What Surprised Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova About U.S. Prisons

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Nadya Tolokonnikova

"When Trump came along, all of a sudden people started to talk about porn stars but not the things that deserve our attention, like reforming prison systems," says the activist.

Nadya Tolokonnikova is one of the co-founders of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock group and art collective. The Russian government jailed her and her bandmates after the group performed a song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior denouncing Vladimir Putin in 2012.

A court convicted the group of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced them to prison. Tolokonnikova spent several months in a labor camp, where she went on hunger strike and penned an open letter about the abysmal conditions that was published in The Guardian. She was pardoned in 2013. Lately, she’s been focusing on art and is coming to Los Angeles on Feb. 11, when Pussy Riot will perform at the Broad Stage, in Santa Monica. The event will also include a panel discussion with artist and illustrator Shepard Fairey, fine art photographer Catherine Opie and conceptual artist Tavares Strachan, all part of the Artists Talk: Artists Activism and Agency.

Tolokonnikova spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about her time in prison, the L.A. art scene and her work on prison reform. (The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

So, you're coming to L.A. pretty soon?

Hopefully, if they let me through the border.

Are you able to speak freely?

So far, we've spent two years in jail and we were beaten a couple of times but we're still alive.

I read your letter from jail, it sounded awful. How long were you in prison after you wrote that letter?

Three months. They moved me from central Russia to Siberia. I actually loved it because I'm originally from Siberia and we know how to talk with each other. I had a pretty good life in Siberian prison. I had a band called 3 Breaths. I was allowed to do a lot of things because of my hunger strike. My open letter did actually shake the whole prison system so much that they were afraid of doing something bad to me. They just wanted me to shut up and said, "let's let her do whatever she wants to do." They would bring me and my band from one prison to another on this special van with guitars and drums and we would play concerts. The head of prisons would take me on a private tour of the grounds.

That sounds very different from your first prison experience.

I went to 12 prisons. There was a long time when they treated me horrifically and the lesson I learned from that is you should be as loud as possible and you should be as open about your discomfort as you can. When I just entered the prison system, I was like, "I'm tough, I can go through it, I won't complain, I don't want to be the princess who complains a lot." But as a matter of fact, you should be the princess who complains a lot because it's not just you but your cell mates. You help other inmates to get their rights as well. I think it's not just for prison, it's with any governmental institution.

What else did you learn from time in prison that applies to activist activities.

The most important thing is that they really don't want things to be learned by the public about what's going on. That's why after we spent our time in prison we started an organization called Zona Prava, which in Russian means "zoning of justice." A bunch of lawyers are helping prisoners, and we are going through all the Russian queries. We opened a media outfit which is focused firstly on prisons and police departments, and now it's got broader issues like the Russian political system in general. You should not be afraid of being hated if you're an activist. I grew up wanting to be nice to everybody and I wanted to be loved by everybody, but when I ended up in prison I realized that was actually a bad habit because you couldn't be loved by your prison boss.

What do you make of the relationship between Trump and Putin.

I don't think there has been much attention paid to the relationship between Trump and Putin. We're getting tired of both of them. When Trump got elected I thought a lot about this phenomenon. My book is partially dedicated to him and to all these right-wing nationalists that are taking over many countries. Right now, I'm not into reading lots of political news because I've been working on lots of art now, so I'm trying to stay away from details.

Why is that?

For me it's much more interesting to see why America would elect someone like Trump. What stands behind those voters and why we can't necessarily comprehend them. I call my friends in America, and they don't really know how to even start talking with those people who voted for Trump. That's why I liked Bernie so much, because he's appealing to all people who work and have to get their money and their health care and their education.

Is your prison reform work limited to Russia or is it worldwide?

Wherever I have an opportunity to go to prisons I do it. A couple of months ago I was in L.A. and one woman approached me and said, "Do you want to go out to dinner where Julia Roberts will be?” I was like No, I don't want to. I'm not a super social person, and after, she arranged a visit to prison. My main expertise is Russian prisons but American prisons are interesting and really sad. Our prison systems are very similar. [Barack] Obama at the end of his last term turned his interest to the prison system and talked about prison reform. When Trump came along, all of a sudden people started to talk about porn stars but not the things that deserve our attention, like reforming prison systems.

What surprised you about the American system?

The amount of mentally ill people. Instead of taking care of them and giving them money and vocations to take care of their lives, the state just prefers to put them all in prison. It's not impossible to treat them and bring them back to society, but when they end up in prison it's truly hard for them to return to life. In Norway, prisoners walk freely on this prison island. They have a cottage for eight people. Each man has his own room and they can create art. They have special buildings for creating music. They give away CDs with compositions created by prisoners who learned to play guitar and drums. They can cook, they have kitchens. They even have access to the knives, but they don't kill each other because…I don't know why.

Thoughts on the art scene in L.A.?

I love being in L.A., and I'm inspired by lots of my friends, musicians who live in the city. Dorian Electra is a queer singer singing about political, gender-bending topics, feminist topics. Charli XCX is based in L.A., too, I think. I think she's a really forward-thinking pop star. I think she’s the pop star of this generation. One day, I was walking down the street in L.A., which is weird, right, but I do it because I'm from outside. I walk down the street everywhere. I didn't see Charli at first, but I saw this T-shirt, and I was surprised to see the Russian Cyrillic alphabet in L.A. and I was likeh huh, that's Cyrillic. And then I was like, Oh yeah, that's Charli. Cool. You can see those people and you can be friends with them, But it truly stresses me out that to live in L.A. I have to pay $1,000 for one or two rooms. That's why I don't live in L.A.