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      The Pussy Riot Column: I Was Arrested by Russian Cops for Sewing in the Street

      By Nadya Tolokonnikova

      Activist and Member of Pussy Riot

      June 17, 2015
      From the column 'The Pussy Riot Column'

      The author being arrested for her protest in Bolotnaya Square. Photos courtesy of the author

      We were surrounded by three irritable female cops and ordered to strip.

      "We won't let you go wearing uniforms. Strip now."

      "What, we're supposed to leave the station naked?"

      "Take it off."

      My friend, the activist and artist Katya Nenasheva, was sitting with me in a Moscow police station after our "Russia Today" action, one in a series of protests called "Don't Be Afraid." The plan was to go to Bolotnaya Square on June 12, Russia Day, and sew a Russian flag while wearing the uniforms prison inmates are forced to wear. Bolotnaya Square was where thousands and thousands of people had gathered in 2011 and 2012 to stand up against Vladimir Putin's rule. This time there were just the two of us, but despite the small scale of our demonstration we were surrounded by cops only three minutes after we began and put inside a paddy wagon.

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      I'd worn a uniform like this before, when I was in prison. I remember pricking my fingers on sewing needles when they forced us to work making police uniforms. That was when they'd punished us by not allowing us to bathe and I'd attempt to wash my pussy in secret. I was there because my band, Pussy Riot, had staged an action at a Moscow church that Putin and the Russian power structure he sits atop took exception to—you may have heard about that whole mess.

      Prison can change people like boiling water changes objects. Something soft, like an egg, can become hard; something hard, like a carrot, can become soft. Instant coffee, on the other hand, fades into its surroundings. The moral of the story is this: Be like coffee. In prison, I was coffee.


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      Being jailed is a difficult, difficult experience. But we political prisoners only become stronger, braver, and more stubborn as a result of it. Why, then, do they ever try to keep us in prison?

      When we got out, Maria Alyokhina and I founded two nonprofit organizations. The first, Zona Prava, provides direct legal and material support to inmates. Our lawyers are working on dozens of cases all around Russia related to the abuse of prisoners as well as more than ten cases in the European Court of Human Rights. We've helped hundreds of prisoners write petitions, appeals, and legal requests. The second is a criminal-justice-oriented news outlet called Mediazona that focuses its reporting on the country's courts, prisons, and police. We decided to make this a priority because so much of Russian politics happens in courtrooms, with so many anti-­Putin activists and their families being prosecuted and sent to prisons.

      We held our sewing action on Russia Day in recognition that Russia is not just Putin and his oligarch friends; Russia is also the 600,000 souls who populate our jails, some of them activists who took part in the Bolotnaya Square rally on May 6, 2012, to protest Putin's presidential inauguration. Some of those activists are still sewing police uniforms in prison camps.

      "I have the right to sew in my country!" Katya said to the cops when they approached us.

      "But not in public! You have to sew at home."

      It's hard to know what's illegal in Russia—I served time for singing and dancing publicly, and after our "punk prayer" in the church, Parliament made it illegal to "insult the feelings of believers." Laws are passed quickly here, before you can say "blueberry pie." Public discussions are not considered necessary; reports on legislation come from the Kremlin-controlled media, and members of Parliament (a skittish species) agree with Putin without thinking. These restrictions get churned out just as fast as prison workers like me produced police uniforms. Currently, another law is being considered that would permit guards to legally beat prisoners. If adopted, this would allow inmates to be administered electric shocks for a single unbuttoned button, or for having candy or tweezers in their pocket. We call this the "Sadist's Law."

      "You just can't sew a Russian flag while wearing a prisoner's uniform in the middle of Moscow," the deputy chief of police explained to us when we got to the station. "Our country is not a concentration camp or ghetto, but everything has its limits. Sew at home. Are you even certified to sew a Russian flag? Are you even a qualified seamstress?"

      "Actually, yes," I said. "I sewed police uniforms for two years, pants like the ones you're wearing. Comfortable, I hope?"

      "The fabric is a little tight," complained the deputy. "Hot."

      "Did you happen to find a note in the pocket?" I asked him. "In the clink we would hide notes in the pockets of police uniforms before packing the shipments. With wishes. From kind ones to... well, maybe not so kind, depending on our mood."

      "You'll take a selfie with us, right?" Katya cooed to the officer. "You promised us. Selfie! With the sewing machine."

      Right then our officer stood up and left us. We were left alone—so we got out the needles and thread and fabric and hurriedly finished the flag. If they weren't going to let us sew it in the square, we'd do it in the station. No question. Then we hung the flag on the wall.

      The author sewing the Russian flag while detained in a Moscow police station

      Three hours later, they let us go, not being able to figure out anything they could formally charge us with.

      "I have a friend in Femen," one of the female cops said in parting to Katya. "Femen undress and have a lot of fun. You guys have a different kind of fun. Whatever. I work for the police—that's the fun I get to have."

      Translation by Brendan Mulvihill

      Topics: Russia, Pussy Riot, protest, activism, Moscow, sewing, prison, Sadist Law, Vladimir Putin, opinion, Views My Own, Russia Day, Katya Nenasheva

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