Pussy Riot’s Tolokonnikova: ‘Russia wants me poisoned, dead, or in jail’

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Nadya Tolokonnikova, an artist and activist, was placed on Russia’s most wanted list in March. Weeks earlier, she had released an irreverent short film entitled Putin’s Ashes, in which a group of women from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, dressed in lingerie and wearing red balaclavas, press the nuclear button and set alight a 10-foot portrait of the Russian president. “Join our movement against the most dangerous living dictator on the planet,” reads the caption accompanying the three-minute clip. A co-founder of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist protest art collective formed in 2011, she was reportedly accused by Moscow of “insulting the religious feelings of believers”. She has recently spent much of her time focused on the conflict in Ukraine, raising nearly $7m for Ukrainian war efforts through her cryptocurrency UkraineDAO. She has also curated My Body, My Business at Sotheby’s in support of abortion rights in the United States. Al Jazeera spoke with Tolokonnikova, who currently lives outside of Russia, about her art, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and her views on Moscow’s crackdown on dissent. Al Jazeera: You’ve spent several years in the kind of penal colonies dissidents will now be detained in. What is life like there, in terms of conditions and treatment, and do you think these sites have changed in nature since the war began? Nadya Tolokonnikova: A lot of things have changed since I was in jail, and I was hoping they would change for the better. I’d noticed a few main things to tackle in the Russian prison system: First, we need to get rid of forced labour. We still have this gulag Soviet inheritance of forced labour. Second is the lack of medical treatment – many prisoners die from treatable conditions. And lastly, living conditions. A lot of those facilities have not been updated since the gulag times. A lot of people still live in barracks, in very depressing conditions, often with no access to running water. We would go for weeks sometimes without being able to wash ourselves or our clothes. When I got out of jail, I was hoping that I’d be able to change it. And I did talk to some people who were leaving government offices at the time because it was still 2014, so some people from the opposition were still in government. We were hoping they were going to be able to bring prison reform in Russia. But instead, Russia went back to the new dark ages, starting with the war. It’s the same thing with feminist rights and LGBTQ+ people’s rights. Today, we cannot have any constructive conversations about the rights of prisoners, many of whom are being sent to the warzone to fight for the Russian side. They’re being used as canon meat for the war. Al Jazeera: How do you characterise the state of women’s rights in Russia, and how has the war in Ukraine impacted the struggle for gender equality? Tolokonnikova: With the beginning of the war in Ukraine, it became practically impossible to run a truly independent non-profit. And since our government does not really care about women’s rights, everything [is impacted] – from helping victims of domestic violence, to providing shelters for women, to fighting for our rights in the courts. In Russia, our self-defence law doesn’t work; if a woman killed someone who was threatening her or beating her up, she is sentenced for murder. And the only person who can help her is a human rights lawyer who could argue self-defence. But the government, or judge, or prosecutor, or cops – they don’t let you do that. So really the only people who can help women in Russia are women themselves and the non-profit sector. But the non-profits in this space that were actually legitimate and useful and independent – not just government puppets – were labelled as foreign agents [after the war erupted]. And most of the founders and members of those had to leave Russia because in the last couple of years, even projects that are not directly connected to politics – like helping women or protecting victims of domestic violence. Anna Rivina, the founder of nasiliu.net (No to Violence), Russia’s most prominent anti-domestic violence organisation, [who anticipated the increase in gender-based violence with the onset of the war in Ukraine] was labelled a foreign agent and had to leave Russia. There are numerous cases like this. When you have an extraordinary situation like this, when your country wages war, the conversations around human rights are set back hundreds of years. Nobody talks about feminism anymore or LGBTQ+ rights. There’s no one left in Russia who can talk about it. People are trying to help from the outside. Al Jazeera: What do you think awaits you if you were to return to Russia? Tolokonnikova: I currently have a criminal case opened on me for one of the works I did earlier this year for Putin’s Ashes, a performance that we showed for the first time at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in LA. They used the Pussy Riot