Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What has happened to Pussy Riot's Nadya?

By Frida Ghitis
November 13, 2013 -- Updated 1937 GMT (0337 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Nadya Tolokonnikova, jailed Pussy Riot activist, has vanished
  • Amnesty says she was taken from prison in car; family doesn't know where she is, she says
  • Ghitis: Her band, and Putin regime's crackdown on it, shone light on Russia's repression
  • Ghitis: It's feared she's in Siberia, her health at risk. Russia making her an icon

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.

(CNN) -- Why is Vladimir Putin scared of 24-year-old Nadya Tolokonnikova? What have his people done to her? Why won't they let her family contact her?

Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, the Russian artist and activist who leads the provocatively named punk rock band Pussy Riot, was thrown into a car by Russian prison authorities three weeks ago, according to Amnesty International.

After an international campaign, including an Amnesty International petition, the office of the Russian ombudsman now says that authorities have confirmed suspicions that she is on her way to a prison camp in Siberia, thousands of miles away from her husband and her small daughter, with an Orwellian claim that the move aims to "promote her resocialization."

Tolokonnikova and Pussy Riot became a thorn in Putin's side with their performance pieces, when they wore the colorful face-covering balaclavas that became their trademark, and launched into routines that were clearly meant to outrage. Their work had a cutting political message.

Imprisoned Pussy Riot band member transferred to another prison

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

She and her band, you may remember, got into serious legal trouble early last year after they staged a flash-mob style performance of their "Punk Prayer" at Moscow's main Russian Orthodox cathedral, chanting "Virgin Mary, mother of God, put Putin away." It was a protest against the church's support for Putin's increasingly controversial rule. The video quickly had millions of viewings. Within days, the performers were arrested and charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."

Tolokonnikova, along with her Pussy Riot colleague Maria Alyokhina, was sentenced to two years in prison. She is scheduled to be released in March, but experience has shown that in Russia, the government can find ways to delay a prisoner's release practically forever, if that is what it chooses.

Just ask Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the once-wealthy businessman who became a Putin critic. While he was already imprisoned in Siberia, the government brought new charges against him, piling more years to his incarceration.

As with Khodorkovsky, Putin's Russia has turned Tolokonnikova into a symbol of state repression and proof that the government cannot tolerate dissent or criticism. Every day she is out of sight, the Russian government looks more frightened of its own people, more eager to suppress freedom of expression and more comfortable violating human rights.

That is definitely not a good look for a country preparing to host the world in the Winter Olympics.

Clearly, the tactics of Tolokonnikova's Pussy Riot are not to everyone's taste. Some find them deeply offensive. But the state's ferocious response to the actions of a group of young activists was hardly warranted by the scale of their transgressions.

Authorities started by holding them without bail and compiling an indictment that ran almost 3,000 pages. Their lawyers were given two days to review the material, prompting the defendants to go on hunger strike to protest the unfairness of the proceedings.

Pussy Riot husband describes Navalny
Pussy Riot documentary director on band
Member of Pussy Riot band released

Tolokonnikova is a political prisoner. And now, in the worst tradition of Soviet Russia, Tolokonnikova, a musician, wife and mother, has been thrown into Russia's Gulag system.

The timing of Tolokonnikova's disappearance helps explain its motivation. The government is punishing her and her family and trying to intimidate her because, incredibly, even in prison she has not stopped pointing out the excesses of the regime.

On September 23, she went on a hunger strike to protest the brutal conditions experienced by her and her fellow prisoners at the infamous women's prison camp in Mordovia. Before she started her hunger strike, she wrote a letter explaining the reasons for her protest.

"When they send you off to Mordovia," she wrote, "it is as though you're headed to the scaffold." She described the sadistic punishments, the unceasing slave labor; the horrors of daily life. She told the story of a woman who was beaten to death in the third unit, "the third," she explained, "is the pressure unit where they put prisoners that need to undergo daily beatings."

The women, she said, work 17 hours a day with four hours of sleep and a day off every month and a half. The administration views the prisoners as free labor for the mass manufacturing of police uniforms, she noted, asking pointedly, "Where does the money they get for them go?"

Even from prison Tolokonnikova was able to rattle the system. Her critique of the prison system made waves, even as her health declined. After 10 days on hunger strike she was transferred to the prison hospital. When she stopped the strike, expecting to be moved to a more humane prison, she was returned to the same labor camp and she restarted her hunger strike.

Then she vanished.

In Russia's dismal prison system, the family's material and psychological support can make the difference between life and death. But while a prisoner is being transferred, the government has no responsibility to inform relatives of their whereabouts.

Prison authorities say Tolokonnikova is in transit, on her way to a new facility.

Her husband, Peter Verzilov, says he had good reason to believe his wife is being sent to a prison colony deep inside Siberia, probably the worst place on Earth to spend the winter. B

There is reason to fear for her health, after her lengthy hunger strike, and to worry about how she is being treated by correctional authorities.

The country's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, says he has been told by prison officials that she is in "satisfactory" health, in transit to a new prison.

By its vindictive treatment of Nadya Tolokonnikova and its efforts to frighten her into submission, the Russian government is turning someone who would have been a fairly obscure activist into a major international figure, and in the process it is shining a light on the very abuses to which she wants to draw attention. This may be ultimately good for the Russian people, but it is exceedingly dangerous for Tolokonnikova. Russia is a place where government critics have faced mysterious and tragic endings.

It is not a moment too soon for the Putin government to show Tolokonnikova, to show it is treating her humanely, and to make good on its word to release her as soon as her current sentence expires.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT