The Spirited (and continued) Uprising of Pussy Riot

Given that for many Donald Trump’s message is less “Make America Great Again” and more “Grab them by the pussy,” it’s somewhat fitting that Pussy Riot are tackling his Presidency with their trademark punk-rock fervor. The infamous feminist group whose vocal criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin landed them in jail, have struck again, releasing a dark, new song entitled “Police State.”

Released on the anniversary of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, “Police State” continues Pussy Riot’s attack on Trump’s politics and features some notable cameos (Chloe Sevingy anyone?). However, a year on from "Make America Great Again” in which the activist envisaged a dystopian future for women if the real estate mogul won, this new music video takes aim at the growing similarities between Russia and America. Specifically, the way in which known world-over for his extreme methods of control and fondness for being shirtless outdoors, and our very own Donald Trump, associated with fake tan and now “fake news,” seek to exert their power as President. Not so subtly, Pussy Riot suggests that under their unfit leadership, and increasingly murky relationship, the world is crashing and burning– and we’re being forced to watch it.

Last year, we caught up with Nadya Tolokonnikova on LA's Venice Boardwalk where she discussed feminism and why prison liberated her.

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The following interview was featured in Issue One of Us of America.

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The first time I saw Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was when everyone else did, in 2012, sitting in a cube of bulletproof glass in a Moscow courtroom. She was with her comrades, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina; the three were members of a punk band called Pussy Riot. To this day, Pussy Riot has never toured, played in a club, or recorded an album, but their song, “Punk Prayer—Mother of God, Chase Putin Away,” performed on the apse of a Moscow cathedral, landed them there, behind the glass, in front of cameras, on the world stage.

The Pussy Riot trial was a jolt of color and madness. Although they faced charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” Nadya, Yekaterina and Masha were unafraid, petulant, magnificent. They looked like Manson girls—feral and fearless—Nadya, most of all. She faced the trial with a look of steely condescension only young women can truly master, as withering on the schoolyard as in the courtroom. In photographs, she clenched her fist and set her jaw, or else smirked, unimpressed by the full might of Putin’s juridical process, clearly the bravest, coolest girl in the world.

I promised myself I wouldn’t mention Nadya’s hair, but it’s too important. During the trial it was blown-out and curled under in the chin-length bob of queen bees everywhere. It was razor- straight, shampoo-commercial shiny. How could someone with such good hair be a political dissident? How could hair like that even be possible, when she and Maria and Yekaterina were being shuttled from a holding cell to the courtroom every day, writing their remarkable closing statements with pencil nubbins on scraps of paper in the van, already wards of the state? Every follicle was a further act of defiance, a refusal to be seen on anything but her own terms.

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At the labor camp in Mordovia where they eventually put her, Nadya wore her hair tied back in a kerchief. When you’re working brutal hours at ancient sewing machines making police uniforms, you don’t want to get your hair in your eyes. Nadya was so horrified by working conditions in the Soviet-era gulag that she went on a hunger strike and was hospitalized. It seemed for a time that the system would swallow her alive, but Nadya is a bitter pill. By the time she had been digested, end to end, she knew the bowels of Russian crime and punishment from the inside-out, and came out with a vengeance, focused on what she had experienced most vividly: the penal system and the press.

Within a year of their release—an amnesty granted months before the Sochi Olympics—Nadya and Masha founded a prisoner’s rights NGO, Zona Prava, and a media company, Nova Zona, which reports from the gap created by government restrictions on independent media in Russia. Building new institutions, as Nadya has told most anybody listening over the last two years, is the only way to subvert the old ones.

Our idea was to be superheroes who will never be caught. It was so disappointing when they put us in jail—not because we lost our personal freedom, but because we lost this myth.

As the only unmasked members of the band, Nadya and Masha have become political celebrities, fêted (and funded) by the Western liberal elite, palling with everyone from Slavoj Žižek to Banksy. They crossed the world like “crazy horses,” starred in an episode of House of Cards icing a Putin stand-in, and have released music videos for songs about Eric Garner (“I Can’t Breathe”) and Russia’s embattled general prosecutor Yuri Chaika (“Chaika”). Nadya endorsed Bernie Sanders and spoke at the International Students For Liberty Conference wearing anti-Trump boxer shorts under her dress.

The second time I see Nadya, she rolls up in an Uber from Hollywood wearing yellow heart- shaped sunglasses and a kid’s raccoon cap, carrying her things in a backpack. She’s feeling herself. She has this husky voice and a way of being in her body that’s totally arresting. At some point during our interview, which meanders the more iced coffee we drink, we’re discussing the ethics of punk rock, and she pulls out her phone to show me a picture she had posted to Instagram that week. The photos is of her own middle and pointer fingers, dripping wet, above a tangle of sheets and her bare knees. “That’s DIY,” she says gleefully. That’s DIY.

