Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Is Shaping The Future of Russia

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Is Shaping The Future of Russia

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Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Is Shaping The Future of Russia

The multi-hyphenate speaks with V’s Kevin Ponce about the recent protests in Russia, why Putin’s reign must come to an end, and how she aims to empower her people through music and protest art.

The multi-hyphenate speaks with V’s Kevin Ponce about the recent protests in Russia, why Putin’s reign must come to an end, and how she aims to empower her people through music and protest art.

Photography: Damon Baker

Styling: Nicola Formichetti

Text: Kevin Ponce

It’s hard to ignore the roar of Nadya Tolokonnikova. The musician, designer, activist, artist, and mother has been around for quite some time, raising awareness and demanding action for the flaws in the Russian government and its behavior towards their citizens through her dynamic group, Pussy Riot. With the arrest of Alexei Navalny fueling their mission to bring an end to Putin’s leadership and instill change for the people of Russia, Nadya discusses her thoughts on the matter, reveals the artistic process behind her ‘Panic Attack’ EP, and how art is the true savior during turbulent times.

All custom clothing Nadya's own / Headpiece by Patricia Morales

Kevin Ponce: For our readers who are not familiar with Pussy Riot and why the protests are happening in Russia, could you describe the severity of the situation and why you are advocating for Alexei Navalny to be released immediately? 

Nadya Tolokonnikova: Pussy Riot is a political art movement that occasionally creates music, but also other pieces of art like performances. The thing that is really important for Pussy Riot is that every piece of art that we create is political. We started in 2011 when Putin announced that he's going to go into office for the third time [and] we knew [that] we will see more repression and prison terms for political activists, like what happened with Alexei Navalny, who is a leader in Russia. He manages to do incredible projects like documentaries that expose corruption in the Russian political system and opens [the] eyes of a lot of Russians who would never think that they would be interested in politics. He's really good at galvanizing people and making them believe that their vote and presence at the rallies really count. In the last few years, Alexei survived poisoning by the FSB and made a brilliant investigation about his own poisoning. He called the person who tried to murder him and he made it light and funny like a prank call and said he was an FSB officer and [asked] ‘Why didn't you kill Navalny? What went wrong?’ and that person explained exactly what went wrong and confirmed that he had to be dead. 

KP: *laughs* That’s incredible!

NT: He’s still going through treatment because he was poisoned with a nerve agent, which is a chemical weapon that we were not allowed to have or use because Russia is a part of international agreements that say we're not going to use chemical weapons. Nevertheless, they use it against their own citizens. [Navalny] was put in jail for three years and it’s not the end. I feel like right now, it's ultimately up to us. So that's why I'm really active in trying to campaign for the release of political prisoners, because obviously when you are in jail, somebody else has to speak for you. 

KP: With the protests happening by the tens of thousands in the streets of Russia and from what you've witnessed, what are some of the lengths that the government has gone towards in order to prevent them from happening? From what I've read and researched, it’s a lot of fear-based techniques.

NT: This is a stupid move because when you put a gun to people’s heads and ask them ‘Do you support me?’, they say yes because they don't have another choiceit actually erodes his legitimacy as the president. His fear tactics are turning against him and political activists are showing extreme courage and refuse to fear it. The protestors show that if you manage your fear and still are vocal and open about what you believe in, then everyone will see that the emperor is naked. One of my favorite phrases from Navalny is that ‘Putin is panicking in his own bunker’, since there is an investigation about Putin’s palace.

KP: I was reading a lot of that and was so shocked! Alexei was brilliant to show the palace and what is happening with that. When he’s released, Putin should probably get ready.

All custom clothing Nadya's own

NT: Absolutely! I think people are ready to act. It doesn't mean that the revolution will happen tomorrow but political analysts state that the popularity of Putin is shrinking quickly. People don't like violence or political repression and it feels like he got stuck in old times. When everyone has phones and cameras, it all goes viral and for the younger generation, it just makes them angry that they haven’t seen better things in life. There is a generation of people who grew up knowing just Putin, which is insane. They see all these videos of police beating protesters on TikTok and Alexei painting a heart on the glass of the cage he’s in to send a heart to his wife. It's like two different versions of Russia and it's clear for everyone which Russia they prefer—the nice people who are open and drawing hearts to their loved ones or this perverted guy who is sitting in a bunker. 

