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Pussy Riot — The Boston Calling Music Festival

It's All Politics With Pussy Riot (And We Don't Want It Any Other Way)

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Nadya from Pussy Riot, at the Boston Calling Music Festival
Michael Last
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Pussy Riot — The Boston Calling Music Festival

Nadya Tolokonnikova doesn't have time to make albums and cut record deals. She, and her politically-driven punk band Pussy Riot, are too busy making sure that we're all aware that stuff's messed up in the world.

This interview was conducted on May 25, 2018 by Tori Bedford for WGBH, at the Boston Calling Music Festival.

Tell me a little bit about what we can expect from your set?

Nadya Tolokonnikova: You'll see an introduction that I'm especially proud of. We just made it recently and it's equated to the great financial inequality that we witness in a lot of countries in Europe, and especially in Russia and America. We see a lot of resemblance between our two countries — that are basically empires — because most of the people have nothing, and just a small group of people have everything. And we just don't think that's right. And that's something that brings those populists to get more and more strength; populists like Donald Trump.

I think partly the reason why Donald Trump was elected because, you know the needs of most of the people in America weren't addressed. It happened because the benefits of globalization were divided in an even way. So you will you these — and it will probably be more interesting than just me talking about it — and a bunch of songs about world Russian politics, songs about gender politics; feminism.

Tell me about your song, "Make America Great Again"

Tolokonnikova: We made it when Trump was a candidate for president, and that song is about basically about stigmatization. And unfortunately Trump brought a lot of problems even before he got elected as president, because when big public media figures keep saying things like you're not good because you're fat, or you're not good because I don't like the color of your skin, that provokes a lot of bullying. And unfortunately these things got even worse after Trump was elected. But yeah, the reason why we made this song and this video is because I felt it on my own skin.

What does it mean to be stigmatized? And when we had our court process back in Russia, we were called enemies of the state, which is sluts, and that's why we decided to burn those words in my skin for the video.

It’s disturbing, the video is disturbing.

Tolokonnikova: It was disturbing for me psychologically too. And there is a scene of rape, and I've never experienced something like that in real life. But it's really hard for me to even think about it because even when I played a scene of rape, I was crying for half an hour after that scene. But it was basically actors and me and they didn't mean anything bad towards me. But I feel so much pain for all those people who had to go through something like that in real life.

You get called fearless a lot, you’re described as “fearless” — a lot of people will say that you do these risky things, that you take risks, that you’re not afraid, but I’ve heard you say that you are afraid.

Tolokonnikova: I think it's a basic human thing to have fears and I don't want to hide it. I do have fears, and I have to struggle with them every day because you just simply don't have a luxury not to have fears. If you own a media outlet, Media Zona, that reports on a daily basis on conditions in courts, prisons, and police departments. And lately we've been writing a lot about tortures of political activists. So basically they arrest someone who's standing with a poster, and then they bring him (or her) to the police department and torture them with electrocution and just terribly beat them. So you're reading this news, and of course you realize that is something that can happen to you too. But at the same time you feel like you want to make a change. So you just have to make a small deal with yourself every day that I'm willing to take this risk in order to have a chance to change something for the better.

What did you think during the Trump candidacy? What was your feeling about it, watching it happen and then becoming a reality, having [Vladimir] Putin as your president?

Tolokonnikova: It was disturbing because the really big problem for me that Trump dumbed down the level of political discussion. And before when Bernie Sanders would talk with Hillary Clinton, they discussed a lot of really important issues like huge student debt. The amount of people who are poor extremely poor in America. But then once Trump became a candidate everything was just being washed away. Basically they were talking just about their own egos, their own personas, their own ambitions and their own fears. And I'm just wondering where is the place in politics right now for the need of an ordinary person like me. I'm talking about politics worldwide. I'm not an American citizen obviously, but what happens in America heavily influences what happens in Russia. Because when Putin introduces new fines for political activists that go to the square, and then the next thing you know that you have to pay a $1,000 fine. And a lot of people just can't afford themselves to make such things, to pay this big amount of money. And so he's saying to look at America -- it's even worse. Look at America, they have even more prisoners per capita and yeah, surely if you think about activism, you have to think about politics as the whole thing.

You have a daughter, how old is she?

