Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokno on how her Russian prison stay shaped her views on Donald Trump

Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokno on how her Russian prison stay shaped her views on Donald Trump

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, alias Nadya Tolokno, knows what it's like to live in a society run by a misogynist, conservative demagogue. The punk icon has lived as a citizen of a country run by one for the past 16 years under Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tolokno is the most recognizable face behind the balaclavas of the Russian feminist art collective Pussy Riot, which has been using music and performance art to fight for women's and LGBTQ rights.

Pussy Riot gained the world's attention when they were arrested for performing a two-chord rage hymn — "Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away" — in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February 2012. Tolokno and two other members were ultimately jailed for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." They suffered "endless humiliations" and conditions akin to "slave labor" behind bars, eventually drawing the United Nations into the ring to fight for their freedom.

This bonafide punk rap sheet is a big part of what makes Pussy Riot's streak of videos last week a powerful indictment of presidential candidate Donald Trump. All three — "Straight Outta Vagina," "Organs" and "Make America Great Again" — featured Tolokno rapping dead into the camera about the risks female bodies face under a Trump regime. The final video is simultaneously one of the group's most graphic, and most profoundly musical things the collective has produced, a seeming attempt to make sure their message reaches as many ears as possible.

"I've seen this in my country for the last 16 years under Putin," Tolokno said in an interview on Monday, discussing the videos, and the EP that houses them, XXX. "I just wanted to warn people who are about to choose this horrible guy as their president that it's not that much fun to be under the rule of misogynist pigs." 

Considering the murky relationship Trump has with President Putin, and the way some of his proposals often read like a "Kremlin wish list," her warning is one that deserves to be unpacked in full.

Source: YouTube

Both "Straight Outta Vagina" and "Organs focus primarily on Trump's sexism and narrow view of what makes a person a true blue American. Tolokno branding herself "Outsider" for being an immigrant, "Fat Pig" for not meeting Trump's ideal body proportions, "pervert" for not living by traditional family values, ending with the brand de grace: "She Made An Abortion."

For Tolokno, the misogyny is an easy point of entry for an attack on Trump's conservatism, as the two necessarily go hand in hand. 

"The nature of this politics is looking back — that's what Putin and Trump are doing," Tolonko said. "Take a look at that history, it was not fun for women most of the time. I question how any woman could vote for a person like Donald or Putin, because it means you will not have freedom of speech as a woman. Somebody else will be in charge of your vagina: your father or your husband or your brother. That's how it happened all the time throughout history."

"She made abortion"
Source: 
wearepussyriot/YouTube

These questions of female agency and the way societies seek to limit or expand it are what drew Toloko into the world of art and activism. "I'm exploring how vaginas feel in this world," she said, explaining her mission. "In other words, I'm exploring the question of female identity. We just got our right to vote and basic emancipation to happen not long ago from a historical perspective. I believe we still need to work on that."

Music is simply one of the methods of insight. Her first impulse to write came around the time Russia's burgeoning neo-conservative movement crystalized into a potential third term for its shining, horseback-riding leader. In the days leading up to that election she was struck with an inspiration.

"I thought it would be so great if musicians wouldn't sing their normal stuff for the next couple of months until the elections," Tolokno said. "I wished they wouldn't sing about flowers or love or something else, but sing about politics. I understood quite fast it wasn't going to happen, so I'd have to do it by my own hands."

Pussy Riot's latest batch of songs, produced in collaboration with from Ricky Reed and Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, have a far lighter touch than the videos, which choose to paint in caricature instead. "What do you want your world to look like?/ What do you want it to be?" Tolokno sings on "Make America Great Again." "Do you know that a wall has two sides?/ And nobody is free?" 

The questions show a remarkable degree of patience with their listener, who by voting for Trump would potentially be rewinding years of women's suffrage and civil rights movements. Still, as inconceivable as this position may be, Tolokno feels we still need to do more to understand it. As Tolokno explains Trump supporters will exist without Trump.

"I wish somebody else could represent them, because Trump is too aggressive," she says. "He's inflaming hatred, and it's not going to help us have the right conversations and respect each other."

A photo posted by (@) on

So what is this solution — to simply ignore those who think you're on the wrong side of history?

When pressed on what she would say to individuals like Mic's Zak Cheney-Rice — who recently wrote he wants a "divided America," arguing racism and bigotry present in the electorate should be condemned, not humanized — she shared an eye-opening story. 

She told a story from her time in prison when she found herself in the same sharing a facility with a neo-Nazi woman responsible for killing two of her friends. Tolokno believes their government "put us in the same prison because they wanted us to destroy each other," she explained. "Probably kill each other, I don't know."

Tolokno remembers feeling profound, all-consuming anger at having to share space with this woman. "I had so much hatred for people who would claim they are Christians, and they're supposed to understand each other and help people who are near them," she said. "I had so much hatred, but I thought if I multiply this hatred it will not help anybody." 

So she decided to speak with her and attempt to understand her. They arranged two meetings and were on speaking terms, until the woman took the side of the prison's officials when Tolokno went on hunger strike, claiming the artist was a "liar." 

In spite of that betrayal, Tolokno feels she did the right thing. "We have to do it," she said. "We have to admit the fact we have people with radically different political views in one society." 

If nothing else, it shows how far Tolokno is willing to push her ideology of acceptance and free, open dialogue. It's not always going to make for a soap-opera ending, but holding the moral high ground at all costs is the only way to advance. A true Christian carries their cross right up to the very end.

"I tried," Tolokno said simply. "I tried. I think that's the healthy thing to do."

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Tom Barnes

Tom Barnes is a senior staff writer at Mic focused on music, activism and the intersection between the two. He's based in New York and can be reached at tom@mic.com.

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