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Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokno Wants to Make Pussy Dangerous Again

We spoke with the iron-willed Russian activist and musician about prison reform, the dangers of a Trump presidency, and vagina power.

Nadya Tolokno has been trying to make "pussy" dangerous since well before anyone cared about where Donald Trump's stubby little fingers had been. The leading member of Pussy Riot laughs when I say as much during a recent phone interview, then launches into a diatribe about "vagina power," a concept she gleefully explores in one of the three new songs she's just released this week. The accompanying videos for "Straight Outta Vagina," "Organs," and especially the cartoonishly dystopian "Make America Great Again" revolve around Tolokno's current bugbears—feminist revolt, Russian political corruption, and the horrifying prospect of a Trump takeover. Dark electronic pop compositions provide the platform for Tolokno's throaty, hypnotic exhortations on abortion rights, the refugee crisis, and prison reform to take center stage. Collectively, the three songs comprise a new official Pussy Riot EP, titled XXX and due to be independently released on October 28. The music itself was composed by outside collaborators—Wallpaper's Ricky Reed, who soundtracks the Jonas Akerlund-directed "Make America Great Again," and TV on the Radio's Dave Dave Sitek, who shepherded "Organs" and "Straight Outta Vagina"—but the words are all hers, and the rage propelling them is shared by thousands of others.

Pussy Riot rose to the fore as a collective, but as of now, Tolokno appears to be the most active—and most visible—member. It's her voice that floats above Sitek's snappy synth, her face that stares defiantly out from the new trio of music videos, and her head that's on the chopping block if she happens to run afoul of Russian authorities once again. When I ask her if it's difficult to leave the country given her formerly incarcerated status, she shrugs it off—at this point, the thought of getting arrested is old hat. After spending two years in prison (including a stint in Siberia) during which she was hospitalized following a hunger strike and wrote letters decrying the brutal conditions therein, Tolokno was released—but has continued to be targeted. In 2014, during the Sochi Winter Olympics, alongside her Pussy Riot comrade Maria Alyokhina (who was also arrested and imprisoned following the now-infamous "Punk Prayer" church protest), Tolokno was detained by police on trumped-up charges; once released, the women were chased down and horsewhipped by a band of Cossacks. Picture that for a moment—two years ago, two globally renowned activists were publicly horsewhipped for the crime of speaking up.

Nothing came of that incident in terms of justice, but much like the particular anatomical entity whose banner she marches beneath, the tireless musician, activist, and all-around feminist warrior is tough, resilient, and—obviously—can take a beating. When we speak earlier this month, there isn't a trace of fear or trepidation in her voice; rather, all that comes through is fire. "Lockdown makes me even meaner," she spits in Russian on "Organ," her lips stained black as she bathes in blood, dreaming of bodies. Putin has built himself a reputation as the ultimate strongman, but were they to meet face-to-face, I like to imagine that one steely glare from Tolokno would cause more than a few pinpricks of sweat to cross his brow.

Despite all the hardship and chaos, despite living under the dangers of Putin's Russia (and adjacent to what's become Trump's America), Pussy Riot and its leading light will still be out there on the front lines of rebellion well after the reality TV nightmare that is this current presidential election had faded into fitful memory. This new EP is merely the latest rallying cry—a klaxon of rebellion, a fire lit under the collective ass of those who fight for justice, equality, and hope. As Tolokno says, "I believe we can overcome it—we just need to take those first steps."

Noisey: Like much of your music, this EP has a very dark electronic feel to it; everybody thinks of Pussy Riot as a punk band, but you've always put out music that's not traditionally what you'd think of when you think of punk rock. Is it more of an attitude thing for you?
Nadya Tolokno: That's the point, there should not be tradition in punk! Punk was always against tradition and now they, it's like somebody is trying to invent a definition for punk. It's unacceptable.

Right, because punk is about rebellion.
Well, sure! I won't define by myself what punk will be, but we're trying to understand what punk will be now, now in 2016. I really love old punk, I'm inspired by it but I think that punk should redefine itself all the time, just as punk redefines everything around it.

That makes sense, if it becomes stagnant it's not going to cause any change.
Yeah, you should work on your language, otherwise you will be like Putin, he just looks at the past and he is like, 'Oh, it was so good in the USSR,' and now we will restore it. I don't want to have this kind of rhetoric. I don't want to restore. I adore what happened in the past, but I want to build the future.