Two years in a Siberian work camp will do that to you. It’s not that, before jail, she was too punk for pleasure. She just didn’t have time for it. Pussy Riot may have appeared to the West in a fever dream in 2012, but Nadya had been tossing the proverbial tampon for years. In the mid-oughts, as a member of the street-art group Voina, she fucked her husband Pyotr Verzilov in Moscow’s Timiryazev State Museum of Biology for an anti-Medvedev protest piece called “Fuck for the Baby Bear Heir!” But, like throwing live cats into a McDonalds or kissing cops on the street, sex was an action among many—a means to a political end.

“I didn’t care about sex at all before prison,” she tells me. “I was, like, ‘I will care just about revolution. I will rebel against sex—I will not have it.’ ” Sex was “too Freudy,” and the pleasures of life all “too bourgeois.” She could live on rice alone, and she could squat, as she did in the Voina years, in an automobile garage.

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“Nerdy activist,” she explains. “Pretending to be a revolutionary.”

“So you’re not pretending anymore?” I ask.

“I am revolutionary,” she answers. “Maybe it’s the only one identity which I could keep. I don’t pretend. I am.”

When Nadya is on a particularly good riff, she has a tendency to pick a focal point about thirty degrees off from your brow and hold there, gazing into the middle distance as she talks. It’s tempting to try and meet her eyes, but what she really seems to want is to be beheld, in three-quarter profile, like a portrait etched on money. I don’t pretend; I am. Print it.

She has learned to enjoy things. Food isn’t only a vector for protest. She eats, and enjoys it. She drinks wine. Sex isn’t bourgeois; it’s an art form. She is less bound by language, by the dogmas of punk rock. Instead, she lives ever-questioning herself and her collaborators, talking sharing experiences. That’s something she learned in jail, too—how to talk openly with people different than herself. Her politics don’t starve her life. Instead, her life is enriched by her politics.

When I ask her if sometimes she doesn’t just want to write a song about nothing, about love, she says yes, all the time, but her love is political, too, and “once you open this box you will never close it.” She’s free now, but prison is what liberated her.

Siberia, Nadya tells me, is shaped like a dick. The balls graze the steppes of Mongolia, and the head reaches above the Arctic circle—which is where she grew up, in Norilsk, an industrial town that would be unlivable were it not for the rich stores of copper, nickel and cobalt beneath the permafrost. The wealth of the mines account for 2 percent of Russia’s GDP, but the spoils are hard-won. Temperatures in Norilsk drop below 25 degrees Celsius during the long midnight, between November and January, when the sun never hovers above the horizon. “The whole idea of this city is to bring people to the place where people are not supposed to live,” she explains, “and make them pollute the Earth.” That Nadya was hardy enough to survive the gulag is due in no small part to her upbringing here, in one of the most brutal cities in the world. No small irony that Norilsk was built on prison labor; it was a center of the Soviet-era gulags. In the early 20th century, 16,806 prisoners—mostly political—died of cold and starvation developing the mines. After the death of Stalin, the gulag prisoners of Norilsk went on strike, organizing a peaceful “uprising of the spirit” that would last longer than any other attempt to overthrow the gulag system. In the long shadow of this history, Nadya read Aristotle and dreamt of the city.

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Norilsk “was the reason I became political in the first place,” she says. Those working the mines today face unusually high rates of cancer, lung disease, and depression; they must retire early. The natural environment, within a 20-mile radius of the industrial operations, is dead. As a teenager, Nadya wanted to write an article about it all. The local paper had published her previous stories—but this time they refused. When told her they wouldn’t publish anything on the subject, Nadya awoke to the Russian media censorship she fights tooth-and-nail even now. At eighteen, she escaped to Moscow to study philosophy at Moscow State University, where she developed the brew of Russian actionist art, riot grrrl, and old-school leftist radicalism that would grow more potent with each Pussy Riot performance. She never went back.

Pussy Riot’s first music video, in 2011, was for a song called “Release the Cobblestones.” To film it, they staged a series of two dozen actions in the Moscow subways. For each, they would climb scaffolds or clamber to the top trolley cars, and perform their song while tearing apart pillows and showering the feathers onto dumbfounded passers-by. In the grey haze of snow and the cold fluorescent light of the underground, their colorful tights and balaclava were otherworldly. Even though they were arrested after almost every action, they told nobody.

“Our idea was to be superheroes who will never be caught,” Nadya explains. “It was so disappointing when they put us in jail—not because we lost our personal freedom, but because we lost this myth.”

Pussy Riot was not untouchable. Like anybody in Putin’s Russia, they could be dominated, intimidated, even disappeared. They could be paraded in front of the world in a show trial and shunted off to the gulag. But what nobody anticipated was their fortitude. Even though Nadya wears the scars of Mordovia on her body, she is as impermeable as the Siberian winters that forged her strength. And the myth of Pussy Riot’s indomitability is hardly lost. They are the girls with good hair and wild hearts who faced Putin and won. I’ll take that over a superhero any day.

 

Issue One of Us of America is still available to purchase and currently half price! 

 

Words: Claire Evans