In the Soviet era, female political prisoners who were sent to labor in Russia’s Mordovia region described their privations in tiny words written on cigarette papers, which took months to reach the world. Today, an inmate can hand a real letter to a husband, and it’s posted on a blog, emblazoned on Facebook pages, tweeted and retweeted around the globe. Other than that, little has changed.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the Pussy Riot punk-rock band and a prisoner at Penal Colony No. 14 in Mordovia, declared a hunger strike Monday. She was protesting, she said, slavelike labor, threats to her life and prison officials who enforce their demands by enlisting inmates to beat up one another. The letter was posted online and, within minutes, her words buzzed around Moscow, nearly 400 miles to the northwest.

The women’s penal colonies of Mordovia, where about 2,500 labor in three settlements, living in large, army-style barracks filled with bunk beds, are Russia’s worst, said Pavel Chikov, head of
the Agora human rights organization.

“Mordovia colonies are different than all the others,” he said. “It comes from the time of the gulag.”

Women laboring at Penal Colony No. 14 are bound to a system that requires sewing a large number of police uniforms every day on unreliable machines, the volume regulated by contracts that the authorities have signed with buyers, he said.

“My brigade in the sewing department works 16 to 17 hours a day, from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.,” Tolokonnikova wrote. “At best, we get four hours of sleep a night. We have a day off once every month and a half.”

The quotas are impossible to achieve, Chikov said, so the women are pressured to work longer and longer hours. Fearful of being punished with lack of food or loss of visitors or letters, prisoners force others to go along with the lengthy workdays because the entire brigade will suffer if quotas fall short.

“A threatening, anxious atmosphere pervades the work zone,” Tolokonnikova wrote. “Eternally sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfill inhumanly large quotas, prisoners are always on the verge of breaking down, screaming at each other, fighting over the smallest things. Just recently, a young woman got stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors because she didn’t turn in a pair of pants on time. Another tried to cut her own stomach open with a hacksaw. They stopped her.”

Gennady Morozov, the head of a prison oversight commission in Mordovia, denied this description. “All women work until 4:30 p.m.,” he said, “the way it’s always been in the labor colony.”

Tolokonnikova arrived at the colony in the village of Parts a year ago at age 22. One of the wardens informed her that he was a Stalinist, she said. “You should know that we have broken stronger wills than yours,” the inmate said she was told by another warden. Last month, she said, a deputy warden told her she could end up dead if she kept complaining.

She and other members of Pussy Riot — more performance artists than singers — entered Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 2012 and belted out a song criticizing President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting him. Three members of the group were sentenced to two years in labor colonies for hooliganism. One later got a suspended sentence on appeal. Only Tolokonnikova was sent to Mordovia.

Amnesty International
and other human rights organizations call the women prisoners of conscience.

Suffering for art

In 1983, a few years before Tolokonnikova was born, the Soviet authorities arrested a young poet named Irina Ratushinskaya for anti-Soviet behavior. Her crime? She had written poems deemed critical of the state. She possessed human rights literature. She got a seven-year sentence and at age 29 went off to Strict Regime Labor Camp No. 3 at Mordovia.

Of course life was brutal, with frequent punishment in a freezing solitary cell. But there were so many political prisoners that they were kept together and the older women protected the younger one, teaching her how to survive and hold steady to her ideals.

In the camp, Ratushinskaya wrote her poems on bars of soap, memorized them, then washed the words away. Letters, and poems, were smuggled out on tiny strips of cigarette paper.

Four years into her sentence, Mikhail Gorbachev, eager for trade agreements to keep the struggling Soviet economy afloat, struck a deal with the West to release a list of political prisoners. She was freed.

Ratushinskaya wrote a memoir of her life in the Mordovia camp called “Grey Is the Color of Hope.” She called one of the poems that got her arrested “My Hateful Motherland.” Even today, it remains instructive for those who resist a country they love.

How good you were at spawning loyal subjects,

How zealously you destroyed

All those who could not be bought

or sold

But who were condemned to love you!