Update: Pussy Riot’s Visible Leader Nadazhda Tolokonnikova on Hunger Strike. From Irreverent Art Revolutionary to Eloquent Cultural Whistleblower

On Monday, Nadazhda Tolokonnikova went on a hunger strike to protest conditions in the labor camp where she has been imprisoned for “hooliganism” because of a punk rock protest in Russia’s largest cathedral. Her letter published yesterday in the Guardian named inhuman conditions and immediate punishments for speaking out or working together. Although her status as an international leader of a viral activist movement has protected her from beatings and perhaps death, she is currently being held in solitary confinement after her lawyer issued a public complaint.

She writes: “I turned to the administration with a proposal for dealing with the conflict. I asked that they release me from the pressure manufactured by them and enacted by the prisoners they control; that they abolish slave labour at the colony by cutting the length of the workday and decreasing the quotas so that they correspond with the law. The pressure has only increased. Therefore, beginning 23 September, I am going on hunger strike and refusing to participate in colony slave labor. I will do this until the administration starts obeying the law and stops treating incarcerated women like cattle ejected from the realm of justice for the purpose of stoking the production of the sewing industry; until they start treating us like humans.” Read more…

from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia, Aug 17, 2012. Sergey Ponomarev/AP Photo

from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia, Aug 17, 2012.
Sergey Ponomarev/AP Photo

Tolokonnikova is no longer anonymous, and because her international fame somewhat protects her, she is able to speak out and be heard, although there is still a cost. Now she is taking on a different kind of leadership than when she was an anonymous member of Pussy Riot.

It’s sometimes hard for those of us who write about transformational leadership in conventional organizations and democratic cultures to credit revolutionary, rude art activism as leadership. One parallel of leaders promoting revolutionary change from within is the concept of whistleblowers as leaders.

But the idea of shock-punk resistance as leadership takes the whistleblower concept even further, in ways that make many uncomfortable (judging from some of the enraged reactions in the Guardian article’s comments sections). There is something offensive, foolish, even ridiculous about this kind of activism. We tend to look for dignity in our revolutionaries leaders, praising Gandhi’s quiet persistence as authentic, because we like to imagine ourselves in that leadership transformation, being the change.

If we look closely both at her letters and her activism, it’s clear that Tolokonnikova has the courage to challenge the Putin government and its policies with revolutionary dignity and irreverent shock-tactics. Irony, parody and artistic confrontation are often the first tools to challenge dictatorship, dogma and oppression. They open a conversation, not politely, but with a rude awakening. While this kind of leadership is not always needed, it has as much authenticity as the awakening tactics of Gandhi, MLK or Mother Teresa. They also broke rules in their effort to set things right.

Czech President, playwright and revolutionary leader Vaclav Havel wrote: ““The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world. In other words, I can only recommend perspective and distance.”

But as Havel’s life, and Tolokonnikova’s eloquent call for prison reform indicate, once irony and confrontation call attention to an issue, other strategies can be used.

We all know that leaders have to have more than one way of leading — we cannot only use one tool. The Pussy Riot movement uses many tools and has many leaders. The “punk prayer” brought them to our attention as rude, cultural whistleblowers. Now, if we listen to their interviews and read their letters, we are seeing them in a new way: orators for democracy.

6 comments

  1. […] drawn to art leadership from the scruffy fringe of mainstream culture, innovators like Lou Reed and Pussy Riot, as well as artists and writers who were once considered controversial, but whose works are now known […]

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  2. […] at the ways artists as leaders in the public sphere introduce themes, build community and impact the ways we understand leadership on all levels. What I love about their work is that they are making a place for the artist and artistic process […]

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  3. […] Pussy Riot, the women fighting for free speech through punk music, theatrical interventions and eloquent oratory.  In a move widely interpreted to mollify international human rights movements as Russia prepares […]

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  4. […] by becoming victims of his laws against free speech in public, serving two-year sentences and reporting on prison conditions as Pussy Riot became an international […]

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  5. […] From punk protest to world renoun, check out who’s profiled in Vanity Fair? Pussy Riot has made the pop culture grade, acquiring glamour as well as a reputation for standing up for freedom of speech in Russia. […]

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  6. […] art about leadership, folks, and art AS leadership. Check it […]

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