corner.”

 

In the series Feminine, all the characters are drawn from life, and their remarks are recorded verbatim. However, I tried to move away from reportage and towards symbolism—to generalize specific situations in images expressing my feelings.

The portraits here are less images of specific people and more archetypes: the faded, lonely woman, the “sluttish” boozer, the rigid old Soviet woman, and so on.

 nety

“There are no factories in this town and no blokes.”

 tetay Luda

“He just couldn’t put on slippers and become a domesticated bloke.”

 

Each drawing adds its own tint (of sadness, irony, and anger) to the overall picture—the life of women in the Russian provinces.

blyadstvo

“I’ve been feeling slutty since December.”

 

I was born in Serpukhov, a town in the Moscow Region. The women and girls around me talked about men: acquaintances and strangers, exes, current husbands and boyfriends, and future husbands and boyfriends. We believed that love would change the monotonous course of our lives.

 svyatay

“I’m not a boozer. I’m a saint.”

 

I had one other belief—in my calling as an artist. Only my dad, a self-taught artist, supported my plan to study in Moscow and then work as an artist. Some of my girlfriends’ moms tried to force their daughters to spend less time with me, believing such nonsense as I was spouting communicable and a hindrance to finding a husband. They were right: I’m still not married and have no children.

 v bory

“We’re used to having blokes pay for everything.”

 

I have lived in Moscow for over ten years. When I travel to the provinces, the pictures I see and the conversations I hear are familiar to me. Even divorced girlfriends sympathize with my “plight.”

I became an artist, but I do not feel like a winner. In this country, their life strategies and mine turn into a loss. I look at the “heroines” in Feminine and find a part of myself in all of them.

 avtomat

“Where can I get hold of a machine gun to kill Putin?”

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International Women’s Day in Moscow: Police Attack and Arrest Our Comrades

The Moscow police celebrated International Women’s Day in style yesterday. First, they arrested our comrade, journalist and activist Vlad Tupikin, for the criminal act of distributing a special Eighth of March/feminist issue of the newspaper Volya (Liberty) at a permitted IWD rally. Then, when other activists and rally attendees tried to demand Vlad’s release, the police went after them as well. All in all, a couple dozen people were arrested for the apparently insane attempt, in Putin’s ultra-reactionary Russia, to bring some of its original meaning back into what has just become a commercialized, chauvinist “celebration of the weaker sex.”


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