Pussy Riot’s Nadya Interview: “There’s No Reverse Sexism – Meninists Can Fuck Off”

SSarah Silverman stands on stage at the historic El Rey Theater in Los Angeles, a crisp white balaclava pulled unevenly over her head. It pushes her nose over her face like she’s making a cast from a Picasso. “I put it on in a hurry,” jokes the comedian, but her introduction to the night’s headline is as sincere as it gets. “They fight for you. You took your time. They keep their word. They’re not afraid of anyone,” Silverman proclaims. “They are Pussy Riot!”

With these words, 32-year-old musician and activist Nadya Tolokonnikova struts into the spotlight. She wears vintage lingerie, ripped fishnet stockings and dizzying knee high pink boots. Over the next hour and a half, flanked by two balaclava-clad backup dancers, she sings from the mosh pit, cracks a whip and twerks with New Orleans bounce music legend Big Freedia. She starts by simply asking, “Are you ready to riot?”

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, on August 17, 2012, Tolokonnikova was sentenced to two years in a remote penal colony as one of three members of the radical feminist performance art collective Pussy Riot. Their crime was to protest Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency by going into Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and dancing around the altar to the strains of their “Punk Prayer,” a cacophonous song titled “Mother God drive out Putin”.

The trial made headlines around the world and earned the trio support from Madonna, Björk and Paul McCartney. But the global attention has done nothing to improve the conditions they faced. In September 2013, Tolokonnikova was hospitalized after a five-day hunger strike to protest human rights violations in the penal colony in Mordovia. The following year, shortly after her release, Tolokonnikova traveled to the Sochi Winter Olympics to perform another Pussy Riot punk protest anthem, “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland.” For their trouble, the group was attacked by Cossack militias and beaten with horse whips.

Of course, Tolokonnikova, who has since spoken out against Putin on and off, is made of unbreakable material, but she also has a lighter side. As we chat via video call just before the show at El Rey, she’s relaxing at home with a lithe black cat named Ovchuk. Laughing, she points out that Pussy Riot never intended to be known as a punk band. “We chose punk rock for the first few songs just because we thought it was funny,” she says. “I’ve never played guitar, and none of the core members of Pussy Riot have ever played a punk rock instrument. I like punk culture and punk ethos, but I don’t really listen to punk music that much.” For Tolokonnikova, punk is more of a rebellious attitude than a specific sound. “I’m being crucified by so many punks now,” she says. “But if you think you’re punk just because you’re repeating something people did in the ’70s, I’m sorry to say that you’re not punk. You are a clone.”

Today, Pussy Riot sounds very different from the short, sharp screams that first caught the world’s attention. In the years since her release, Tolokonnikova has released a string of one-off singles that infused Pussy Riot’s message into pop and electronic music. In 2016, just before Donald Trump’s election, she released the prickly protest track Make America Great Again, while last year she teamed up with Welsh pop artist Marina Diamandis for Purge the Poison. Now she’s releasing a Pussy Riot mixtape for the first time. matriarchy now, a seven-track release that features collaborations with LA rapper iLoveMakonnen, Texan singer Phoebe Ryan and rising Missouri pop star Slayyyter. That this debut collection coincides with the 10th anniversary of her incarceration is more coincidence than design, she says. “There’s no big idea behind it,” she says soberly. “I’ve collected a lot of songs about sloppy femdom superheroes.”

That would explain the lingerie, the fishnet stockings and the whip. “That’s how I carry myself in the world,” Tolokonnikova explains her stylized look. “I find it really effective because it breaks a number of stereotypes about gender, sexuality and power. For me as a feminist, dominatrix culture is a really potent source of inspiration because it turns the models of oppression that have been applied to us for ages on their head on their head. Femdom culture requires the consent of everyone involved. This is in stark contrast to the classic patriarchal model where women, or anyone who is not a cis, straight white male, were never asked if they wanted to be in a submissive position.”

Tolokonnikova before her court hearing in Moscow, August 2012

(Natalia Koleskikova/AFP/Getty)

Tracks like recent single “Plastic” – which reflects on the objectification of women and was accompanied by a music video depicting Tolokonnikova as a little boy’s doll – are Tolokonnikova’s way of playfully challenging gender roles. “Another thing I love about the BDSM and femdom culture is that they talk a lot about play,” she adds. “It reveals a lot about the nature of human interaction. This is very close to my understanding of gender because I’m a big fan of the performance theory of gender developed by Judith Butler and others. By playing different sets of roles, you show and solidify your gender, but that means you can change it, too, because it’s performative.”

Tolokonnikova’s turn to the look and sound of pop is also closely tied to her earliest musical influences. She was born on November 7, 1989 in Norilsk, a Russian industrial city so far north that it lies within the Arctic Circle. Two years later the Soviet Union ended. Growing up in Russia in the 1990s, it wasn’t the male-dominated world of rock and metal that drew her, but the promise and potential of pop. “I was born right at the beginning of a new era, so I saw pop as revolutionary music,” she says. “It sounded, looked and represented something very different than what mainstream culture represented during the Soviet era. It was a sign of renewed hope and related to the rise of queer culture and our opening up to the world for the first time in a century. To be honest, our punk rock and metal scene was a lot more bro-y and I’ve always been attracted to androgynous guys who wear makeup.”

matriarchy now is a juxtaposition disc that mixes sugary vocals with provocative lyrics about sex work and gender norms. It shares its title with June’s Pussy Riot protest, where the band unveiled a giant banner reading “Matriarchy Now” at the Texas State Capitol. Actions like these are just one way Tolokonnikova turned her beliefs into something tangible after the coup Deer vs Wade. “I wasn’t surprised because to me, objectively, it’s a direct consequence of Trump serving as President. It’s just a bomb that took a second to detonate,” says Tolokonnikova. “I don’t really like to talk about my feelings because I’m such an action-oriented person. It does no one any good, not even yourself, to just sit around depressed. Which is my standard by the way! I’ve suffered from depression since getting out of prison, so it takes tremendous effort to actually get me back into action.”



I think they understand Putin quite clearly now. He’s just a fucking dictator and a terrorist

Nadia Tolokonnikova

Her work gets results and she has a keen eye for innovative ways to raise money for causes she believes in. She explains that the demonstration at the Texas State Capitol was the first protest performance artwork imprinted on blockchain. “We raised some money with that, and we will continue to raise money with whatever means we have,” she says. “We have raised $350,000 (£288,000) for reproductive rights so far and 100 per cent of that proceeds have gone to seven organizations including Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and other organizations that help people access abortions, when they are in states where abortion is illegal.”

Onstage at the El Rey, Tolokonnikova delivers a speech that draws a line from her own church protests about the influence of the religious right on American politics. A decade after her first protests against Putin, she says the western world has finally realized what she was trying to warn people about. “I think they understand him pretty well now,” she says. “He’s just a fucking dictator and a terrorist.”

Tolokonnikova in a still from Pussy Riot’s ‘Plastic’: ‘Dominatrix culture is a really powerful source of inspiration for me as a feminist’

(Pussy Riot)

Given all she’s been through, Tolokonnikova’s ability to stay motivated and engaged is inspiring, but she says everyone has a role to play. “You can choose your own unique path,” she says. “Let’s say you follow Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s incredibly public. She loves talking to people and is really great at public speaking. Let’s assume you’re not. Let’s say you’re an introvert who doesn’t like giving speeches. The next thing some people would think is, oh, I’m useless because I can’t be as effective a politician and activist as AOC. That is not true. You can contribute in your own way – but the bad news is that it’s up to you to find your way!” She laughs. “How do I motivate myself? Well, I think being depressed helps in a weird way, to be honest. It strengthens the muscles I use every day to stay afloat. I have too many people relying on me to let me sink into depression, so I think this has trained me to challenge myself and come up with simple, actionable steps I can do every day to stay active and make sure I don’t fall and never wake up.”

It also helps, she says, if you can remember to laugh. Take matriarchy now, for example. She knows it’s a slogan that will drive people nuts. “People regularly write comments on my social networks: ‘Why do you want to replace one model of oppression with another?'” she says. “Well, first of all, there is no such thing as reverse sexism. All these Meninists can just go and fuck off. I don’t think matriarchy is an inversion of patriarchy. When we talk about systemic oppression, these are things that have formed over thousands of years. We can’t just undo that, but what we can do with these systems of oppression is mock them, deconstruct them, and analyze them. That’s what I do matriarchy now. It’s a mockery of existing models of oppression, and I think humor is a really good resource for activists. As we like to say at Pussy Riot, the worst crimes against humanity are committed by people who take themselves too seriously.”

Pussy Riot’s “Matriarchy Now” is available now

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/pussy-riot-nadya-tolokonnikova-interview-matriarchy-now-b2144332.html Pussy Riot’s Nadya Interview: “There’s No Reverse Sexism – Meninists Can Fuck Off”

JOE HERNANDEZ

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