It's like that phrase, "Make America Great Again," Looking back at the past can be a very dangerous thing.
It is dangerous, and usually doesn't work really well for politics. Look at what's going on right now in Crimea. Everybody who voted for Crimea goes to Russia for the referendum and people believe that something will change and they will really go back to USSR and everything will be good, but it doesn't work because our politicians never had a real plan for what they will do with this part of land. They didn't know what to do with Crimea. That's why it was cut off of electricity and Crimea stayed without heating for a few months in the winter. Now people are enraged, they can't do anything to maintain a good life. That's a traditional thing. When politicians talk about the past, it means they don't have any real plans for the future.

You're in Moscow now, right?
Right now, I'm in Los Angeles but I'm in Moscow and sometimes I'm in LA because I work with people here and New York. I travel a lot!

Do you have any problems traveling due to your record? Especially coming in and out of Russia...
It's not difficult, only one problem which could happen is arrest. Sometimes border officers would just call and check if they could really allow me to go through because they would check if they had an open criminal case against me. If so they will just arrest me on the border. That's basically the only one problem which could happen [laughs].

No big deal, another arrest! You've only been free for about three years now. What stayed with you the most from the time you spent in prison?
It was a good—it was tough, but it was a really good experience to build strong will. Now I feel strangely that it helped me to have better time management in my life. I know there's a lot of people in America who try to read books on time management, but maybe it could be good for them to spend some time in prison, and later you will not have any problems with time management. You couldn't really do what you want to do and then when you are released, you value every minute of your time. You don't really have opportunities to be depressed or stuff like that. Obviously I have downs in my life, but I think the experience helped me to overcome all that really fast because I will just compare it. When you have something to compare it with, it's always good.

Prison reform is something that you're obviously very passionate about. What would you like to see happen with the Russian prison system?
First of all, I would love to get rid of the system of slave labor. I think we need to stop it because by law you just take prisoners' freedom but you don't have to make him work as a slave. It's not part of the deal, it's not part of the law. But in fact it happens, which is criminal, I think. We came up with a law in Russia to make labor day in prison not longer than eight hours. I would like to get rid of labor in prison at all, because I believe that person has to have time to read books and communicate with other people and really grow. Think about their lives and maybe, read books. Ideally I would get rid of the system at all. But we came up with the idea to reduce the labor day to eight hours a day. Right now in prison, when I was, it was sixteen hours a day. Of course the law wasn't accepted, or Parliament didn't go through with this law. We are trying to help particular people. Right now, we have more than two dozen cases in the European court of human rights, and we want the government to pay a fine to those people who suffered in prison from not receiving a mitigation which they had to receive for working harder than they had to.


The situation here is very similar, that's why there's a massive prison strike going on here now to protest that system of slave labor. It's not that different between Russia and America.
It's not. That's why I really believe that Donald Trump will not be president. Because clearly he will not do anything to help that, he will just make it worse. And I know that Obama started the process and there is something going on here. Obama paid attention and there was the cover of the Economist about the prison industrial complex problem. But if Trump will be president, it will stop from the first day of his fucking presidency.

What kind of parallels do you see between him and Putin? Because clearly Donald Trump is a huge Putin fan, even though he likes to pretend that he isn't.
They're both populists. They both play on hatred. And they're both—they don't have clear plans of what they want to do. They just use the rage that exists in people, political rage. They don't have perspective. Putin, the only thing in his life is money. He wants to rob the Russian people and take money from the oil and gas industry. Actually he doesn't believe in anything. He sometimes says he believes in anti-gay propaganda and conservative politics but actually he doesn't, he just wants to be able to take all these people's money and that's all. Trump doesn't know what he wants to do with his country as well, and that's the first common thing with them. Another common thing is women. Putin never tried to hide it; he publicly said to a female interpreter that, 'Your first goal in life is to give birth. Why are you doing work, you're not supposed to, by nature, do that?' I think that's disgusting. The fact that it's happening right now in America, which I believe that what's going on right now, this level of political discussion which Trump started is unacceptable and disgusting and I hope that it will end soon.

Seems like he has brought to light all these people who really believe in this shit. I don't know if they're going to go away after he loses.
What is good about that is that it was exposed. It was really painful to watch. Sometimes it's good to know that you have injury, so then you have a chance to fix it. I believe that we can overcome it. We have to take those first steps. We don't have gender equality. We just got the right to vote 100 years ago. It seems for me that a lot of people, especially in the west, they believe that in the 60s and 70s they achieved everything. They achieved a lot but not everything. It's impossible to change history. Women were oppressed for thousands of years. You can't change it in several dozens of years or even in 100. We have to work on it. It's our history. All our painters and musicians, they are men. We have to rebuild it. We have to do that work so all this female history is strong. We have to rewrite female history to show that there were great painters and musicians and politicians who were female. We have to communicate it to everybody.

