Pussy Riot Frontwoman Nadya Tolokonnikova Talks Activism and First Live U.S. Performance

Evan Woods

"Everyone can do what we’re doing. We don’t have any extra skills or extra ability," Tolokno said of her political activism. "If some crazy punks can do it, you can do it. Imagine if you join us."

“I don’t separate art and politics,” Nadya Tolokno (full name Nadezhda Tolokonnikova), the frontwoman of Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot, told The Hollywood Reporter. “I am just following my instincts.”

Pussy Riot performed their first ever live show in the U.S. on Dec. 12 in Los Angeles. The group described the evening as, “a marriage of performance art and a concert,” calling it, “extremely politicized,” and included covers of Russian prison folklore songs and original pieces in both Russian and English.

The group cannot perform in public venues in native Russia, and Tolokno (now age 28) spent 22 months in a Siberian penal colony beginning in March 2012 after her arrest during a Pussy Riot guerrilla-style performance in a Moscow church.

“We cannot have a show or shoot a music video because next thing you know, you have the whole police unit there, and they arrest you immediately. You spend the next day, or 24 hours in a police unit. Nobody wants it.”

For today, the group can play in their apartments, which Tolokno equated to “Soviet Times” when art exhibitions were shown secretly in apartments. She calls “those Soviet, dissident artists” her “main inspiration,” saying, “I know that even when you don’t have big channels to spread your voice, it still matters, so I may have a chance to inspire somebody else, maybe not now, but later.”

Despite the constrictions, Tolokno says she’s “not a big fan of this distinction on, 'free' and 'un-free' worlds," adding, “I feel enough support in Russia to be there and be surrounded by people who I love and who love me.” Tolokno reiterated the diversity of political thought within Russia, noting, “it hurts to hear, ‘Trump is meddling with Russians,’ because Russians are so different. Like [in the U.S.], you have people who voted for Trump and people who wanted to vote for Bernie. It’s the same thing with Russia.”

Tolokno was, “devastated because of Trump, not just because of America, but because of how it affects what is going on in other countries,” adding that Trump’s election “encourages leaders like Vladimir Putin,” and compared Trump and Putin by their rhetorical styles, “their system of values,” and their “machismo [behavior] that is just trying to hide their insecurities." She said the two leaders are "resonating with each other.”

“They’re not dumb. They know exactly what they’re doing. They’re raising the level of hatred in society. It’s divide and conquer. All over the world, the whole concept of diversity is not encouraged,” she said.

“It’s much more difficult for LGBTQ, for feminists, to say what they really want to say,” when leaders like Trump and Putin are in power, Tolokno argued, adding, “for some people being feminist is still a curse word.”

“I spoke with all those women in the penal colony, who were emancipated as fuck. Russian women are emancipated, especially in how they talk with each other. They’re not afraid of being condemned or judged for saying what they really think, but they would never go in public because it will not help them. It will create obstacles for their job, for their family,” she said.

“You can free up people’s minds, but when you have Putin saying, 'Women have to bring more kids to our great country,' it’s really hard to break this paradigm.”

Tolokno was empowered by the activism she saw in the Women’s March, saying, “I would like it to happen more often.” The next march is scheduled for January 2018.

“I thought it was a great reaction to Donald Trump. I felt we really can be this political animal who is breathing together as one organism. We are actually much more powerful than they are, with all their money and guns and armies. We have our voice and we can join together, even when we have our differences.”

Tolokno said this unity was the most important outcome of the Women’s March, saying people, “who do not necessarily share all [the same] views, still decided to come and be together. It doesn’t mean that you have to give up your views, but sometimes you can combine forces.”

“It’s up to us where we’ll end up,” she said of the current political state of the world. “I see a lot of hope, and a lot of humor in people around me. If we just don’t cry, [but] organize and do something, then we can really inspire other people to be with us. You cannot sit and weep and expect that someone will do it for you. I’m trying to put the spark in other human beings.”

She adds, “Everyone can do what we’re doing. We don’t have any extra skills or extra ability. If some crazy punks can do it, you can do it. Imagine if you join us.”

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