The thoughts of a prisoner – they’re not free either. They keep returning to the same things.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich
‘Unfortunately, by the time you get this letter my thoughts will probably have changed completely; perhaps even my problems will have radically changed. Most importantly, I could be sent to another penal colony before the parole hearing. So I will limit myself to talking about the present, and there’s quite a lot to say about that. As to what happens later on, we’ll see.
‘I’m still in solitary, but this absolutely doesn’t stop me thinking about how to change the system. Indeed, it’s impossible not to think about that here. The word “system” is itself a cliché, but even the phrase “improve the efficiency of prisons” is wrong, mainly because efficiency is a result. A result can be achieved by a combination of methods: here the method is a statute. It is, of course, a very tall order to change things (lots of them) at the level of legislation, but I increasingly realise that the method/result is not at all what’s so upsetting.
‘There is a kind of objective reality in Putin’s policies whereby one can go to prison for nothing. Inside the prison one can also be punished for nothing, and prison, like any institution, is usually a mirror of the way things are.
‘When we try to change the state of affairs, be it at the micro (prison) or macro (politics) level, we become involved in a process. This is what gives me no peace: that process is enacted by live people, who are zealous, while at the same time hating their work (not quite the right word, it’s probably more that they’re sick of it and don’t really like it – we have to keep an eye on the censor!), but they nevertheless carry on meticulously contributing to that process. It’s not days or months, but years and years…and what do they get for it? What are they doing it for? True, they have families and children, but the children carry on their work, they are the heirs, who have automatically absorbed it all. Time goes by and we see those children working zealously, sometimes wilful, at other times giving the commands. Giving orders is the real thing, which is perhaps why our people are so unwilling to work.
‘When I arrived here and started to write to human rights campaigners, and then to complain, it was of course not because I had failed to understand the system and was relying on their honesty, but because I simply couldn’t do anything else. To behave differently would have meant contributing to something that no one actually likes. To this life of simply doing time. I think that it’s here, in the area of action (decision) that human will is the key. An action carried out acquires a life of its own; it is the basis of an identity, perhaps not even the basis but something absolutely vital, the essence of what is right, a completely intuitive thing.
‘We women prisoners will get hold of shawls, we’ll work for 200 roubles a month and say nothing, we’ll wash in a dirty barn, 50 of us together hosing ourselves down from an old mayonnaise bucket (a very necessary commodity!), duck and weave, inform on people and play double games. The same things go on in the world outside, but they’re called by different names there. Do you remember what Mandelstam wrote “We were decent people and have become scum”? Though now I wonder if there were ever any decent people.’
Maria Alyokhina, one of the members of the controversial Pussy Riot group, is serving a two-year term of imprisonment. Photo: (cc) Demotix/ Anton Belitskiy
Kirilenko: ‘Is Mandelstam your favourite poet? What about his poem about Stalin, the one for which he was exiled? Did that poem mean anything to you? Did it have any bearing on your part in the protests?’
‘Of course his poem has a resonance for me. Once you have become acquainted with the life described in it, it couldn’t be any other way.
‘I am amazed by the people who put up barriers: this is art and that is modern art. Real art is always contemporary, because it’s on that astonishing boundary with time or outside it, while at the same time (☺) breaking down the barrier. It’s a gesture from Freedom to eternity. An artist understands this, but a person looking at it from an ordinary, everyday point of view sees only the form.
‘One has the impression that 20th century philosophy in its entirety has passed us by, because people seem to have forgotten the values of things, despite the many years of work on conceptualisation put in by the existentialists. Any action or assistance rendered in everyday life has to be regarded first and foremost as an attempt to come just a little nearer to each other to try and find an opportunity for dialogue.
‘The gloom inspired by the presidential representative [mechanical engineering assembly shop manager] Kholmanskikh or the ‘comrade deputies’ who languish inside the Duma is the result pure and simple of the failure of communication between people in Russia. It seems to me that we, as a society, or, if you like, a nation, have allowed this to happen and we are thus responsible.
‘[The philosopher Merab] Marmardashvili had the wonderful idea that all concepts –“freedom”, “honour” or, for instance, “democracy” - only have any meaning because for centuries people have given them substance with their blood and their bodies, but what are we doing? One has only to listen to the words on the wind to understand.
‘Putin can spend a thousand hours on the air droning
on about “sport-patriotism”. Everyone
will understand – or perhaps not everyone, just us? In the Moscow pre-trial detention centre I
actually went to talk to a priest, not at a service, just in an attempt to
establish some kind of a dialogue. It
became apparent that for him there was no difference between the president and
the tsar (seriously!) and that our society is held together by resignation (for
resignation, read ignorance). He then
suggested I should kiss his hand! It’s both terrible and strange, but this kind
of truth is very close to us.
‘I’m all right: I’m not taking tranquillisers any more – I only took them for a week, mainly for insomnia.
‘Everyone has seen our (mine, Katya’s and Nadya’s) faces, but I don’t want us to be just faces. It’s not just that I don’t want it, but that would be worse than anything else. I can only hope that with time the image of the revolutionary woman will be backed up by a serious narrative, rather than just emptiness.’
Today the Pussy Riot women in prison are being isolated from society to prevent them stirring up the Russian electorate with their political ideas. But even in Stalinist times the prisoner was entitled to correspondence. And progress doesn’t let the grass grow under its feet: the combination of internet technology and the postal service now means that the prisoner doesn’t need to disappear completely from the public eye.
Masha was a student of journalism at the Institute of Journalism and Creative Writing [former Maxim Gorky Institute, Moscow]. She wrote prose and verse, so I hope she will find writing a blog interesting too. Since she’s been inside, she’s been trying to defend the rights of all the prisoners in the penal colony, which resulted in the ‘bitches’ (habitual criminals) being sent along to sort her out.
So now she’s in solitary confinement. Perhaps no bad thing. ‘In prison one cannot avoid thoughts about how to change the system.’ She continues to write poetry, but she regards herself as still a student, so her poetry is just for her close friends.
Thumbnail: (cc) Demotix/Anton Belitskiy