How do you think we can get more women involved in making these changes?
I think Trump helped a lot of women to realize that it's still a big problem because he brought it to political levels. A lot of women probably believed that it's just boy's talk and it's okay, it's acceptable. But a lot of women right now, when they have this tape of Trump, they are raging, saying, 'No, it's not acceptable.' They want to fight for their rights, and I think that's a positive thing. I hope that it will play a part in all these women who are enraged. I hope they will take part in their coming elections. You might not like Hillary Clinton, but every time when you vote against Trump you vote against that society, which I believe is really important.

I haven't heard the word "pussy" on the news so much since Pussy Riot got arrested! I think that word in particular is why people were so horrified, so offended. Why do you think "pussy" is such a powerful word?
I think it was about context, too. Context when you say the word "pussy." Pussy could be tough, pussy could have power. The context where Trump used it was clearly misogynistic and a traditional patriarchal context. That's what made people so irritated about that tape. Why it's so powerful? I don't know, people just aren't used to talking about female genitals. They need to talk more about vaginas and pussy, but in positive context. Definitely not in Trump's context. That's what we're trying to do with Pussy Riot and vagina power. What we have to do is retake, we have grab our words back. Queer was a bad word initially, but now we are proud to call ourselves queer, and the same thing should happen with pussy, because pussy is the new dick.

How do you see toxic masculinity playing into the rise of Donald Trump and also the popularity of Putin? They both reach for this macho, strongman image, and some people just eat it up.
I don't get it at all, because I don't see it as attractive at all. And it's a big problem. We've spoken about that, the epidemic of female dissatisfaction. A lot of women want to be independent but they don't want to buy this macho bullshit anymore, so they don't really have a lot of men around them who could be attracted to strong independent women, so they find themselves being dissatisfied. So we are about to start a political party called Dissatisfied Pussies. I don't find this image really attractive; I know that a lot of women in Russia say Putin is an attractive guy—I don't think so. Not even with one cell of my body. No way.

I did love the line, "My president replaced his dick with an ICBM." That was a perfect way to describe how these kind of men want to fuck the world, and take ownership of the world.
I was riding on an ICBM dick on gay pride in Toronto! One year ago, in the spring. We made a huuuuge giant dick in the shape of an ICBM for gay pride [laughs].

I'm sure Putin would have loved that. Speaking about LGBTQ rights, what's the situation like in Russia right now? Are things getting better or getting worse?
It's unfortunately not getting better. They started a huge wave of homophobia with their law against propaganda of homosexuality. Nobody could really understand what it means, but the harm of this law was really big because it was not just law against propaganda of homosexuality, but they put homosexuality and pedophilia in the same law. A lot of people who don't really think a lot about the issues of homosexuality right now, [now] in their minds, it is attached to pedophilia. It clearly doesn't help LGBTQ community in Russia.

That's one of those laws that sounds ridiculous until you realize it's actually affecting people in the real world—like the anti-blasphemy law which got you in trouble, vague-sounding laws are manipulated to oppress people whenever it's convenient.
It was not a blasphemy law before us—actually, they made this law because of us [laughs]. They made it because of us, after eight months of our protests it started to be a big thing in the world, so they decided to protect themselves and start this law. Because when they sued us, they arrested us because of another law. Right now, there is a boy, 22 years old, he went to church and he played Pokemon Go in the church. He's been arrested, They put him in jail. Blasphemy. Because he played fucking Pokemon Go in a church! It was a big scandal in Russia. After two weeks, they had to release him to house arrest so now he's under house arrest. Which is still not an ideal situation at all and he's still facing five years in jail because of playing Pokemon Go. He spent two weeks in actual prison, and he still could find himself in prison.

That same law is being used by religious Orthodox extremists like Dmitry Enteo to shut down heavy metal concerts, have you heard anything about that?
Did you hear about Marilyn Manson? They shut down his concert! [Enteo] is a really crazy young man, he tried once to invite me to have a tea with him and I was like, nope, nope, nope [laughs]. I think he was inspired by our actions and what they're trying to do, they're doing the same thing but from another political angle. Their problem is they don't get the idea that we've never been violent, so they go and destroy art exhibitions; they do it a lot.

