Interview: Nadya Tolokonnikova

It’s been 8 years since Pussy Riot burst into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow – since that time, many things have changed, and the movement itself keeps constantly growing. We talked to Nadya Tolokonnikova—whose name is one of the most associated with the movement—about activism, current organization of Pussy Riot and fresh EP inspiration.

Pussy Riot released a new song 1312, almost painfully fitting to the current situation of uprising against police violence against Black people, just at the end of the last month – make sure to give it a listen!

 

 

Pussy Riot has a long history. Lately appearing at both large international music festivals amongst big music names, while also staging protests like crashing the World Cup. Combining touring with music acts and social performances must be hard, how does Pussy Riot manage to do that?

Pussy Riot has different branches, our start was not as a music band. We wanted to become an international movement, a feminist movement in the first place. Actually, our goal was even more ambitious: we wanted to create a whole new genre that other performance artists all around the globe could use to identify their art. And there are many people who are influenced by us but are not a part of Pussy Riot, like, for example, Katrin Nenasheva or Petr Pavlensky who actually did some decent actions before he became an ethically wrong person. We also consider Mediazona (Медиазона) as a part of Pussy Riot; it is an alternative media outlet we started back in 2014 when we were released from jail, as well as our prisoners’ rights initiative Zone of Justice (Зона Права). So Pussy Riot is a very broad term for a broad spectrum of activism. Nowadays we have a bunch of people operating in the movement and that’s awesome.

Yeah, and we can really hear about that worldwide. Speaking of the scale of action, would you describe yourself as a local hero or global fighter?

I don’t like to describe myself as a “hero” in general, it’s a super ambitious term, I like a “fighter” a little bit more. But speaking of local vs global, I was deeply formed by alter-globalization demonstrations triggered by the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. When it started to happen I was just a teen. I love the idea of combining local and global in your method. Our modern world gives us the opportunity to act locally and translate it though global media, to present ourselves the way we want to. This aspect was lacking when I was growing up, I had to move to Moscow in order to make art and politics I feel comfortable with. Nowadays the situation is different, it’s much more easy for kids from all around the country, from cities like, for example, Krasnojarsk, Norilsk, Novokuznetsk, or Tomsk, to create local identities and speak about themselves globally by using social media in a smart way. So, I support this local-global approach.

 

 

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From your experience, thinking about other artists and activists as well, do you think art is an appropriate “form of protest” to address political issues?

Egocentrically, art to me, first of all, is a therapy. I collect anger and aggression caused by some private issues I have or by public issues, by that I mean the world we live in, and transform it into art. Like, for instance, I definitely don’t want to kill anyone IRL – that’s why I sing about killing people or so, these ones who hurt me, some domestic violence issues. That’s my first personal motivation to create art.

But speaking of art as an appropriate form of a protest… I believe it can. Just think about France in 1968, artists and philosophers who joined the liberation movement and basically shaped the aesthetics of this whole thing, and now one can say we live in the world that is defined by those aesthetics. As someone who was growing up learning about that, and was deeply inspired by these aesthetics, I feel like art has a power to shape the world in a way that politics don’t necessarily have. So you need to think about the most comfortable way for you to make an impact. Nobody can replace Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because she is just a queen in what she is doing but we also have Marina Abramović who is irreplaceable in her own way. So… I would say just listen to your instincts? And don’t try to be overly rational, trust “your own god”. I really trust my instincts, sometimes it would lead me to jail, other times it really helped me.

Do your instincts also help you to choose topics you cover in your music art, or how do you do that?

Rather impulsive. And irrational. And intuitive. I have a whole frame of issues I really care about ever since I became an activist. For example, feminism, police brutality, prosecution of political activists, freedom of speech. And when I see something I am deeply touched by for one or another reason – I make a piece of art about it.

 

 

When it comes to music, these pieces of art used to be “punk-rock”, but now, you rather express yourself through “pop” music. Why that switch?

Well, Pussy Riot was never punk-rock really. Let’s put it like that: I started to make music in 2015, and before that, Pussy Riot was an art movement, so all the songs we made then, they are awesome, but we never really treated them as actual “songs”. I was always interested in creating electronic music rather than punk-rock. Since 2015, I’ve been focusing more on political protest music and it’s mainly electronic, even though I use all sorts of genres and approaches you can imagine. Because why the fuck not? We are free and we can do whatever we want. I recently had a talk about that with one friends of mine who makes hardcore music and sometimes she feels like she actually wants to make pop, because we really love pop, stuff like Charli XCX and so. But people in our position are expected to create puck or hardcore, really dark stuff. And, in fact, when we make pop, this is the most “punk” thing to do because everyone is annoyed by it, it does not fulfil their expectations from us. That’s how I feel about KNIFE and that’s pretty fucking awesome.

That sounds very rebellious. In fact, for many, many people you are known as “the rebel”, which can have both positive and negative connotations. What is it like to be labelled that? Do you ever feel pressured?

I enjoy being a rebel, it gives me an extreme amount of freedom to do stuff other people can’t. I can say whatever I wanna say, but I always follow my own ethical guidelines. I mean, you can be a free person but it doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole. And if sometimes I feel like I don’t want to be a rebel, I just don’t do it, that’s the part of doing whatever you want. To be an activist you don’t have to fulfil anyone’s standards, even if it’s standards of, let’s say, the punk community. Like, I was given of shit for not looking like a punk, not acting punk enough, not speaking like a punk, not making music punk enough, for giving a speech at the European Parliament. Fuck it! I didn’t join the protest/rebel community to be censored by anyone. Now I am 30 years old and I’ve surrounded myself with an international community of people who let each other be as free as possible, who help each other to grow, blossom and develop in every direction she, he or they want.

 

 

Coming back to KNIFE, what’s behind the new EP?

Inspo for this EP was my own experience with domestic violence. I was in an abusive relationship, it took one year and a half of my life. It was really difficult to get out of, and once I did, I was totally broken and devastated. I felt like I needed to express my anxiety and anger through something, and to also tell others about my experience so they won’t repeat my mistakes. The best thing you can do to fully heal is to speak it out, to show how you are coping. Other people can learn a lot from you. I tried this approach with my prison experience for the first time and it really worked, we helped a bunch of people. I did the same thing with KNIFE. Well, now you are the one who decides if it worked or not, but from my side, I definitely got a relief. So maybe that would also be my advice to these who went through abusive relationships or any other dramatic experiences – try, if you can, to use it as a platform for helping others. When you feel like there is nothing you can do, you are totally lost and your life is falling apart… It might be hard, but try to think about someone who you can actually help and once you do so, you probably will start to care less about your own problems. And you will also have a chance to experience this joy of solidarity. That always worked for me, maybe it will work for you too.

Pussy Riot: Instagram
Nadya Tolokonnikova: Instagram
Interview: Polina Korneeva
Artwork: Sonya the Moon

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