Activist(s) of the Week: Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Today’s Activists of the Week are Maria (Masha) Alyokhina and Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, the recently-freed members of Pussy Riot who now advocate for prison reform in Russia.

Nature of activism: Currently focused on prison reform and prisoners’ rights in Russia, previously various protests in support of freedom of expression and civil and political rights

Activism highlights:

Participated in the 2007 “fuck for the heir Puppy bear” public-sex protest at the State Biology Museum in Moscow, while heavily pregnant (Tolokonnikova). As part of Pussy Riot, staged guerilla performances of punk protest songs, including the “punk prayer” performance in February 2012 that led to her arrest and imprisonment. Since their release, has advocated for prison reform and prisoners’ rights in Russia.

Notable Sacrifices: Imprisonment in Russian labor camps, where the living was decidedly not easy:

“Their high profile afforded some protection in prison—Alyokhina was not forced to work the extremely long hours of other inmates—but it also drew much unwanted attention. Prison authorities tried to ensure they were both isolated and scared; they threatened other inmates with retribution for associating with the women, whom they perceived as potential troublemakers, and rewarded them for harassing the Pussy Riot convicts. Alyokhina was threatened with bodily harm within days of landing in her dorm at a penal colony in the Urals in December 2012; she asked to be placed in protective solitary confinement.

Protective solitary differs from punitive solitary in name only — it is the same place, so cold that no amount of warm clothing can remove the chill. The fight for warmth is one of many battles for a semblance of physical comfort and human dignity that inmates face on a daily basis. Tolokonnikova and her lawyers battled the authorities for several long winter months before she was allowed to wear a warm kerchief instead of a chintz one; she fought a similar battle to wear warm boots in winter and light shoes in summer instead of the prison-issue shapeless plastic footwear, in which feet either freeze or swelter. The privilege of wearing what are known as “civilian” shoes was regularly revoked as punishment, not only for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova themselves but for other inmates, with the clear purpose of pitting the larger prison population against the activists.”

Got a nomination for the Activist of the Week? Email me!

Amanda Taub

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