Vladimir Putin has become a fixture in the U.S. political conversation, as a majority of Americans have come to believe he helped rig the 2016 election for Donald Trump. Yet one prominent anti-Putin activist who was jailed by the Russian government says, in a new podcast interview, that America's political class is deliberately promoting an inaccurate picture of Putin to distract from the United States' own domestic problems.

In 2012, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and two other bandmates from punk band Pussy Riot were imprisoned in Russia for daring to speak out against Putin's regime. The case generated international headlines spotlighting the repressive practices of the Russian government. Tolokonnikova and her bandmates were released 21 months later. 

In the podcast interview with IBT's David Sirota, Tolokonnikova rejects the idea that Putin is an all-powerful strongman,  and says liberal media outlets are trying to scapegoat him in order to distract attention from other problems. Podcast subscribers can click here to hear the entire interview (which also includes John Cusack on his new book "Things That Can And Cannot Be Said"). What follows is an excerpt of the podcast discussion with Tolokonnikova.

Sirota: When you were imprisoned, what were you officially convicted of?

Tolokonnikova: I think they're really efficient hypocrites in a way that even in the [former] USSR, our government did say that, "Oh yeah, we have political prisoners." Now they don't even say this words. So they would try to use against you some random article from criminal code, and what he used against us was hooliganism.

Sirota: Vladimir Putin is typically portrayed as an authoritarian thug in the American media. Is that the accurate way to view him?

Tolokonnikova: You see him exactly how he wants you to see him, and I think that's a mistake. Because you just don't want to really play his games. This image of being a thug is an interesting thing because if you read Masha Gessen's book about Putin, “The Man Without a Face” it shows you how he constructed this image of being a thug, though he never been really was a thug… He was that person who been beaten on the schoolyard all the time, so he just decided to make his little revenge. So he's literally man without a face when he came to power. He did know a little about politics, but he was bred by oligarchs and appointed just by chance. So he's not as powerful as you think he is. It's important. And don't treat him as a strong man or thug or whatever you want to call him, cause he's really a little insecure person. He's even more anxious than I am, and he's just trying to hide it under hyper-masculine bravado.

Sirota: Is he the puppet or is he the puppet master?

Tolokonnikova: He started as the puppet, but then he shares his power with close circle of people. He's not the only one in country who has power, but he knows how to make deals with people — like he's not Trump. He's not as crazy and dumb and insane. I don't think that in the near future he will be overthrown and the result of coup.

Sirota: Who does he share power with?

Tolokonnikova: People like [Igor] Sechin, but not like [Dmitry] Medvedev who used to rule our country for four years. Yeah he was just a puppet, but now ... I want to call Putin a puppet, but he's not, unfortunately. What's really important to understand about him, coming back to your question, is that he's not that supported by Russian people as you think. Because again, you find propaganda that he spreads about himself, that 80 percent of Russian people support him. That is not exactly as it is in reality.

 I'm really thankful to Putin that he put me in jail because I had an opportunity to speak with wide range of people from different parts of country and from different social classes. Before jail, I was just normal anti-fascist activist who live in normal anti-fascism activist bubble. So then I ended up in prison I spoke with all these people and I understand there's actually much more people that support us than I used to think when I was in freedom. They're all waiting for the right moment when they could come to the street and really have something happen in their lives. It's important to understand that we have a lot of self-censorship and people are really afraid to go out and say something sometimes without a good reason.

Sirota: Should the world be scared of Putin?

Tolokonnikova: I'm not terrified of him at all. I don't think that you have to be terrified of him. He's just a guy who claims that he has power, but I claim that I have power too and you have power… If you talk here about mainstream liberal media in America, which speak a lot about Putin, I think it's just a trick, which is not easy to see... They don't really want to talk about internal American problems.

Sirota: Do you believe the American political class and media exaggerate the threat of Putin for its own ends?

Tolokonnikova: Yeah. They're just looking for a scapegoat and, you know, for Trump it's Muslims and Mexican workers. And for liberal media in America it is Putin. 

Sirota: What do you think is wrong with the way the American political discourse portrays U.S.-Russia relations?

Tolokonnikova: I think just the narrative should be different. I have questions about current narrative Democratic Party defending themselves and defending wealthy people who they do represent. And I think your narrative should be how oligarchs all around the world, they do unite, and though sometimes they don't have a lot of things in common, they don't have common views, but they have just one thing that they really want to do together to protect their wealth. I think you need to look at Putin and Trump from this perspective.

Sirota: Do you think Russia will at some point have a Western-style democracy?

Tolokonnikova: Europe has parliamentary republics and it really works good for them. Nominally we do have parliamentary republic, but it doesn't really work. I think it is possible, surely. But we have puppets in our parliament right now and all real voices being shut up, shut down, but I think it's doable.

Sirota: Why do you think Russia has, so far, been unable to create a more functional government?

Tolokonnikova: Our history ... Our government fooled Russian citizens all the time so Russian people, they don't really trust politicians. They don't really like to be involved in politics because they know they will try to do it. They will end up just even in a worse situation than it used to be. And you know partly American played its own role in creating a big crisis, which happened in 90's, and Russians were really happy to buy it. They bought shock economy.

I've seen it in my own family, an example of my own family, we at some point in 1993, we didn't have money to buy food. So it all creates feeling in Russian people that, if they will try to change something, they will end up being more poor than they used to be. Plus what happened in 90's, we created this link in our minds that democracy means impoverishment and it means a liberal shock economy. We don't really want to go back to that time. It's a big argument of Putin that, "At least I can protect you and give you some sort to stability. Do you really want to go back to neo-liberal reforms, which [Boris] Yeltsin introduced you to?" And they say no…

All hypocritical things which been done by Western democracies doesn’t help. I think we would want to go there, but when we see a lot of hypocritical moves that America does, imprisonment, mass incarceration and worse, trying to establish your country as a world empire and world policemen. People don't like it and they see it, even if they are in Russia. We are not dumb.