Politics

“I Think Trump Could Be Useful”

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova on transgender inclusion, finding hope in dark times, and what Vladimir Putin has in common with Donald Trump.

Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in Asheville, North Carolina on May 22, 2018.
Pussy Riot at an event in Asheville, North Carolina on May 22, 2018.
Sarah Dearmon

If the people who came to see Pussy Riot in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night were expecting an electro-punk show, they were in for a little surprise first: a slideshow. As a scrambled, anonymized voice narrated over the club’s sound system, a numbered list of facts about global income inequality flickered on a projection screen, along with the knit balaclavas that the Russian art collective made famous.

“The rich consider their fates as independent from the societies from which they extract their wealth,” the voice said. “Putin’s old friends became billionaires during his rule.” There were boos from the crowd. “Sharing wealth is the best antidote to populism.” Then came the cheers. “Inclusivity and equality is what we need.”

The intro functioned like a hype-person revving up a crowd before a political rally, and though it was partially focused on Russia, it could have been site-specific. The venue, the Black Cat, is a gritty 25-year-old show space that’s seen its 14th Street neighborhood transform from a common sex-work corridor populated by cheap takeout places, to a hip restaurant row, to a box-store shopping district with a West Elm and a J. Crew. Developers in the area have shimmied out of requirements to include affordable housing units in their buildings; a few years ago, an area political leader was convicted of assaulting a homeless man he accused of “dirtying up the streets.”

The broad relevance of Pussy Riot’s capacious socialist, feminist vision is essential to its current body of work. After two members, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, spent two years in a remote Russian jail for performing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral, they became advocates for political prisoners the world over. In recent years, Pussy Riot has released songs that speak just as much, if not more, to the American political landscape than to the Russian one. The video for 2017’s “Police State” intersperses scenes where actors in American cop uniforms beat up Pussy Riot members with footage from U.S. white nationalist protests and a Trump-Putin meeting. Just a few weeks before the 2016 election, the group released “Make America Great Again,” a strangely sexualized depiction of the types of women Trump hates. At one point during Pussy Riot’s D.C. event, one of the last dates of a North American tour that began in March, the sentence “My president replaced his dick with an ICBM” scrolled across the screen—a universal sentiment if ever there were one.

Wednesday’s show also included catchy tunes about police brutality (“bad apples are good for something / when they’re 6 feet underground”), respect for women (“don’t play stupid don’t play dumb / vagina’s where you’re really from”), and oppressive beauty standards (“you want to change me / I say I love my pimples”). Every song had its own video—some with singalong lyrics or drawings of fluorescent-toned vulvas—which played while masked Pussy Riot members jumped and danced around in front of the screen. On Thursday, I talked to Tolokonnikova on the phone about the “activist messiah complex,” transgender inclusion in feminist movements, and Bernie Sanders.

Is it true that this is your first U.S. tour?

Yes, but I don’t normally put it in these words—we call it an event, more like political events or rallies. We’re just traveling and talking to people, building connections with like-minded people in America.

How have audiences received you?

It is very different town to town, but I would say it’s really inspirational, because we were able to connect with different political groups. We were trying to connect in every place with a local political organization. So in Chicago, we connected with a group that’s called Reclaim Chicago, a grassroots super-inspirational movement. Their mission is to involve people who are not normally involved in politics, who don’t believe that politics can really affect their lives and change something. So they’re trying to give them tools to affect the local political field, starting from local and going to federal stuff. It was really great to learn some things from them. And I was really amazed to see all these articulate people who are fighting for LGBTQ values and diversity, and who are standing against economic equality, which is a big issue for Pussy Riot. Because, you know, I see a lot in common between the United States and Russia in terms of economic inequality. They’re two of the most unfortunately unequal countries.

Yeah, I noticed that was a major focus of the slides at the beginning of your show.

That’s something that is missing from mainstream political discourse in Russia and in United States and in Europe. You can’t see it in most mainstream media, the problem of division between people who got everything from the current economic system and the those who got nothing, the have-nots. We talk a lot about other issues, but not that much about this one. But I think for more and more people, they are getting informed about this issue and finding politicians who are defining themselves as socialists. That means that for the population of our countries, this issue is becoming more important. As political artists, we think we have to support people and reflect on those issues.

You also brought out one enormous flag toward the end of the event—a transgender flag.

Yes. In Pussy Riot, at the very beginning, it was an important point to support transgender rights. So that’s why we were waving this flag. We don’t see the difference between male and female, we think everybody has part of that in them.

How do your trans-rights politics intersect with Pussy Riot’s identity as, as some have called it, a female separatist group? Has there ever been any conflict in the group as to whether its mission encompasses trans women or nonbinary people?

We’ve never actually had conflict about that because we believe you don’t actually have to have a vagina or clitoris to be a woman, and having a clitoris doesn’t necessarily make you a woman. So it’s more about supporting groups of people who are traditionally called minorities—who are not actually minorities, if you think about the amount of people who are part of these groups. But they’ve been oppressed throughout their whole history, and that’s our mission, to support them, and give voice to them. We are always saying that anybody can be in Pussy Riot, and we really mean it. You don’t have to necessarily be born as a woman to be feminist or to be part of Pussy Riot.

I know that’s been a point of contention in U.S. women’s movements—at the Women’s March, for instance, some people were saying that the pink “pussyhats,” which I believe Pussy Riot helped inspire, excluded trans women.

It’s very crucial to stand up for women’s rights, but I’m against an essentialist interpretation of gender. I personally belong to tradition of queer thinking and queer theory. Judith Butler was my intellectual mentor when I was studying in the university and exploring different genders. I wasn’t in contact with her at that time, but I would catch every moment to get her book while I was in New York, and then I would bring those books to Russia and translate it to my fellow students. I don’t believe that having certain types of genitalia defines your identity.

I know you said you don’t describe what you’re doing as a tour, and [your press person] warned me a couple of times before the show that I shouldn’t expect a band, that Pussy Riot is an art collective that doesn’t play instruments. But your U.S. events are held in clubs that usually host music acts. Do audiences ever show up expecting to see more of a traditional concert or punk show?

People who come to see Pussy Riot, most of them, I don’t think they support us or want to see us because of our music. Our music is different, we kind of defy genre in what Pussy Riot is working on, because we are making pop songs, we are making electronic music, and hardcore tracks—so I don’t think the genre of music and the form of music lies in the core of Pussy Riot. I know that people who are coming to our events, most of them are aware of that, and they are coming to get some political inspiration and political energy—and maybe even more important, to meet like-minded people in their own community and their own city.

In the future, we are planning to perform in different kinds of venues, including museums and public spaces more. We were talking with Marina Abramović, who we are friends with, and she suggested that maybe we want to apply the Abramović Method to what Pussy Riot is trying to create. Marina is taking the audience, and she is making a deal with them that they have to give her six hours of their time and they cannot leave earlier. She’s trying to prepare people mentally for different sorts of art. Not just an entertainment piece of art, not just a music performance or something, but she’s trying to prepare them for creating something, a piece of contemporary art. Maybe we’ll collaborate with her in a museum or in a warehouse, where Marina Abramović will help us to prepare the audience to investigate not just entertainment, but art.

How closely did you follow U.S. politics before Donald Trump was elected?

We were more interested in activist groups—groups for women’s rights or transgender rights or socialist groups—so we didn’t know politics that much on the mainstream level. We were much more concerned with what’s going on in Russia. But when Donald Trump was elected, we started to find out that actually we see a lot of similarities between Trump’s attitude toward the press, toward political opponents, and what we see in Russia. We still try to focus more on Russian domestic issues. But at the same time, yeah, it is important to see global politics as the whole thing, because what happens in one part of the earth affects what’s going on in others.

Did it surprise you that America would elect this populist, wannabe authoritarian leader who’s in some ways similar to Putin?

You know, after Bernie Sanders didn’t become the candidate, I started to feel that it may happen. And a lot of my friends from activist fields in America felt the same. It was really not a smart move of the Democratic Party to dump Bernie Sanders, because he was talking to those people who, some of them ended up being Trump supporters just because they didn’t want to follow Hillary Clinton’s mainstream liberal economic agenda. I thought that Sanders really had a chance, but once he didn’t become the candidate, I had this feeling. I saw a lot of distrust in liberal economic politics among young people in the U.S. And not just in the U.S. If you look at Europe, you’ll see the same. That’s why Brexit happened, that’s why populists are getting more and more votes in European countries like Hungary or Czech Republic.

So as someone who saw Vladimir Putin be in power for 18 years, I felt like lots of people on the left in America didn’t think that Trump actually could be a president, and so for that reason, they refused to make political action. So once Trump was elected, all those people understood that, actually, you have to fight for your [rights] every day, as your daily job as a citizen. So in that sense, I think Trump could be useful for getting more motivation to citizens to participate in politics.

I feel like the Women’s March is a sign that all those people who were shocked, they decided together to mobilize as a political community. They got on streets in multiple American cities and they celebrated each other, and they really understood that, together, they can be a power. But before Trump was elected, I felt like they were really isolated in their individual selves and didn’t have enough motivation to connect with each other. Now you see political activists trying to push their local elections, really getting into electoral process, which is amazing. It’s part of something new, maybe a new progressive politics here in the United States.

You’ve done a lot of advocacy for the rights of people in prison, and a lot of the songs in your D.C. show had to do with cops. I wonder how you see the relationship or solidarity between your struggle for political prisoners in Russia and prison-abolition advocacy in the U.S., where racism and racial disparities are the main issue.

I remember when we came to Rikers Island in 2014 to see Cecily McMillan, who was an Occupy Wall Street protester. It was actually pretty crazy—we were in Washington talking to senators and congressmen in the U.S. about Russian political prisoners, and we wanted to get their help to free them. Then we read about Cecily McMillan, who supposedly elbowed a police officer who grabbed her by the breast while arresting her. At the time she was facing up to seven years in jail, and it shocked us, because we were facing up to seven years in jail for the song that we made. So we jumped on a plane from Washington to New York and we came to see Cecily in Rikers Island. And there, we were shocked by the fact that we were, me and my colleagues, the only white people in the line of visitors. The rest of them were Latinos and black people. And I understood then how much racial segregation is still very much the case in America.

Do you have any advice for activists who are trying to avoid feeling hopeless about this sort of seemingly intractable movement they’re up against?

That’s really hard, and it’s something that you have to fight within yourself basically every morning that you’re waking up. You have to find courage and strength in yourself to fight that. There is what they call activist messiah complex: when you think it’s enough to show up for the one rally, or two rallies, or three, in order to make the world a better place. Instead, what you have to admit and embrace is that you have to follow your principles, follow your ideas. Try to study those, and try to study your message, and act according to your ideas and principles right here and right now, no matter what’s happening around. Things may get worse. But you still have to stick to your principles. That’s what gives you hope, and you start to notice small changes that are happening around you. You start to see people who you were able to motivate to be involved in politics, in political art.

When we were released from prison, we started this initiative to help prisoners, and obviously we were trapped in this messiah complex for a while. We thought, “Oh, right now, once we were released from prison, we will be able to change the whole prison system in Russia.” Meanwhile, after one year working on project, we realize the most we can do is just to help certain people who are calling to our hotline. We can help them individually. We can help this woman who has a strange form of cancer to get out of jail and have treatment and freedom. We can help her to file a complaint to European Court of Human Rights and help get her money from Russian government so she can get medication. So when you are focusing on the details, they actually give you strength and courage to just move on and keep doing your work.

Have you seen any political or social changes in Russia in recent years that make you hopeful?

First of all, the rallies that happened in previous years and this year, a lot of the people I see at the rallies, like the last one on 5th of May, it happened right before Putin was inaugurated as president. What gives me hope is the persistency of those people. I saw different groups coming together, and they are able to not pay much attention on their differences, but decided to act together against authoritarian system. There was liberal activists, socialist activists, even some right-wing activists. They are finding strength in themselves to act together.

In the future, obviously, when we get a better parliament, when we get real working democracy, we’re prepared to argue with each other. But now we have to somehow overcome Putin, we have to make political system work for people, not just for the few oligarchs that are controlling everything in our country. And more and more young people are showing up to those protests.

I was really impressed seeing 13-, 14-year-old kids on those streets, and police were arresting them, sometimes with the use of violence. And that means that the government is seeing what I see too: that young people are not happy with what’s going on in this country. They are our future. So maybe not in the next five years, but maybe in the next 10 years we are seeing more and more people growing up who spent all their life with Vladimir Putin. They will see that he actually didn’t bring anything he promised to bring, like stability, economic prosperity. He brought just extreme inequality, grotesque amount of corruption on all levels. From police stations to the highest level of government. Young people are not blind—they see the injustice. And that gives me hope.