KP: Going back to Pussy RiotI believe it’s been ten years since the formation of the group. Looking back, what are some of the accomplishments that you've been most proud of in this decade of protesting and performance art?

NT: I'm really happy that Pussy Riot actually turned into a movement. When we started, it was just me and my friend and we literally faked it until we made it. The feminist movement existed in Russia for a long time but in 2011, it wasn't really popular. There was an amazing community who identified as feminists [and] in the public eye, you would call yourself a freak. Years later, I see that we were able to actually make it and now I see actions under the name of Pussy Riot that we didn't know about and it's really beautiful. I'm just endlessly thankful to everyone who feels a part of Pussy Riot and it's not just in Russiait's in countries around the world. I feel like Pussy Riot contributed a lot in making feminism and LGBTQIA+ rights activism much more mainstream and it was one of our goals as well. Right now, especially among the younger generation, it's normal to have those values. It wasn't the case in 2011 at all [and] we were considered the weird people. *laughs*

KP: Oh don’t I know it! I'm so jealous of the generation now because they can openly support it and not be afraid because if I were to speak up then and say that my community deserves recognition, it would’ve ended badly. It's great that this generation can look towards Pussy Riot and know you were the blueprint of what they can do now.

NT: One more achievement that I need to mention is MediaZona, which is a media outlet that was started when we got out of jail. We wanted to talk about what was happening in prisons and police departments. You know, a part of me [has] this imposter complex [where] I think [that] when I start something, I never believe it's going to have any impact, but the same thing happened with MediaZona. It's one of the most influential, important, independent media outlets in Russia. It's helping a lot of people to identify themselves as political creatures because we write about heavy stuff and I didn't think that people will be attracted to reading these kinds of issues but weirdly enough, people want to know the truth. I'm really happy about this achievement as well. 

KP: Would it be safe to say that the end goal is really to get Putin out of office?

All custom clothing Nadya's own

NT: Things are not [going to] magically change when we get Putin out of office. It definitely [would make] things much easier [since we wouldn’t] have to fight for our right to live. It doesn't mean that the world will be without bigotry. There are still people who are hating others for no reason and there will be some differences. 

KP: What do you envision a Russia without Putin to look like? Do you see it as a country filled with hatred or do you see it as a country with lots of potential? 

NT: Right now, it’s a country with a lot of potential. Getting rid of Putin is a must. Inequality is so big and a lot of [Putin’s] people are subject to prosecution and corruption. It's impossible to do anything right now in Russia and everyone suffers. To show our potential to the world, we as residents should get rid of Putin. I feel like a lot of people think [that] when we get rid of him, it's like a magic pillthat all our problems are solved now, but it's just the beginning. We have to lay the first stone in order to build a big, beautiful house. When I was a super young activist, I was mostly inspired by the Russian avant-garde movement and if you take a look at the beginning of the 20th century, you will see that Russia was dominating the world, not with tanks but with art, and that's how I see Russia. I want Russia to be a big, important player on the world [stage] through art, science, technology, and human rights. We have great potential because people are kind and smart and if we’re not going to be silenced, we’ll show you how talented, cute, and amazing we are. *laughs*

KP: I love that! Aside from performance art protests, Pussy Riot is a legit music group. Were you always interested in becoming musicians when you started? 

NT: No! Not at all really. In the beginning, it was me and my friend Kat and we were not interested in music at all. We were interested in performance art and feminism. I have a music background, so I feel like my influence has something to do with Pussy Riot becoming more of a music act, but not solely a music act. I was not really interested in that [initially] because it just wasn't my medium. I was studying classical piano, but I hated it. After we got out of jail, I realized that I want to try different mediums because we were creating these [sort of] fake songs and we would work with different music collectives and have somebody else produce instrumentals for us and we would scream whatever we had in our mind. We didn't really care if it would rhyme, we didn't care about the music; we cared about the message and the political performance. I'm really happy that some Russian producers are open to working with me now; before, they were kind of scared because it's risky to work with Pussy Riot.

KP: Fast forward to all the new music you have coming out now, like the Panic Attack EP which is out on March 11th, and the upcoming debut album. Can you tell us when we can expect the album?

