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
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT