The Power of Punk

October 3, 2013

It’s not that Vladimir Putin will suffer no rivals, it’s that his rivals will suffer. Sergei MagnitskySergey UdaltsovLeonid NevzlinSergei GuriyevMikhail Khodorkovsky… these are just a few of the names of outspoken critics of the Russian government who have been imprisoned or who have had to flee the country to avoid imprisonment, just because they have angered the current administration. Of course, the list is not complete without mentioning opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was accused of a crime, and despite the fact that almost all of the prosecution’s own witnesses testified in defense of the political leader, he was convicted. In Russia today, the political prisoner is not a rarity.

And maybe those are the lucky ones. People like Alexander Litvinenko wind up dead.

But perhaps he was killed because he was in Britain, and was unreachable by other methods. All the people on the list above share a commonality, in that they are all powerful men who operated in the business and/or political spheres. The Kremlin, itself propped up by corruption and money laundering, uses public corruption and money laundering charges to topple its opponents. This ensures loyalty, in the sense that the minute a member becomes disloyal he becomes the focus of corruption charges. In Russia, political influence and money are the roots of power, and so anyone with political power or money can easily be ensnared in legal allegations, whether they are invented or not. That is just one way in which the Kremlin maintains control.

This system also ensures that anyone who has been netted by this web can never become powerful, as convicted felons cannot hold office. Much has been made about Alexei Navalny’s rise, and his accepting the mantle of the national opposition party, but if he loses his appeal then even if he avoids prison or is released he will never be more than a cheerleader for the opposition. If and when that happens, there will have to be another leader who takes up the mantle of the opposition, and so far that candidate has not surfaced. Furthermore, even if the Russian public accepts the fact that these convictions are political, having a conviction, or even accusations of corruption, associated with your name is never a good way to establish national or international trust.

Perhaps this is one reason why Russian opposition candidates have thus far struggled to empower or energize the country.

But there is one person in Russia right now who has the ability to rise above political squabbling, rigged elections, or wrongful imprisonment, to inspire a nation and affect change. She’s not a politician, an academic, a business tycoon or an oligarch.

She’s a punk rocker.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, or Nadya, is one of the members of the punk band “Pussy Riot.”  Pussy Riot gained international fame when they were arrested after performing an impromptu protest song in a Russian Cathedral to raise attention to the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church has close ties to Putin and helps him stay in power. Their music videos are a testament to their defiance, including “Putin Lights Up the Fires,” and the one that made from the footage of this infamous incident, “Punk Prayer – Mother of God (Virgin Mary), Chase Putin Away!” [some of the language in the video might be offensive]


The act was edgy, disrespectful, and likely even sacrilegious. It was also possibly a crime. In many Western countries, it would probably land the protesters in a holding tank for a few hours, after which they’d be given a fine and be sent on their way. Instead,  two members of the band have been given a sentence of two years in the Russian gulag where essentially they are slaves, producing uniforms for their oppressors.

No, the punk rock videos are not likely to spark a revolution. The fact remains that the majority of Russians find the behavior in the Cathedral offensive. A growing number of Russians also feel that the penalty was far too harsh. But one member of the band in particular, Nadya Tolokonnikova, is somewhat of a rising star in Russia, both inside and outside of the country, and it’s not for her music.

Tolokonnikova’s voice has helped expose the conditions inside Russia’s prison system. In open letters, public statements, and interviews, she has become a “witness” to criminal injustice. Nadya describes the gulags as places where prisoners are coerced into “voluntarily” working 12-17 hours a day, under horrible conditions, often alongside other prisoners who are extremely ill. According to an interview with her lawyer, Irina Khrunova, prisoners with weakened immune systems due to HIV or AIDS are also forced to work these long hours. And while the prisoners near them are at no risk for catching HIV, the weakened immune system of the prisoners means that they are more susceptible to illness, and are also more likely to transmit these illnesses to other prisoners as a result. In her letter, written when she started her hunger strike on September 23rd, she describes some of the ways that prisoners are treated, and the conditions are atrocious. For instance, if the prisoners fail to sew their quota of uniforms, then they face stiff penalties: “all of you will be forced to stand in the quad for hours. Without permission to use the bathroom. Without permission to take a sip of water.”

Her hunger strike has been suspended because she is in poor health, but she has pledged to restart it if her demands are not met.

Nadya’s criticism of the gulag where she is a resident has come at great personal risk. Her lawyer says that not only has Nadya been singled out by the officials there, but she has also been threatened by a convicted killer and neo-Nazi who may be cooperating with authorities to receive a lighter sentence. One could perhaps dismiss the Cathedral protest as a publicity stunt by saying that the rockers did not know the consequences would be severe, but Nadya now knows that if she continues to criticize the political and prison systems while she is in prison, she will only be making things worse for herself.

And that’s the point. As Irina Khrunova points out, it is Nadya’s voice that has become a threat to the system, not because of her songs but because of her actions in prison. Khrunova suggests that the government is afraid of Pussy Riot:

“These defendants don’t fit into the overall context. They are exceptional convicts. The first reason is that they are educated. The second is their level of development. The third is their position in life. The fourth is the ability to use an attorney. Because as Nadya correctly wrote – there is no way out for all of them from the zone [prison]. There are no letters or complaints; the convicts are under the total power of the colony. In the event that the warden is a human being, everything is fine, as it is now with Alekhina. All of Masha’s letters reach me. With Nadya it doesn’t work. In her colony, the sentence cuts people off from life. They are afraid of Tolokonnikova because she can shout for the whole world to hear – and I hope they will hear her…

“They are afraid of Tolokonnikova because she can shout for the whole world to hear.”

Navalny might be dismissed as a self-promoting opportunist. He is, after all, a politician and a businessman.His political ambition might be blocked because of his legal problems as well. But Pussy Riot will emerge from prison, and their protests there will be viewed less cynically than their protests before they entered the gulag. They will not be tainted by allegations of fraud or money laundering, and they will have proven that they are not afraid to speak truth to power, even when the risks are extreme.

Because unlike politicians, no punk rocker has ever been discredited by a prison sentence, no matter what the charge.

If they survive this (literally) they could be a powerful voice of criticism in Russia. The publicity probably won’t hurt record sales either.