article, which they quite literally created while we were under investigation. They created this article in 2012 about hurting religious feelings. And it’s unclear how I was hurting religious feelings with my art, to me at least. [Editor’s note: Pussy Riot members including Tolokonnikova were charged in 2012 with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after performing called Punk Prayer in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a song which attacked Putin and the Orthodox establishment.] If I go to Russia I’ll be immediately arrested. It was funny at first, and then I realised this comes with a price. The Russian passport is the only one I have, and it basically pretty much makes me a stateless person with few rights in the world. The only country that is supposed to protect my interests and defend my rights is the one which wants me poisoned, dead, or in jail. It does not feel good to be unprotected and stateless and having lots of troubles with travelling. Travel is very important for our job as activists and artists, and that creates complications. Al Jazeera: As an artist – and I know your politics and your art are inextricable – can you talk about how your aesthetic has developed? How have you found your artistic voice? Tolokonnikova: Contrasts are always very important for me. When we were coming up with the name Pussy Riot, we combined something traditionally seen as welcoming, cozy, nice, cute, sometimes even weak – that’s how people see it for some reason – with riot, which is the opposite of it. Contrasts are part of the Pussy Riot look, too. We have bold masks on our faces – they are purple, pink or neon. Yet at the same time, they’re not threatening, they’re still colourful so we signify we came with peace, not war or violence. And we wore very feminine dresses, which is not our everyday attire. When you’re running away from cops, it’s much easier to do it in pants rather than a bright colourful dress, but we decided to use it on purpose to show that femininity can be strong and bold, and riotous and rebellious, contrary to what a lot of people still believe. Al Jazeera: I see that contrast in your recent Putin’s Ashes work – the soft, plush frames combined with splattered blood, or traces of violence… Tolokonnikova: If you see Putin’s Ashes, it features women in practically lingerie. It’s important for me to state the fact that a woman can look how she wants to look. But it doesn’t take away anything from what she has to say. I think across the world really, conservatives are trying to push women into wearing something specific to be taken seriously. Al Jazeera: Can artistic production help people suffering within authoritarian regimes? Tolokonnikova: I think it can help on the emotional level. In my work, I try to combine my art with direct activism that influences people’s wellbeing, like helping prisoners or raising money for Ukraine, and making sure that I help someone in a very constructive and pragmatic manner. Art has a much more subtle influence on things, but it doesn’t mean that it’s less needed. A lot of us are talking specifically about Russian people and Russians who do not support Putin. A lot of us have this open wound after the war started. And we don’t really know how to talk about it, because obviously, our suffering cannot be compared to the suffering of Ukrainians. We still feel that wound and we cannot talk about it because it’s almost unethical. [Through my art, I’m trying to give a voice to], or at least acknowledge, the feelings of those people in Russia who feel unrepresented and silenced. If they decide to stay in Russia they cannot talk anymore, otherwise they’ll just end up in jail for dozens of years or be killed. Or maybe they’re outside of Russia, but they find they have a hard time talking about their feelings because, you know, who wants to hear about our feelings right now? Al Jazeera: How would you characterise Pussy Riot’s place within the history of political art of the past century? Tolokonnikova: Growing up, I really loved the Russian avant-garde movement – though that’s a very imperial phrase since many of its members were actually from Belarus or Ukraine. We have to come up with so many new terms. Russia has such a long way to go in decolonising itself, its history, its language. It’s pretty insane, and we’re just at the beginning of it. Anyway, I was really into [artists] like [Kazimir] Malevich, [Vladimir] Tatlin, [Vladimir] Mayakovsky. All of whom were men – they had women among them who were not that known at the time, unless they were lovers or wives. But then later feminist histories revealed that there were a lot of women in that movement. I always loved the avant-garde’s utopian vision for the world. Our godmothers are Valie Export, Judy Chicago, Marina Abramovic and Cindy Sherman. Guerrilla Girls, Riot grrrl, Jenny Holzer, Martha Rosler, Tracey Emin. We stand on the shoulders of these giants. Al Jazeera: And what do you think is next for you? Tolokonnikova: Well, I guess I’m hoping to not get poisoned or killed. Yeah.

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