Despite all that, we don't typically think of Russia as a super religious place; obviously the Orthodox church has been a big part of your history, even though it was suppressed during the Communist years. How big of a deal is religion in Russia now?
Russian people are really confused about their lives. They don't know what to think anymore. Imagine when so much things happen just in a hundred years. We've been under the Tsar's regime, then you had Bolsheviks, then you had liberal time—this liberal fucking economy, which wasn't very good either—and then we had Putin. A lot of people in our country had to go through lessons of atheism, and if you were religious, then you would be persecuted because of that. A lot of people ended up in jail because they wanted to believe in God. They just decided for themselves, fuck it, we will lead our private lives. People believe television, unfortunately. They're trying to understand what's going on in the world, they're trying to catch information and they believe more or less everything that they see on TV. It was a big propaganda against us on Russian television. They didn't tell that we were protesting against Putin. They told to every Russian citizen that we were protesting against religion and Russian traditional values, which wasn't true. The primary purpose was our dear president Putin. It was a lot of miscommunication. Every time that I was trying to speak with people who were against us and me personally, after an hour or half an hour, we explain to them what it was about, they were like, 'Oh!' They didn't know that it was about Putin. Because they think that Putin is a douchebag as well, because they know that their grandmothers don't have the things they deserve to have, they know that school education is not that good, it resonates with a lot of people. They just don't believe that it could change anything and when they discovered about us that we tried to change something, and we didn't really want to destroy Russia but we wanted to make it better, they were like, 'Oh yes! We didn't know! We hated you, but we didn't know.' The same thing happened in the Ukraine. Right now, a lot of people hate Ukraine. But it the same country, we've been the same country for hundreds of years and now they hate them because of the politicians. I couldn't blame them for that because they're going through a huge economic crisis and people have to work two or three jobs to feed their families, and they don't really have time to go and look at the internet and do fact-checking.

That's the danger of disinformation. Look at Trump—so many people just watch the TV and don't have time to go out and read, so they're hearing that Obama is a Muslim and Hillary is the devil and Trump is going to make America great.
Did you know that a lot of Russian people believe that we were hired by Hillary Clinton when she was the head of the state department to destroy Russia?

Really? I hadn't heard that one!
Then, when we met Hillary, we were laughing so hard because, 'Yeah, now we will do this photo and everybody, the Russian propagandists will be so happy, they'll say, 'Finally they went to America to get their money!'' 

That's so good! Speaking of Trump again, I want to talk a little bit more about the "Make America Great Again" video and all the themes you touched, like police brutality, racism, torture, misogyny, his stupid hair. It's a perfect storm of what's going on, and it's really interesting to see somebody who's not American to come in and sum it all up in this one ridiculous video. What drives your interest in American politics? Why do you want to help us?
I don't really believe in borders, first of all. I believe that we live in a society where money could move from one country to another country really easily but people couldn't, and why? Why do you have some privileges for money but you don't have this privilege for people? So I don't really believe in borders. Actually, transnational corporations were the ones who taught me not to believe in borders, so now I'm waiting for one day when they will be destroyed [laughs]. I just worked with American people on some of my projects, so I really wanted to speak about what they want to speak about, because I don't want to be that person who just shows up and tells other people what to do. That's the idea of cooperation, you try to listen to somebody else. That's what happened about this song, we were working on some other songs which were more about feminism, gender stuff, LGBTQ issues, and then I saw that people were really disappointed in what's going on in the American political system. And I see my role in life as a political psychotherapist, so that's what I've done. That's why we wrote the song. But I believe that, even if you look at this from the perspective of a Russian citizen, it will directly affect our lives as well, and the lives of everybody in this world. You should care what's going on in the American election and what's going on in the countries around you. That's what's going on with the refugee crisis right now, a lot of people don't want to look at that, what's going on in other countries, and people are dying and suffering there and people can't find compassion in themselves to help them. I don't think that is the right path for humanity. We're sharing one planet. We will be destroyed by one weird thing, when we will be destroyed by Kim Jong Un, you will not have your passport anymore. It will be destroyed by nuclear death.

The last time Noisey interviewed you, you expressed a desire to go work with refugees in Calais. Did you end up going down there?
I wasn't in Calais refugee camp, Maria [Alyokhina] from Pussy Riot was there. I met with a representative from Calais in the UK. When we did the Banksy show, we had the refugees in our music video. I try to support as much as I can an NGO of my friends in London, they're trying to support refugees and they actually went to Calais a lot of times, and they build shelters. So what I've done, I've helped them to raise money for building the shelters.

As someone who's dedicated her life to political activism, what would you suggest to one person, just a regular person, who wanted to try to make the world better? What do you think is the first step that someone can take to try to make a change?
I think it's really important, what we discussed before, to fight misinformation, to read carefully about what's going on. Check facts. And then make your own decisions about that. They don't have to be in line with what I think, or what you think about this world, but just check facts and then make your decision. I think that would be my advice!

Photos courtesy of Nadya Tolokno

Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's all about pussy power and prison abolition on Twitter.