Tolokonnikova: 10

What is it like raising your daughter in this world… you’re tuned into to so many scary things that are happening, are you scared for her? Are you excited for her? How are your preparing her for the future?

Tolokonnikova: I'm just talking to her. I'm not trying to hide something from her. When this was 3 years old we were talking with her about Putin. And I said so there is that this black magician, and he's really greedy and he cares just about two things in life: about his money and his power. And we don't want to be like him.

We were making remixes of old fairy tales you heard — like Cinderella — and were discussing with her like what would you do in the place of Cinderella? Because we came to the conclusion that Cinderella actually was wrong marrying the Prince just by herself because she could collaborate with her fellow young women and just start the uprising against those oppressors. And the Prince himself.

We're just trying to talk about politics and about scary issues in non-secular ways.

Do you feel that the world is changing and shifting for women and people of different genders?

Tolokonnikova: Yeah. I'm pretty excited to live in these times because even ten years ago I couldn't expect that it would happen. Unfortunately, it happens just not in old countries. We did have our own #metoo in Russia, but it wasn't that widespread and obviously mainstream media that are owned by Kremlin are/were not picking on the issue because the issue — the feminist issues and LGBT issues — just don't exist in Russian mainstream discourse. But I'm happy that it's happening here in America, and I know it inspires activists all around the world.

Do you ever get fatigued? I think a lot of people have been kind of fatigued hearing the news, getting such bad news… do you ever get exhausted by it?

Tolokonnikova: I think a lot of people have been fatigued reading the news constantly, and hearing such bad news. Do you ever get kind of exhausted? by I have a small trick — I just don't read news all the time because I react to them so emotionally. So once I read the bad news I feel like I have to do something to make it better because otherwise I will just be frustrated all the time. So I would read news — just two times a week — and then I try to find a small action that I can do to improve the situation.

You’re wearing your ski mask, your identity was revealed after the 2012 cathedral performance — how has that impacted you and your work?

Tolokonnikova: It was hard. It's still hard. It was strange when they detained us, I remember for the first days I didn't worry that much about our freedom, but I really worried about our identities being revealed because it was an important part of our project. And I literally lived by this project. It meant life to me. But then we just accepted the reality that you couldn't wear a mask in a court or in prison. So we decided to work with what we have. There are still a lot of members that are still enjoying their anonymity. And I'm happy that they can do that.

You’ve received a lot of notoriety, and now you’re getting a lot of press and being able to spread your message, has that been helpful to you?

Tolokonnikova: I'm so thankful to people who are still listening to us and being here. I just want to take this opportunity to express my deep thankfulness to all those people who supported us when we were in prison. It felt like a miracle. Because you feel like you're being buried alive when you are in prison, and you don't know how long you will be there. And you don't know if you will survive it or not. But with the support of all people — not just in Russia, but internationally — we felt that we still had a voice. And I think it's really important.

We are trying to give voice to other prisoners and other political prisoners. So I'll use this platform to draw your attention to the case of Oleg Sentsov. He's from Ukraine but he's detained in Russia. He's a political prisoner in Russia and he's on a hunger strike right now. Today is the 12th day of his hunger strike, and his demand is to release all Ukrainian prisoners that are being held in Russian prisons. And it is a pretty radical demand and we have all reasons the worry that he may die from hunger in prison. So right now we are demanding the Russian government to release Oleg Sentsov. And if you can join us in this demand and help us to save his life, that will be perfect.

Let’s talk about your music — tell me about what you’re working on right now, anything new coming up?

Tolokonnikova: Yeah we're going to show you here a couple of new tracks. One of them is "Pimples". It's not officially released yet. So it's kind of a pretty interesting hear. And another track is called "Bubble" and it's about the financial bubble - about the way our economy is structured right now.

You’re releasing these individual tracks, are you thinking about an album?

Tolokonnikova: We haven't thought about an album. People are more and more focusing on releasing individual tracks and that's how Pussy Riot always acted, because it just makes sense for us. Because we are trying to react on political events that are happening right now and we are trying to cause a difference right now. So it makes sense for us to release tracks immediately and not for an album to collect. And we're not signed to anybody so we don't have any obligations to release albums, we just release things on YouTube for free.

(Transcribed and condensed for clarity by Stacy Buchanan)

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