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Russia’s Hunger Games

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, incarcerated member of Pussy Riot, photo by Robert Rizzato, 16 October 2012, CC 2.0.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, incarcerated member of Pussy Riot, photo by Robert Rizzato, 16 October 2012, CC 2.0.

There are two hunger strikes underway in Russia today, and the different receptions they’ve had among the blogosphere’s chattering classes say a lot about the country’s politics. The more prominent protest belongs to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the best-known and most outspoken member of the punk band Pussy Riot. She is currently serving a two-year prison sentence after a Moscow court convicted her of hooliganism last year. On September 23, 2013, Tolokonnikova announced her hunger strike in a 2,300-word public letter [ru], published on the popular Internet news site Lenta.ru.

In the letter, she details prison’s slave labor conditions and claims that officials have threatened her life. Days after the letter went public, Ilya Shablinksy, a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, visited Tolokonnikova’s prison, meeting with her and seven other inmates. In comments [ru] to the press after the interviews, Shablinksy verified Tolokonnikova’s allegations, saying the conversations made his “hair stand on end.”

Suddenly reminded of the existence of Pussy Riot and its star iconoclast, Russian bloggers have been mesmerized with Tolokonnikova’s resurgent drama. Her letter—an eloquent appeal partly for her own safety, but also for the well-being of her fellow inmates—pulls back the curtain on living conditions in Russia’s penitentiary system. Much as her band’s infamous “punk prayer” tapped the country’s polarized attitudes about the Orthodox Church’s role in government, Tolokonnikova’s letter and hunger strike (which has already led to her hospitalization [ru]) began a public dialogue about the state of Russian incarceration.

There are too many reactions—both notable and obscure—to describe succinctly the RuNet’s central tendency in this story. The range of responses is extreme. Some bloggers think [ru] Tolokonnikova deserves the harsh life of a sinner and a convict, whereas others describe [ru] her as something closer to a saint. The single most common reaction, it seems, is to express reservations about her past involvement in Pussy Riot and the art group Voina (which included participating in a public orgy while pregnant), but support Tolokonnikova’s current effort to draw attention to the mistreatment of prisoners.

If we split the RuNet between “opposition” and “pro-government” bloggers, it’s possible to note some surprises. For instance, Maksim Kononenko, a generally pro-Kremlin columnist and popular blogger, celebrated [ru] Tolokonnikova’s letter as a selfless attempt to rescue her fellow inmates. Kristina Potupchik, the former spokesperson of a prominent pro-Putin youth group, wrote [ru] on LiveJournal that cruelty to prisoners contravenes “common sense.” Both Kononenko and Potupchik criticized others who welcomed the news of Tolokonnikova’s suffering. In what was likely a conscious misrepresentation, Potupchik and pro-Kremlin blogger Marina Yudenich mocked [ru] Tolokonnikova’s former lawyers, Mark Feygin and Nikolai Polozov, for a crude joke seemingly made at her expense. (In fact, the two attorneys were ridiculing [ru] another Pussy Riot member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, who is suing Feygin and Polozov for malpractice).

Tolokonnikova’s hunger strike, however, is not the only in Russia today. More than a week before that protest began, dozens of mothers of disabled children in Volgograd announced their own hunger strike [ru], demanding better state assistance for their kids and the local governor’s resignation. The demonstration follows allegations of mass fraud [ru] in Volgograd’s recent municipal elections, which went relatively unnoticed by Russia’s Moscow-dominated media (both traditional and netizen).

Participants and supporters of the hunger strike, such as Yelena Grebeniuk and Yelena Samoshina, have tried to utilize the Internet in order to publicize their campaign. For example, Samoshina’s Vkontakte page [ru] is full of links to local news coverage and appeals for help from the public (like a donations request [ru] on September 26 for mattresses and bedding for the women hunger striking), and Grebeniuk’s LiveJournal features a brief interview [ru] posted on YouTube of her explaining the strike’s demands.

Grebeniuk, left, and Tolokonnikova, right.

Grebeniuk, left, and Tolokonnikova, right.

Needless to say, the Volgograd mothers have not galvanized Russian bloggers to the extent that Pussy Riot does regularly. BesTToday.ru, a Russian Internet project that collects “the best in blogs” to represent what conversations predominate in the RuNet, still doesn’t feature a section on Volgograd’s ongoing unrest. While it’s true that Tolokonnikova’s letter and protest speak to the larger issue of Russia’s prison system, the Volgograd action is also tied to a matter of wider political salience: the protection of vulnerable children, a subject ostensibly at the center of past pro-children rallies [ru] in Moscow against changes in Russian adoption policies.

Why have bloggers reacted so differently to these two seemingly alike cases? Even a superficial glance speaks volumes. Netizens and journalists writing about Tolokonnikova rarely fail to include a photograph from last year of her looking defiant (and radiant) in court. Even Tolokonnikova’s critics are drawn [ru] to remarks about her sexuality, which played a central role in her activism as a political artist. Meanwhile, in Yelena Grebeniuk’s YouTube video about the Volgograd mothers (which is still struggling to attract over 250 views), bloggers are greeted by a middle-aged woman slouching under a portrait of Lenin. Flanked by Coke bottles and wearing a tracksuit jacket, Grebeniuk is as far from a rockstar as one can get.

In mass society, a Pussy Riot beats a Leninist mom every time.

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