‘Pussy Riot’s dream was to create a movement:’ the evolution of Nadya Tolokonnikova

3 March 2021

“Anyone in any part of the world can make a piece of art and call themselves Pussy Riot,” Nadya Tolokonnikova tells me over Zoom. It’s taken three attempts to organise our call. Russia is once more convulsing under a wave of protests following a new jail term for opposition leader Alexey Navalny following an attempt to poison him with a nerve agent — an attack he blames on the Kremlin. Tolokonnikova is currently in an undisclosed location raising awareness of the protests and helping her many friends, including Pussy Riot co-founder Masha Alekhina, who have found themselves in prison after being detained at demonstrations. The task at hand sees Tolokonnikova work with people across three different time zones; her schedule is hectic.

Both Alekhina’s arrest and the surrounding protests remind Tolokonnikova of the demonstrations that broke out across Russia in the summer of 2011, around the same time that Pussy Riot came to be.

“In the beginning, we would call ourselves a band, jokingly, but we didn’t expect anyone to believe it, because we didn’t play any instruments. We didn’t have a membership. It was just me and my friend Cat. We were two contemporary artists fooling around,” she says. “We would make these fake concerts, jump around, and add the music later while we edited the videos. We started off as contemporary artists. Our dream was to create a movement.”

On 20 January 2012, Tolokonnikova, Alekhina, and six other women dressed in bright coloured dresses and balaclavas staged a guerilla punk performance on the Red Square, shouting “Putin zassal” (or “Putin has pissed himself”) at passersby. They were inspired by the mass demonstrations that had taken place in Moscow a month earlier, rallying against rigged parliamentary elections and Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he would run for president for a third term. A month later, on 21 February 2012, they decided to do the same thing inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, this time singing “put Putin away”. Of the five women who took part in the protest, only Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were later arrested and jailed. They spent just under 18 months in prison and their case made headlines around the world. Suddenly, Pussy Riot was a household name.

Despite protesters once more spilling out into the streets, much has changed over the intervening 10 years. Tolokonnikova is now taking her music career a lot more seriously (not learning an instrument has not been the drawback she once feared). This month, she is releasing two music videos — Toxic and Sexist — and one EP, titled Panic Attack. Independently produced, the music videos speak against gender violence and discrimination, and raise awareness about the political factors contributing to mental health problems, an issue that Tolokonnikova has struggled with since her time in prison. “I want to infect people with my message through pop music,” she says.

As well as a strong political slant, there is also an overriding sense of collaboration. In Rage, a music video she released following the January protests in Russia, dozens of Russian feminist and LGBTQ artists and activists make an appearance, while Toxic is a duo with American pop queer star Dorian Electra. “I believe artists and activists should form their own alliances, just like governments, and corporations create their own alliances to protect their interests. For the past 12 years, Pussy Riot has been forming its alliances,” she explains.

Also evident in the videos is Tolokonnikova and Pussy Riot’s aesthetic evolution. The neon colours that Pussy Riot first made famous still make an appearance, but Tolokonnikova’s style has become more sophisticated and in-your-face, partly influenced by the drag scenes in Moscow, Chicago, and LA, in which she developed an interest by reading Judith Butler as a philosophy student in Moscow, to her professors’ disdain. “I was always interested in visual expression,” Tolokonnikova says. Style, she says, is a way of communicating her message to the world. “I don’t think fashion is an artificial thing, I think it’s a tool that can be used in smart ways — it’s liberating.”

Her style and music have evolved but have Tolokonnikova’s politics also changed? While still outspoken, Tolokonnikova — who identifies as an anarchist — has become more pragmatic over the past 10 years on the activist scene. “I was more radical when I was 22,” she says. “I think an activist needs to combine the two sides of the coin, otherwise you will never achieve anything if you don’t make pragmatic moves.”

That journey has been compounded by meeting people from different walks of life. “Jail time was the most horrible experience in my life, but it was also eye-opening,” she says. Before being imprisoned, Tolokonnikova lived in her own “anti-fascist, anarchist, leftist, artist bubble. In jail, she says, she became friends with fellow inmates from across the political spectrum. “I ended up in a cell with people who would tell me that they support Putin and I realised oh, holy shit, I can actually be friends with people who support Putin, because that isn’t everything: we still have something in common, some universal values that we share — love, friendship, a love for nature and sports; we can talk about girls, boys, whatever,” she laughs.

