From Russia With Love
Five years ago, Nadya Tolokno and members of the punk band Pussy Riot were sent to prison for public acts of feminist activism. Today, she’s free and louder than ever. Here, she talks about rising up, getting rowdy, and pissing off repressive presidents
By Erika W. Smith
Photos by Jeaneen Lund // Styling by Kime Buzelli // Makeup by Will Lemon
Outfitted in colorful dresses, tights, and—most importantly—balaclavas that hid their faces, a group of fierce young women became activist icons overnight when they were arrested for performing a song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, protesting the repressive anti-choice and anti-LGBT policies of Vladimir Putin. Calling themselves Pussy Riot, the group was part punk band, part performance art collective, part activist group, and completely feminist. And even though that performance in 2012 lasted less than a minute before the women were pulled offstage, their lyrics—including the phrases, “Mother of God, banish Putin,” and “Mother of God, become a feminist”—led to an arrest that reverberated worldwide. Pussy Riot became an international cause celebre when three of its members—including leader Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, aka Nadya Tolokno—were sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Their high-profile case caught the attention of Madonna, Björk, and Peaches, and sparked weeks of headlines, a book, and a documentary. Pussy Riot was everywhere.
Five years later, Pussy Riot appears to be more relevant than ever. Today we have an American president who shares quite a few deplorable views with Putin: Like Putin, President Trump is anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-everything that feminists stand for. And Tolokno, 27, recognizes it. The morning after Trump was elected, she tweeted as Pussy Riot, “Putin just woke up and he’s screaming in fucking ecstatic happiness right now.”
It wasn’t Tolokno’s first comment on U.S. politics—far from it. In 2015, she and another member of Pussy Riot released a song and music video about the murder of Eric Garner called “I Can’t Breathe.” And just before the election, Tolokno released a trio of political music videos. Along with the girl power anthem “Straight Outta Vagina” and the Russian-language track “Organs,” there was a song called “Make America Great Again” that predicted the horrors of a Trump presidency. In the latter video, a broadcaster on “Trump News Network” announces bans on Muslims, Mexicans, abortions, and any language other than English. The announcements are interspersed with scenes of Trump posturing in the White House and police stripping and torturing a protester. Tolokno plays every part. As President Donald Trump, a yellow wig covers her brunette bob, and she frames her large, dark eyes with red and white eye shadow. Her full lips are covered in bright blue lipstick — lips a Russian Orthodox official once said marked her as “a demon with a brain,” adding, “She’s a strong demon. You can tell by her lips, by her mouth. It means she’ll fight to the end.”
At least in one respect he was right. In the years since her arrest, Tolokno has been imprisoned, gone on a hunger strike, been separated from her husband and young daughter, been beaten, and had her eyes burned with spray paint. And she’s still fighting against despotism—not only in her native Russia, but also in the U.S. and worldwide.
TSUIT: RALPH LAUREN; METALLIC SHOES: PSKAUFMAN; WILD FEMINIST T-SHIRT: WILD FANG; jewlelry: VINTAGE.
On the morning of November 8th, Tolokno knew something wasn’t right. It was the day after her 27th birthday—a day that has always held special significance to her, because besides being her birthday, November 7th was the day of Russia’s October Revolution in 1917. It’s a holiday that, when Tolokno was a child, Putin banned out of fear of an uprising, replacing commemoration of the revolution with something called “Unity Day.” It’s also the day that, before Pussy Riot, Tolokno took part in one of her favorite protest actions with the art group Voina: laser projecting a skull and crossbones onto the Russian Parliament.
“The day after my birthday this year, I was waiting for my gift, which would be the first female president,” she tells me over the phone from L.A., where she spends a lot of time when she’s not in New York or Russia. “I went to the gym and my trainer made my butt hurt so much that I was suffering the whole day. You know how some people have a gut feeling? I had a butt feeling that something was about to go wrong.”
When things did go wrong, she wasn’t surprised. “I had it in the back of my head. I had this irritating, small thought that it could happen, and all the guys around me, they didn’t believe that it could happen at all,” she says. “But after 16 years of Vladimir Putin, I know that terrible political things can happen. I didn’t believe that I could ever end up in prison, because I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m doing nonviolent, political, symbolic, artistic action. Nothing bad could happen to me.’ And then I ended up in prison.”
Tolokno’s nonviolent, political, symbolic, artistic actions didn’t start with Pussy Riot. In fact, she remembers doing a version of protest performance art as a small child at school. “I would take a pile of garbage to school and put it on different objects—on the drawings, on the chalkboard. I saw that as the proper way of expressing my feelings about school and the way they wanted us to learn things.”
Tolokno grew up in Norilsk—a mining town that has the dubious honor of being the world’s northernmost city with more than 100,000 inhabitants. For about a third of the year, snow storms rage in Norilsk; the sun never sets from late May through late July; and temperatures can drop to 60 below zero Fahrenheit. Besides being one of the coldest places on earth, it’s also one of the most polluted, ranking eighth in the world in 2007. Over 1,700 miles from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Norilsk is by no means a cultural center. “When I was a teenager, I was looking for something that would empower and excite me because I was living in a really small, provincial Russian town and it wasn’t easy to find these things,” she says.
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Tolokno’s life changed when the city invited two contemporary artists to the town for a fair. “These guys, they made me love classical poetry and contemporary art,” she explains. As a result, she moved to Moscow to attend college, studying philosophy at Moscow State University. She also got into gender studies, working on improving her English so she could read Judith Butler, as there were no Russian translations of Butler’s work.
It was at Moscow State University in 2007 that Tolokno first became involved with performance art and activism, joining the art protest group Voina. It’s also where she met her husband, Pyotr Verzilov. The two bonded over a discussion of Buddhism while Tolokno was helping her suitemates study for a religion exam. “Pyotr had lived for several years in Japan, so he knew something about Buddhism,” Tolokno says. There was an immediate spark, “And I just couldn’t help myself from talking to him the next day.” They began dating, and she says she knew it was real love when he gave her his books. “The thing that made me fall in love with him was when he gifted me his library, which was precious,” she says. “It was all French philosophers, which I adored at that time. My heart was bought with that library.”
“After I had my daughter, I became a much stronger feminist than I was before, because for some weird reason, when you have a baby, everybody starts treating you just as a mother.”
In 2008, the couple married. And after Putin was “elected” again that year—although Putin was ineligible to run for a third consecutive term, the person who did win the election, Dmitry Medvedev, appointed Putin Prime Minister—the group expanded from rallies to art performances. One notable action involved members of the group having public sex in Moscow’s State Museum of Biology to protest Putin’s stated desire for Russian women to procreate more. “We combined art and politics,” Tolokno says of that performance, which she carried out at age 19 while pregnant with her daughter Gera. “That’s my recipe for everything in life. If you want to be more powerful, just combine everything that you know—and it works.”
“After I had my daughter, I became a much stronger feminist than I was before,” she says. “Because for some weird reason, when you have a baby, everybody starts treating you just as a mother. I didn’t want to just be seen as a reproductive machine, even though I had her. I didn’t want her to think of me as a reproductive machine. I wanted her to see me as a person. When your kid is really little, you have to give a lot of your life to your kid. But you still want to do art, and you still want to study, and you still want to see your friends, so you have to figure out how you can do it all in one hour. After that, I became a much more productive person.”
Tolokno first started incorporating feminism into her art in 2011 when she led a months-long performance piece in which female Voina members kissed female police officers as a response to the rampant violence and corruption plaguing Russian law enforcement. “The first thing you want to do” when you see a police officer, Tolokno explains, “is to punch him in the face. But because I believe in nonviolence, I don’t do that, because it will cause more violence. So it’s a gesture of goodwill: I wanted to kiss the police instead of punching them in the face.” Male Voina members refused to participate in the action, so Tolokno gathered “a group of girls” who spent the next three months planting kisses on female officers—it took a while because it was so difficult to find women on the police force. “That was when we started to be not just political, but feminist,” Tolokno explains.
Pussy Riot came into being later that same year. Tolokno and a friend and fellow Voina member, Yekatrina (Katya) Samutsevich, had agreed to give a talk on punk feminism; while researching, they got into riot grrrl, and decided to make their own Russian punk feminist band. “We were listening to ‘Rebel Girl,’ the Bikini Kill song, and we basically just stole what they did,” Tolokno says, laughing. She and Samutsevich recorded their first song, “Kill the Sexist,” on their phones in Samutsevich’s bathroom at four a.m., while Samutsevich’s dad tried to get them to stop. “I think it was the proper environment for starting a punk band,” Tolokno says. “The sound quality was really shitty, and I’m so proud of it.”
Tolokno still draws a lot of inspiration from the American riot grrrl movement of the ’90s. “They empowered me a lot because I found out that you actually don’t have to be perfect to make music, to make art, to express your ideas,” she says. “I know it sounds pretty banal, but I know a lot of people who would just not trust themselves. They would say, ‘No, I couldn’t do art because I don’t have the proper technique.’ Fuck technique. If you have passion, if you have excitement, you can do art.”
