Pussy Riot Hunger Strike

Just over a year after her incarceration in Russia’s Penal Colony No 14, Pussy Riot member  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has written an incredibly eloquent letter that graphically details the horrors of the abhorrent and inhumane regime that she, along with thousands of other women,  is forced to live under whilst serving her two year sentence for “premeditated hooliganism”. It is this that the two other members of Pussy Riot, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina, were also charged with.

The fact that Tolokonnikova even managed to release this letter through her lawyer is a triumph in itself; strict and intolerant censorship in Russian prisons prevents all negative or critical reports of conditions inside the prison from transcending their thick walls – it is an attempt to keep under wraps details of what Tolokonnikova describes as a “flagrant violation” of laws and human rights. Her letter announced that beginning on Monday 23 September 2013, she would undergo a hunger strike, the only viable form of protest she could carry out to convey her disgust and outrage for the prison conditions and regime. She is told that any other form of action would inevitably result in a collective punishment being dealt out to all prison inmates, regardless of their involvement or affiliation with Tolokonnikova. Read in Stacey Gregg’s dulcet Irish tones, Tolokonnikova’s words are delivered with warmth, compassion, and as much understanding as one in twenty-first century Britain can have of the suffering and extreme discomfort the women in this prison face on a daily basis.

The harsh imbalance of a group of 20-30 people in a small attic in Shepherd’s Bush, with the blessing of free and open speech to debate, share ideas and express solidarity, is striking when contrasted with the rife oppression, cruelty, isolation and silencing of speech inside Penal Colony No 14 that is detailed in Tolokonnikova’s letter. Women are forced to work in factories in silence, even naked at times, as punishment for putting a foot out of line. The constant threat of collective punishment, or beatings from other inmates (most of which are even sanctioned by the prison wardens), creates a stifling lack of room for manoeuvre to push against boundaries and actions which you believe are wrong.

The nature of this reading and platform event that has been set up by the Bush Theatre, High Tide Festival Theatre and English Pen (which campaigns both for the freedom of writers who have been imprisoned for their work, and for wider access to literature amongst disadvantaged groups) creates an open dialogue to discuss the importance of expressing solidarity and the effectiveness of performance, written word and discussion in aiding protest. It is indicative of the widespread support for Pussy Riot, both within Russia and beyond, that this event has brought together theatre makers, publishers and a receptive audience to discuss these issues, yet the small scale of it also raises the question of how effective this form of protest actually is. The overwhelming message from this platform appears to be about the importance of showing solidarity regardless of your circumstance or position, and of doing something, even on what may be a small scale, in order to raise awareness and provide encouragement for a cause. For Pussy Riot, this has been in the form of messages, poems and other creative writing pieces that have been created in response to their imprisonment, as well as this event in response to Tolokonnikova’s provocative letter.

Gregg’s reading of this letter provides a subtle mirror that is unavoidably reminiscent of Tolokonnikova’s isolation. One would hope for some level of solidarity amongst inmates living under such a regime, but this is distinctly absent both from Tolokonnikova’s letter and is made even more harshly apparent when juxtaposed with the collective freedom of this powerful platform discussion.

Pussy Riot: Hunger Strike played at the Bush Theatre.