“For the past 12 years, Pussy Riot has been forming its alliances”

More recently, Tolokonnikova has come out in support of Alexey Navalny, despite renewed attention on his anti-migrant rhetoric from 2007. “I support him because he’s brave and he’s a great politician but I don’t agree with some of his views,” she says. “I don’t feel like in order to support someone, you need to agree with the whole range of their views. I am definitely a lot further to the left than he is, but I would reserve all these conversations for when he will be free, and I will not be persecuted for my beliefs. Right now, I feel like all the conversations about our different political views are destructive. Now, we must say one thing: there should not be any political prisoners; no one should be persecuted for their beliefs. That’s it.”

Tolokonnikova herself also does not rule out becoming a politician herself. “Politics is not attractive to me but sometimes you have to perform certain duties,” she says. “I know that right now, women and queer folks feel like Pussy Riot represent them culturally, so, if at some point I have to be part of the Gender Equality Party in Russia, I will be. I will run for parliament if it will be needed, if I know that there are people who want me to represent them.” For now, however, Tolokonnikova’s criminal record means that she is unable to run for any political office in the next five years. Even when that restriction runs out, there is every chance that a convenient solution could be found to have the ban extended. “When I’m in Russia, I can’t even leave my house for five minutes without being arrested, so I’m not going to end up in parliament any time soon,” she says.

Image: Neil Krug

For now, Tolokonnikova is keen to continue with her music and activism. Her plans include writing a book of interviews with academics, activists, and artists about their visions for the future. “Right now, when you talk to activists about the future, they say ‘oh, it’s a really privileged position, leave it to Jeff Bezos,’ and I’m like… if you leave it to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, then they will get to decide what our future will look like; they are wealthy people but it doesn’t mean that they have to be the only ones who decide it.” Tolokonnikova’s interest in making accessible visions of what a positive future could look like for feminism, queerness, childbirth, or police and jail reforms is, in many ways, a logical extension of her previous work. In her mind, the world obsesses too much about Donald Trump tweets, and speaks too little about what will truly influence our lives in 10 years time. “I know I’m not going to invent the bicycle, but I just want to write this manual about what we mean when we say that we want to abolish the police, for example, what that will look like, how it will function, so that everyone can understand it.”

There’s also her personal life to focus on. When Tolokonnikova was first imprisoned, her daughter was four — now she is 12. I ask what it’s like for her to be a mother while balancing such a chaotic life. “I’m definitely not a traditional mother,” she says, but, “the most important thing for me is for my daughter to be happy.” She doesn’t forbid her daughter anything, but says she does try to explain the consequences she will face as a result of her choices. At the moment, mother and daughter seem to share common political values, but Tolokonnikova expects that will change. “I’ll be suspicious if she doesn’t rebel against me at some point, because I feel like that’s part of growing up,” the artist says. “But I want to be there for her, and I’m not going to judge her for anything.”

What is Tolokonnikova’s vision then, for the Russia of her daughter’s future? “I think Russia is eventually going to be a happy, prosperous European country, hopefully. We are going to have free elections, real courts, a system of checks and balances, a law against domestic violence, a police force that protects women, and victims of domestic violence, we’re going to have strong gender equality programmes, run by our government, which is not happening right now at all,” she says. “We’re going to have a prison system reform, because right now the conditions in prisons are humiliating and inhumane; we are going to reform our drug policy so that people are not jailed for a few grams of weed in their pocket. Hopefully, we’ll have a Russia without corruption to eat up so much of our country’s wealth: we are a pretty wealthy country, but all of it has been stolen over the last 20 years, so common people haven’t seen any of that. So I hope to see more equality, and more sharing.”

Even if the January protests have since withered, following a wave of unprecedented police brutality, Tolokonnikova thinks lots of Russians are waiting to take to the streets when the right opportunity arises. Until then, she is keen to keep fighting for change.

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