by Sarah Hurst
The Pussy Riot trial in 2012 could be said to have launched a new era of repressions against protesters in Russia. It demonstrated that Vladimir Putin was already completely indifferent to public opinion, as he ignored calls from all over the world to show leniency towards the young women. Only Yekaterina Samutsevich had her sentence suspended, while Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina spent nearly two years in pre-trial detention and remote prison colonies.
The three women, along with two others who weren’t arrested, had performed their “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on February 21, 2012, and afterwards released a video on YouTube that has now been viewed by over 3 million people.
Two of the defence lawyers for Pussy Riot were Mark Feygin and Nikolai Polozov, who subsequently defended Nadiya Savchenko. Feygin said: “Under no circumstances will the girls ask for a pardon [from Putin]... They will not beg and humiliate themselves before such a bastard.” Tolokonnikova stated: “Our imprisonment serves as a clear and unambiguous sign that freedom is being taken away from the entire country.”
Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were released on December 23, 2013, shortly before the end of their sentences. The State Duma had approved an amnesty for them as part of a brief effort by Putin to claim some respectability before the Sochi Winter Olympics. He also released the “Arctic 30” – Greenpeace protesters who had tried to board a Russian oil rig – and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was exiled to Europe. But meanwhile, away from the international spotlight, environmental activist Yevgeny Vitishko was arrested and imprisoned.
At the Sochi Olympics the released Pussy Riot members were whipped by Cossacks angry at another of their attempts to stage a performance, of a song called “Putin will Teach You to Love the Motherland”. They also turned this into a music video, which has received over 1.2 million views. Tolokonnikova recently made a video parodying Russia’s prosecutor-general Yuri Chaika, who has been accused of links with organised crime (almost 2 million views).
The Pussy Riot members have been campaigning for prisoners’ rights through their newly-formed NGO Zona Prava. On March 6, 2014 they were in a McDonald’s in Nizhny Novgorod, where they were investigating abuses at a prison. A group of pro-Putin thugs wearing orange and black “patriotic” St. George ribbons threw green chemicals at them. Pussy Riot performed at British street artist Banksy’s temporary Dismaland theme park in Weston-super-Mare in September 2015, drawing attention to the European migrant crisis.
Putin didn’t wait for the Sochi Olympics to end before annexing Crimea and creating millions more enemies in the form of Ukrainians and their supporters. The other women I want to talk about in this series were all motivated by their despair at the aggression Putin has unleashed against Ukraine. The first two are Yekaterina Maldon and Irina Kalmykova, who protested against the war in Moscow many times in 2014, often together. Due to constant persecution by the Russian authorities they have now both left the country.
I first saw Katya Maldon protesting in a video from May 23, 2014 of her simply walking around Moscow wearing a blue and yellow scarf, the colours of the Ukrainian flag, being harassed by angry members of the public, some of whom offered her St. George ribbons. Finally she was detained by police. I added Maldon as a friend on Facebook and started regularly following her activities and those of other protesters in Moscow.
On June 15, 2014, Maldon posted on Facebook that she and Irina Kalmykova were in a police van, having been detained after bringing flowers to the Ukrainian embassy in memory of 49 Ukrainian troops who had been killed the previous day when a plane was shot down by Kremlin-backed militants. “In front of us they tore up the placard of a man who was begging forgiveness from Ukraine for Putin, and his forehead was bloody, apparently a provocateur cut the older man’s forehead with a piece of the plywood placard!”, Maldon wrote.
Probably Maldon’s best-known protest (almost 3 million views on YouTube) took place in November 2014 at the Moscow Art Theatre, where Mikhail Porechenkov was starring in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Porechenkov had been seen in a video firing a machine gun at Ukrainian positions at Donetsk airport while wearing a press helmet. Maldon threw a toy gun at Porechenkov during the curtain call and shouted, “Come on, Misha, shoot!”
On January 14, 2015, Maldon was arrested along with other activists for playing the Ukrainian national anthem on a loudspeaker outside the prison where Nadiya Savchenko was being held. During another of her arrests Maldon was beaten by police. As the mother of young children, she managed to avoid spending weeks in prison like some other protesters. But authorities decided to take revenge on her another way, by daubing the entrance to her block of flats with pro-Ukrainian slogans.
Maldon was interviewed as a “witness” to the vandalism, but it was clear to her that she would soon be framed as a suspect. In April 2015 she fled to Kiev. That happened to be the exact time when I arrived there, unaware of her move, to make a film about Russian activists who were trying to emigrate to Ukraine. “I got tired of waiting for the doorbell to ring and of living under the constant threat,” Maldon told me. “I don’t want to be a seamstress in a prison colony or live under house arrest,” she explained. Maldon is now claiming asylum in Germany, and still protesting against Putin.
Irina Kalmykova’s story followed a similar path. In August 2014 she appeared in court and was fined about $570 for lighting a candle in commemoration of people who had been killed in Ukraine. “As a person and as a mother I don’t understand why Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have to die,” she said emotionally. “And yet you’re putting me on trial,” she added.
In February 2015 Kalmykova’s 34-year-old daughter Alesya Malakyan was briefly abducted and told that her mother must give up her protest activities. Kalmykova talked about the incident in a Radio Svoboda video. Kalmykova was upset but continued to protest. On May 11, 2015 she was detained for holding up a sign saying “Happy birthday Nadiya!” outside the prison where Savchenko was being held.
Kalmykova became one of four protesters charged under article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code, a new law that envisages a penalty of up to five years in prison for participating in multiple unauthorised protests. The others are Ildar Dadin, Vladimir Ionov and Mark Galperin. Dadin was sentenced to three years in prison on December 7, 2015, and Ionov has claimed asylum in Ukraine. Galperin is still free, campaigning for a democratic revolution in Moscow.
Kalmykova’s trial was already under way when she also decided to leave the country with her 14-year-old son. But she could only get as far as Minsk because her son didn’t have a passport. She was stuck there for a few months in late 2015, hoping that the Russian embassy would issue one for him: they didn’t know that Kalmykova was a fugitive. When she missed her court appearances, her lawyers said that she was ill. But when it became clear that the judge would issue an order for Kalmykova to be tracked down, as had happened with Ionov, Kalmykova and her son sneaked across the border to Ukraine in late January 2016.
Soon after arriving in Ukraine Kalmykova received the terrible news that her daughter Alesya had died suddenly in unclear circumstances. She was devastated, unable to return to Russia for Alesya’s funeral. Despite her grief she joined an international day of picketing for Ildar Dadin in Kiev on February 7.
First published on X-Soviet, 7 March 2016. Reprinted by kind permission