Pussy Riot has a wake up call for America’s youth in the Trump era – Markets Insider


Pussy Riot
Pussy
Riot’s “Make America Great Again.”


YouTube
screenshot/wearepussyriot



  • 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 politics has become increasingly Putinized, the
Russian activist has a simple message for Americans: Don’t
take your liberties for granted because they can be stripped away
in an instant. 

“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 other 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.”

Pussy Riot has a wake up call for America’s youth in the Trump era – Markets Insider