Pussy Riot Draws Connections Between Russian, U.S. Prison Systems

What happens in the United States does not stay in the United
States. Every summer morning my grandfather tunes the airwaves to Echo-Moskva’s
hourly newscast, which includes the latest White House statements neatly tucked
in between Russia’s headlining domestic affairs and the dollar-ruble exchange
rate. 

More recently, the reports have been about the United States’ sanctions,
unified with most of Europe against the Kremlin’s movements in Ukraine. As I
make plans to renew my passport, a document that is necessary to see my family,
I worry to what extent these sanctions will develop.

Vice versa, what happens in Russia does not stay in Russia. In
the States, it is easier for me to avoid media on government sanctions and the
form of Russian news I encounter comes from my peers who ask me if I watched
the most recent House of Cards episode. They specifically refer to the scene where two
women played by Pussy Riot yell at an actor playing a boisterous, idiotic,
drunk Russian President, who by chance shares a large chunk of the same last
name as this opinion’s writer. 

The truth is, I haven’t watched the entire House
of Cards
episode. In fact, I have avoided American movie theaters and TV shows
since the first action movie I saw in elementary school. The words that I
understood best were the ones coming out of the human facing a brutal death after repeated scenes of body mutilations. 

These
are the same images that I see when I catch glimpses of Putin memes and
articles announcing that Washington’s think tank video analysis has determined the leader has Asperger’s syndrome. To put it frankly, the two nations have had
an extensive history of constructing a national identity on the hatred of each
other since before the Cold War.

For the first time in my life, I have witnessed images bringing
both nations under interrogation in the same news headline. I’m not talking about Pussy Riot, known as the feminist-punk rock artist band from the across the
Atlantic Ocean, the group that is cute and badass for continually denouncing Putin even
after their two-year prison sentence. Pussy Riot is not a name used solely for feminist or punk-ish causes. 

The name represents a movement challenging state
violence, at a moment when Pussy Riot is long due to appear on an international timeline of state dissidents. Pussy Riot’s
activist work has been focused on something larger than Putin, using music and
videos shared on the internet as tools to vocalize their concerns. Most
recently, they are recognizing that the former Cold War superpowers, the
current United States and Russian Federation, both have some of the highest rates and populations of incarcerations worldwide.

Why is Pussy Riot challenging state perpetrated violence in the
first place? Its members perform punk music as a form of activism that has been
criminalized by the Russian government. However, they grew up in a younger generation of Russian and former-Soviet citizens. Their childhood skirted the tail
end of the Soviet Union’s decline, a time when a large government structural
transformation did not significantly change the amount of power wielded by the Soviet law enforcement agencies and the new Russian Federation. 

The
Soviet Union’s KGB, an agency where President Putin and many of his colleagues were
formerly employed, evolved from Stalin’s NKVD, the agency responsible for the
prison network system, the Gulag. This network of labor camps and prisons
consisted of 53 camp directorates and 423 labor colonies spread across the
Soviet Union. 

An estimated 14 million people entered and one to 10 million
people died in this system, with a large range to account for unrecorded deaths. Those in the system were
accused of anything from petty to state-designated crimes, and many were labeled
as dissidents of the state. The Gulag system ended in the 1950s, but the
government agencies maintained their presence even after the emergence of the
Russian Federation. 

Today, Russia has the third largest prison system in the
world. In the United States, the nation with the largest prison system, the
prison-industrial complex is represented by a multi-billion dollar industry of
prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers and juvenile detention centers. This industry is run
by corporations and governments who profit from this network. The PIC uses
propaganda against people of color, lower-income individuals and people with
disabilities to fund destructive agendas such as the “War on Drugs” or “War on
Terrorism” that directly increase incarceration
for larger profit.

Between Russia and the United States, these systems kill,
oppress and tear apart people and families of those whom the government has
labeled as criminal. Challenging the prison system simultaneously questions the
government’s violent actions against the people within its
borders. Therefore, those who raise this question are labeled as criminals
because they threaten the power of the state—the reason for Pussy Riot’s two
year prison sentence.

This past February, Pussy Riot released a video by
Russian-American director Maxim Pozdorovkin in response to the Eric Garner case and the violent acts by the Russian Federation in
Ukraine. In the video, which I encourage you to watch, Maria Alyokhina and
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova are buried alive in Russian military uniforms and a pack
of Russian Spring cigarettes are littered on the ground nearby while they sing
a tribute to New York City and recall Eric Garner’s last words. 

The video
uncovers acts of state violence in two countries where government produces media that vilifies opposing histories. Pussy Riot is not your all-girl punk group that
occasionally has anti-Putin slogans—they are an activist group that stands in solidarity against two of the
world’s largest organization of government prison and terror systems.

Aleksandra Karapetrova PO ’15 is a molecular biology major and russian minor.

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