Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot on Art and Activism Through Rebellion

“Art and activism — I think it’s been therapeutic for me. I’m depressed because of all the horrible political things I have experienced. Art helps me — once I was thinking I just want to cut my wings — I don’t want to be alive anymore. So I decided to make a song out of it.” 

Meet Nadya Tolokonnikova: founding member of Pussy Riot, artist, and activist, who was invited to Swarthmore as part of the Cooper Series’ event “Activism Under Totalitarianism.” Decked out with a spiked, choker necklace, long white nails, a neon green sweatshirt, and a matching green scrunchie, Tolokonnikova filled the room with her presence the moment she walked in. As she glanced around smiling, the black gemstones pressed under her eyes glimmered in the light. Tolokonnikova was visiting for a candid conversation about her life, the first of a two-part event revolving around her experiences and art as one of the founders of Pussy Riot — a Russian protest group formed in 2011 in response to the dictatorial rule of Vladimir Putin. Their main form of protest? Unauthorized punk rock performances throughout Moscow.

Tolokonnikova and two other members of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were imprisoned after once such performance. After singing a punk prayer titled “Holy Sh*t” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the three women were arrested for “hooliganism motivated by apparent religious hatred.” Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich were found guilty and sentenced to two years in a penal colony. Since their release from prison, members of the collective continued their controversial performances in such high profile events as the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where group members were violently attacked by state militia.  

Considering all of Tolokonnikova’s life experiences, it was inspiring to see her not only in good spirits, but cracking jokes and making the audience laugh. How, Russion Professor José Vergara asked, did she stay optimistic?

“Fish oil!” Tolokonnikova responded. “It’s a natural antidepressant.”

After the laughter for the audience died down, Tolokonnikova admitted how challenging it had been to remain optimistic after her experiences.

“I was diagnosed with depression the year I got out of prison,” Tolokonnikova revealed. “It’s not easy to be in an elevated mood when you have to deal with so much shit. In prison, you are fighting everyday to get back your life in the face of so much bad news. It’s really frustrating. The thing that helped me go through prison was to continue with activism. My goal was to make every day and every hour in prison meaningful.”

As she spoke, Tolokonnikova’s voice rose with passion, “I think we shouldn’t even have the word activist, we should all be activists; then we wouldn’t need the word activist — we would just be citizens.”

Tolokonnikova had been involved in many different forms of advocacy since a young age; at first, focusing primarily on feminism and environmental activism and later moving to include protests against corruption and for LGBTQ+ rights. Growing up in a town severely affected by climate change, she knew environmental action was more than a choice — it was a necessity. 

“People are just starting to realize that environmental issues are real. I came to EchoMoscow, [a Russian Radio station]  — and I mentioned climate change and they started to laugh at me; they said you really think that’s real? I came to activism through feminism and through environmental issues. It was something we couldn’t ignore because our snow is black. Rivers in my hometown turn red — really blood-red. But nobody has been held accountable for it. Normally officials don’t care about that because they live in Switzerland.”

Living in Russia, a state historically and presently associated with political oppression, Tolokonnikova was all too aware of how activists were dealt with. Going to prison, she explained, especially for an artist, was just part of the Russian tradition.

“Growing up in Russia you are just naturally immersed in this tradition. The things they accuse you of are so similar [to artists before you], and you’re just so mad that nothing’s really changed. I was always fascinated by people who had the courage to go to jail, because I was surrounded by them. Even when I was a kid — my grandma lives right across from prison — I would see the prison and ask ‘Grandma, what is in there? Can we help someone escape from there?’”

Tolokonnikova has visited prisons all over the world and, having experienced imprisonment firsthand, Tolokonnikova understands the power dynamics of the system.

“It’s always a choice, a conscious choice, between [treating people like] prisoners and [not] human beings.” Raising her voice and leaning forward, she explained, “It’s just natural for us to be assholes when we have power over others. That’s why we cannot give power to anybody, because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the prison, so many people were sadists. They were just turned on by having power over others. We need to [instead] make [social workers] in charge of correctional institutes.”

As far as her own experience in prison, Tolokonnikova found it difficult to explain. Looking down and tucking her hair behind her ear, she paused for a moment. A part of it, she said, came down to the Russian soul.

“There’s this idea that you have to suffer and go through pain to understand life. [Prison] was an experience of spiritual growth. But prison labour camp is an absolute hell on earth. It teaches you how to become a rat, how to become an entirely unethical person.”

After her own experience in prison, Tolokonnikova has struggled to see Moscow in the same light. Her view of Russia as a home has, inevitably, changed.

“I always knew that shit could hit the fan. I think I joked once, I want them to pick these photos (because I looked pretty) when I go to jail — funnily enough they did.” Biting her lip, she added, “It did not surprise me [going to jail]. But it definitely it changed my view of Moscow, riding through it in a police car. I think that experience changed how I view Moscow a lot. It made me want to learn more about Moscow’s history. It just made me want to learn more about history and to not repeat those mistakes [in history].”

As a member of the audience, and a Russian-American student, it’s hard to describe the great impact of her talk. Growing up Russian-American, I often found myself torn between the two cultures, unsure of where I fit in. Tolokonnikova, however, proved that the two have more in common than I thought, and both have room for passionate women to make an impact.

Tolokonnikova is clearly a brilliant, passionate, and powerful woman, and her talk only further revealed her depth and intellect. Her conversation with Professor Vergara was inspiring, and her passion for activism was infectious. Tolokonnikova’s experiences within a country which did all it could to silence her feel all the more relevant to the political climate today. And yet, despite all the difficulties she faced, Tolokonnikova continues to make political art. Though much of Russia’s future is uncertain, we can be certain of one thing — the power of rebellion.

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