NT: I hope it's going to come out in May! We don't have a record label or anything, so it's literally up to us if I have enough time. I feel like punk has always been that way. They had a strong tradition of building their own alternative labels or not having labels at all. It's not always easy because I have this artistic side of me and she's the one that never works. *laughs*

KP: *laughs* exactly. You gotta give the fans what they want, but when you want to give it to them, you know?

NT: I love the opportunities to share music when I want to do it or when the whole community wants to do it. For example, with this ‘Rage’ single, it wasn't meant to be released on the 1st of February and it was the lead single of the album. So I was sitting on this single for over a year and then everyone was so excited about it. If I were with a label or a management company, they would be like ‘Are you crazy? This is not what you do.’ You tell your label like two months in advance, at least. I was just really devastated about everything that was happening in Russia [and thought] I have to use my ultimate weapon, which is art. Working with a label, I guess, is not an option unless the label was 100% supportive of the activist side. We will never be a good vehicle for making money for anyone, including ourselves. *laughs*

All clothing and accessories stylist's own

KP: Well, that's the life of the artist! It's like, you take it or leave it. You take the loss or you take the win!

NT: Right now, I have a really supportive team and a publicist I worked with forever. With these singles, the first one is ‘Toxic’ with Dorian Electra. We’ve been friends since 2016 and we toured together and performed in a number of American cities together. Once it was a really weird but amazing experience. We performed in Alabama and on one side of the audience, [there was] a rainbow flag and the other side, the Confederate flag, but both parties are having fun. So I'm always like as long as you're having fun and not hurting anyone, you’re cool. ‘Toxic’ is a song about toxic relationships and any person who was toxic towards me. The second single is ‘Sexist’ and the song is a fictional story of me being invited to the hotel room of a high-level Putin official and he's trying to rape me and I'm going mad and killing him. The music video is directed by me and I’m [including] the narrative that existed for thousands of years of women being furniture for men so, in the video, I'm using the man as furniture. And the last single is ‘Panic Attack’. [It was] a really atypical song for me because I never go from an emotion when writing a song. We talked a lot with Dorian about it and we felt bad about it for a while. I remember we were sitting in Echo Park Lake years ago and we were [thinking] maybe something wrong is with us because we always start writing our songs like we're writing philosophy thesis. *laughs*

KP: *laughs* Love the process behind it all!

NT: I think that as long as it works for an artist, it works. ‘Panic Attack’ was different because I was literally in a panic attack and I was going through a depressive episode and I was trying to be productive still, but it was the middle of summer in 2020, with no prospects in life whatsoever. I was just in a really bad place and I was trying to write something positive [and] inspire people. [I thought] I have to bring something good to their lives. I have to be a hero. I have to be strong. And then, i was like, Nope, fuck it. I'm just going [write about] going through a panic attack.

KP: Being that you're a female musician, designer, activist, artist, and a mother as well, what do you wish for the next generation of women and what do you want them to take away from observing you and your work with Pussy Riot?

NT: I want them to be confident in themselves from a very early age. [As] girls, we've been told that we're not old enough and then all of a sudden, we’re too old to say something. I guess what I want girls to take away is just ‘fuck itbe confident, your opinion is really important and valid, it doesn't matter how old you are. I get lots of messages from 10, 12-year-olds [saying] we want to be activists, but we're too young. But, there are other types of activism that you can do and it's so valuable to identify yourself as an activist at a young age. Look at Greta Thunbergshe didn't have to become an adult to be heard and to actually make an incredible change. She's already made an incredible change in the world. They have to believe in [themselves] and when the whole world will tell you that you're too young, too old, too skinny, or too fat, just fuck them and be who you want to be. When I was a kid and a teen, people didn't believe in me or trust in my dreams and they were putting me down. But, so what? I'm living my wild life and I think I achieved more than I dreamt about, but that's the power of dreaming, I guess. So dare to dream, dare to believe in yourself, and don't forget to have fun occasionally. *laughs*

Discover the 'Panic Attack' video here!

Credits: Makeup: @anythingforselenaaas / Hair: @patriciamoralesla (@thevisionariesagency) / Production: @wearesavvie

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