After Pussy Riot was formed, there was no question that they would perform, and not just concerts. Pussy Riot—which had a fluctuating membership peaking at around a dozen women in 2012—performed a handful of times before the infamous church performance, staging two-minute shows in the Moscow subway, atop luxury stores, and, most notably, in Red Square. “We were coming from performance art backgrounds, so it was as natural as eating or pooping for us to make performances,” Tolokno says. “The difficult part was for us to make songs!”
The Red Square performance brought Pussy Riot some attention, but nothing close to the notoriety they received after Tolokno, Samutsevich, and Maria (Masha) Alyokhina were arrested and sentenced to two years in prison. (Samutsevich was released early; Tolokno and Alyokhina both served 21 months of their sentences.) Tolokno insists that the church performance was not their best. “For me, it was a big disaster, but more of an artistic disaster because I knew we could do better,” she says. “The action that I really loved was the one in Red Square. So when they arrested us, I was like, ‘Why did you arrest us for this action? It’s not the best. You could have picked a better one!’” She also expresses disappointment that Pussy Riot didn’t get to carry out their next planned performance at Parliament—where an unnamed Pussy Riot member worked. “When they arrested us, I wasn’t sad that I was losing my freedom,” Tolokno says. “I was sad that we weren’t going to be able to do the action in the Russian Parliament, because I expected that one to be really radical.”
“I was scared after I was attacked.... But you cannot allow your fear to make your life unproductive, and it was really important for me to keep doing my art.”
Once Tolokno landed in prison, however, the seriousness of her situation became much clearer. After a trial that lasted several months, Tolokno was separated from Alyokhina and sent to a notoriously harsh women’s penal colony called IK-14. During her time there, she went on a hunger strike over the prison’s brutal slave labor policies and smuggled letters out to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek (their correspondence was later compiled in the book Comradely Greetings). Because her mail was read, Tolokno had to be ingenious about writing her letters. She would compose them secretly while at her sewing machine, then “I would be going to see my lawyer and I had them in my panties,” she explains. “Sometimes there would be a search and they would take them from me and I would have to write another one. It was a time-consuming adventure.”
The experience was enough to break anyone, but speaking to Tolokno now, it appears to have only made her stronger. “When you don’t eat for some time, it works like a drug,” she says of the bravery she had to summon during the nine-day hunger strike that left her hospitalized. “You get the jitters. Creativity came to my prison cell and I understood that finding my creativity was my way to overcome. Another thought that really helped me when they would beat me and not allow me to eat or drink was that I had to go through difficult situations to get an understanding of how things really work. I started to think about my prison term as an important lesson for me.”
One would assume that after her release from prison, Tolokno would flee the country. But instead, she stayed, and still spends a significant amount of time in Russia, despite being attacked twice since her parole. Tolokno and other members of Pussy Riot were whipped by police when they attempted to stage a performance at the Sochi Olympics, and a month afterward, along with Alyokhina, she was attacked by a gang of men wielding garbage and spray paint, which temporarily damaged her eyes.
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Though Tolokno now considers herself a citizen of the world, she remains a presence in Russia as well, launching an independent media platform with other Pussy Riot members and working on prison reform. “I think it’s a natural thing for a human being to have some fear,” she says of her decision to stand her ground in her home country. “It’s a natural reaction; you would be dead if you did not have any fear. I was scared after I was attacked. For two months, if I was alone on the street and someone was approaching me, I would start to think about how I could run or how I could protect myself. But you cannot allow your fear to make your life unproductive, and it was really important for me to keep doing my art. Sometimes you just have to forget about it—or learn to protect yourself. Just go take boxing lessons.”
That fear may also be why Tolokno sees some positives in Trump’s election. “I love to fail, strangely,” she says, “because it gives me energy to fight and to understand more about the world I live in. I’ve never felt more politically engaged than I do now. Probably the only other time I felt this politically engaged was right before Vladimir Putin was about to be so-called elected for his third term.” She’s now reading up on political science and “trying to figure out what we can do with this new world we share with neoconservatives,” she says, naming not only Trump and Putin, but also France’s Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and Brexit. Her daughter Gera, now 8, also feeds her optimism. “She asked how long Trump will be in power, and I told her four years most likely,” Tolokno says. “She said, ‘That’s OK, I will be 12 years old then, and while he’s in power, we will do a lot of things to stop him from doing hurtful things to us.’”
Obviously, Gera isn’t alone. Millions of us want to do what we can to stop the Trump administration from doing hurtful things. And as a veteran of political uprising, Tolokno has some advice—get weird. “My strange punk advice is to mix everything that you know and everything that you care about into one thing, because I’m tired of all these conversations about art and politics. Why do you have to separate them?” she asks. “Think about the three weirdest things that come into your mind and then combine them into one artwork. If you keep it minimalistic and don’t add a lot of obstructing details, believe me, it will be good.”
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