Pussy Riot has a wake up call for America's youth in the Trump era
- Pussy Riot's Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova hasn't stopped fighting Putin's autocratic rule, using art as activism
- Tolokonnikova spent 22 months in a Siberian prison camp for a 2012 performance
- She talks democracy, political engagement, and the US-Russia connection
Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova is one brave soul.
Much of the world cowers at the mention of Vladimir Putin these days, especially after Russia's brazen interference in the 2016 US presidential election . Tolokonnikova, a prominent face of the art collective Pussy Riot, actively resists Putin's oppressive dictatorship with bold acts of expression as political activism that often threaten her personal safety - and even her freedom.
Now that American
"Starting the 1990s, people started to believe that, oh, we can just spend time with our own issues, our own private stuff and not pay attention to what's going on in politics because it's not really relevant," Tolokonnikova told Business Insider from Moscow in a wide-ranging telephone. "We have enough freedoms and we don't need to fight for them anymore. Activism was no longer cool."
Now that Trump is in power, she says, "I think that what's going on right now is a backlash." She continued, "It's a reminder to all of today's young kids that it's important to fight for your rights because they can easily be taken away."
Rather prophetically, Pussy Riot released a video called "Make America Great Again" on YouTube on October 27, 2016, just a week before the fateful presidential election. In the video, Tolokonnikova appears as a news anchor for "Trump TV" (which now actually exists) , announcing that "everyone's favorite, the great Donald Trump, has won the presidential election."
The clip then takes a dark turn as the song takes thinly-veiled swipes at Trump's proposed policies. The refrain is a call to action that flips Trump's own messaging on its head: "Let all the people in. Listen to your women. Stop killing black children. Make America great again."
"I totally understand Putin and Trump and their people can have something in common - their background is similar," Tolokonnikova said.
She's currently rushing to raise funds on Kickstarter for an immersive theater project that would take the audience through a deeply experiential tour of the Russian prison system, from its kangaroo courts to its lawless, fetid jails.
Tolokonnikova's own reminders of the need for political involvement were never too far away, - and neither were extreme conditions. She was born just before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, in the glacially-northern Russian town of Norilsk, where the average temperature during the year is -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Farenheit). A Soviet mining town built from scratch in 1935, Norilsk has a population of around 180,000 and is one of the most polluted places on the planet.
"There was not a lot of culture there, so it was very lucky that a couple of amazing artists came to my town," Tolokonnikova said. "I remember I looked at them and I thinking they were truly alive because they way they navigated our cultural heritage was so free, it was the opposite of what I saw in my school.
"So I moved to Moscow when I was 16, because it was literally impossible to be a free-spirited, open-minded in a really small town, you will just not survive."
Effectively, Tolokonnikova grew up in a fledgling post-Soviet democratic experiment that never quite took hold and fairly quickly morphed into a brutal dictatorship led by a former KGB agent. That inspired her to become politically and artistically engaged at the early age of 14.
"I decided to become an artist and a philosopher because for me it was the same," she said.
After high school, Tolokonnikova enrolled in a philosophy program at Moscow State University and met up with other artists around the city who had similarly subversive inclinations to form the beginnings of what would become Pussy Riot.
' Virgin Mary, Mother of God, we pray thee, banish him!'
Pussy Riot rose to notoriety in 2012 after they performed a feminist punk-rock protest song in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Russian Orthodox religion's most prominent symbol, which was increasingly in bed with an oppressive Kremlin regime that was jailing political prisoners and violently stifling dissent. It's not difficult to see why the song was slightly offensive to the church patriarchy - or the proud autocrat.
"Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin," the song begins. " Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist, we pray thee, become a feminist, we pray thee."
"Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin," it continues. "Better believe in God, you vermin! Fight for rights, forget the rite - join our protest, Holy Virgin."
What most people don't realize is that Tolokonnikova and fellow activists Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were not arrested on the spot. They got kicked out of the church well before their song was finished, as the video shows. It was when the clip started to air on social media and came to the attention of the authorities that they became wanted by Putin's security forces.
Tolokonnikova says she spent a week on the lam, literally running away from Putin's cops by changing locations at different times, restricting communication, and hiding in secret spots. At one point she tried to sneak out to buy her daughter, who was about to turn four, a birthday present. She was detained by what she describes as a group of thuggish, plain-clothes characters whom the cops at the local precinct first thought to be criminals themselves.
Then came a prolonged period of psychological pressure and uncertainty that came with her sentencing, which was completely random in nature since technically no actual crime had been committed other than perhaps trespassing. Can one even trespass a church? No matter: Putin's regime figured out a crime with which to charge them - "hooliganism."
"You could be stuck in prison for the next seven years," guards would warn her. She recalls being taunted in the most grotesque ways, saying the high-profile nature of her case forced the police to refrain from physical abuse that might leave visible scars, resorting instead to psychological terror.
"You're a beautiful young woman, but when you get out you'll be old, 29, nobody will want to f--- you," Tolokonnikova recalls being taunted by male officers.
Her ultimate sentence ended up being 22 months in a cruel and desolate penal colony in Mordovia , a judgment Amnesty International called unjustifiable and actively fought.
While in prison, Tolokonnikova started to protest the dire living and working conditions, which included 16-hour days of torturous and painstaking sowing and other manual labor with unreachable quotas that forced women to toil breathlessly until they fell ill. Punishments for even the tiniest of infractions, often concocted ones, included being left outside in the sub-freezing Siberian cold for prolonged periods. Tolokonnikova eventually went on a hunger strike .
Her bandmate, Alyokhina, reportedly described her time in prison as a series of "endless humiliations," including forced gynecological exams almost every day for three weeks.
' We think we are civilized'
Following their release, the pair immediately vowed to continue their fight against Putin's autocratic regime by launching both an independent news outlet aimed at countering Russia's propaganda machine and a prison advocacy group working to bring awareness of the plight of other inmates.
They traveled the world to discuss their own experience and advocate for prison reform. But instead of leaving Russia, where they could undertake artistic projects more freely and safely, the pair were resolute about returning to Moscow.
During the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Pussy Riot members were brutally beaten for another attempted performance protest.
To Tolokonnikova, who visited Rikers Island and other US jails, one of the most striking parallels between the United States and Russia are the two country's giant, cruel and costly prison systems.
"It's really striking to me, a lot of people really believe that we're living in a civilized world, it's 2017 and are civilized human beings," she said. "Um, not really. We have an army of slaves and America is the biggest one and second is China. Russia is third so it's not great company."
Tolokonnikova urges everyone, especially young people, to be politically active and informed not as a matter of curiosity but, rather painfully in her case, out of urgent duty. "We can't really wait for somebody else to come fix this problem for us," she said. "They will not."
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