Anti-Putin Pussy Riot Singer and Activist Talks Abortion, Ukraine and NFTs

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Pussy Riot is not a band, despite what you may have heard. While it’s true that Pussy Riot releases music – and plays festivals, including Life Is Beautiful in Las Vegas on September 18 – frontwoman Nadya Tolokonnikova is quick to make it clear that the mission is bigger than that.

Pussy Riot is a feminist protest collective. The group is raising funds for Ukrainian creatives, participating in NFT and Web 3.0 projects and organizing a reproductive rights protest in the Texas capital earlier this summer.

Tolokonnikova, who spent nearly two years in prison in 2012 for cracking down on Putin, is as vocal as ever in the face of escalating censorship — as well as her status as a registered foreign agent against Vladimir Putin’s government.

News week spoke to Tolokonnikova leading up to the Pussy Riot performance on the final day of Life Is Beautiful 2024. Here’s the Q&A with Tolokonnikova:

Pussy Riot performs in Berlin, Germany, on May 12, 2022. Nadezhda “Nadya” Andreyevna Tolokonnikova spoke with Newsweek at the Life Is Beautiful music festival in Las Vegas on September 18, 2022.
Getty Images/Adam Berry

News weekPussy Riot’s social accounts today shared an announcement from Russian singer Alla Pugacheva asking the Russian government to designate her as a foreign agent. She said she is doing this in support of her husband as they are both against the war in Ukraine. Can you tell us a bit about what this means?

Tolokonnikova: She is one of the biggest artists in Russia. She is a grandmother of Russian pop music; I don’t even know who would be analogous to your country. But I feel like several generations grew up listening to Alla Pugacheva, and she’s someone who manages to maintain the respect of literally every generation. Normally, children hate what their parents listened to. And that’s not the case; somehow she stays cool for everyone.

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I remember listening to her music when I was growing up. And I woke up today to this news! it’s really exciting for me, because it’s a symptom of a growing discontent among Russian people. The reach she has cannot be compared to anyone. So I can definitely see Russians getting angrier and angrier about the war. Because besides bringing tragedy to Ukraine, it really hurts the Russian people. We were no longer welcome in the world. The Russian economy is not doing well because of sanctions. The largest companies left Russia. Nobody wants to buy Russian oil and gas.

For an ordinary Russian who might not have been interested in politics before, they suddenly have to – only because their standard of living has fallen since the start of the war.

News week: You are a foreign agent, according to the Russian government. If you are Alla Pugacheva, is this announcement intended as some kind of performance?

Tolokonnikova: It’s really dope. I love her for that. It’s unbelievable. It’s performative. It’s radical.

News week: Pussy Riot does a lot of work outside of music, using NFTs to raise money for those in need, whether that’s in Ukraine or the United States. How do you choose what will have the most impact?

Tolokonnikova: Being an artist, I rely on my emotions and my intuition to take me to places. But you can’t build an activist empire based on your emotions alone.

So, once you’ve analyzed your first impulse, you’ll want to activate the original thing and see what tools and connections you can use to help. So for the past year, I was mainly in favor of two goals, helping Ukrainians to fight against Russian aggression, which was clearly very close to my heart, very close to my home. I was [turning] to Ukraine a lot to learn from them how to be better activists, how to protect your freedoms. They have been a source of inspiration to me since forever, really the First Orange Revolution in 2004.

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And then, in 2014, right after I got out of prison, I came back to Ukraine to connect with people to learn more about their Second Orange Revolution. And I’m really amazed at how brave and brave they are. They never just want to go back to the status quo; they have always asked for more freedoms and they want to express themselves freely. I truly believe that Ukraine is a leader of the free world today.

So it was a no-brainer for me to try and support them. And I used crypto tools because I built my network in the crypto community over the past two years. And I recognize that there are a lot of scams, horrible, ugly projects, but it can also be used for good, and I believe activists should use modern, digital tools to improve their work and be more effective and productive. We prove that crypto can be used for good… we raised $7 million for Ukraine in just a few days and we are able to put that money into the [following] few days, which is unthinkable when you think of traditional non-profit organizations.

News week: And the other area of ​​your activism is reproductive rights in the United States?

Tolokonnikova: Yes, and it’s something I’ve been passionate about for a long time; something that brought us the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour [where we were arrested] in 2012, as Russian Orthodox churches began to become more active. And they tried to restrict the freedoms of Russian women to access reproductive rights, which is outrageous because of the Soviet Union’s past – which was not perfect, by the way – but because of the Soviet Union’s past, I grew up in environments where I was 100 percent sure that my body is my choice.

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I personally know women who have had as many as 10 abortions, thinking it was the best way to protect yourself from unwanted pregnancy. And this was the case with sex education in the Soviet Union: While abortion was really accessible, I feel like sex education was really lacking. There is a saying: “we don’t have sex in the USSR.”

So I’ve done abortions myself; I have no spiritual problems with that. Sex education is a very big problem in Russia. So even now, in most schools, you don’t have that. So it really just depends on your family. And if your family doesn’t like talking to you about sex education – my mom didn’t like talking to me – [you] had to rely only on the friends who were also 13, 14 years old. So what do they know?

News week: What is the purpose of Pussy Riot in a festival setting? Is it to make people think, or to dance, or both?

Tolokonnikova: I like being selfish when people dance, it just gives me energy. So important as a performance artist. I started performing in unofficial venues, but in a town square, or at a fashion show. illegal. I was just out like that. And people have very strong reactions; some people would be mad, cops would definitely be mad and some people would be amazed and inspired to grab their phone. So I’m used to it and I’m spoiled by the big emotional response. It’s important to have this emotional connection with the audience and it nourishes me.

I love when festivals feel like a rally. [At Life is Beautiful] we have, I think, really strong visuals… it’s extremely political, and it’s extreme in your face. So that’s something that excites me about the festival setting, because it’s a lot like an unannounced performance in your city’s main square. You can get new followers and you can get new supporters.

I don’t call people who follow Pussy Riot our fans; I don’t think it’s right in our relationship. I think it’s more supporters and followers, and community members.

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