Pussy Riot Wants To Put Bernie Sanders In A Balaclava

By
Photography Daria Kosinova

Published March 3, 2020

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova still has nightmares of waking up in prison. “But this time,” she says, “it’s for ten years, not two.” When I ask Tolokonnikova, the founder of the queer-feminist activist group Pussy Riot, what she’s most afraid of, the answer reaches beyond what I’ve come to expect when I ask this question. “Fear is not useful for us, because we want to change Russia. We’re fighting against people who have special forces, cops, paramilitary groups. We just have… balaclavas. So the only thing that we can counter with is fearlessness.”

Late last year, Pussy Riot released the pro-choice screamer track “Hangerz” with Junglepussy and Vic Mensa. This March, the group begins a three-month U.S. tour to benefit Planned Parenthood. Tolokonnikova’s legacy, now laced with celebrity names and crowned with a North American tour, began in 2008. As a member of the performance art collective Voina, she parodied the government’s call for increased reproduction by having sex—while eight months pregnant— alongside five other couples in the central hall of Moscow’s State Biology Museum. Tolokonnikova’s antics led to even more Russian pearl-clutching when, the following year, she and her fellow female activists launched “Operation Kiss A Pig,” ambushing and dozens of female police officers in the streets of Moscow—and kissing them. 

In February 2012, Tolokonnikova and the other members of Pussy Riot staged their notorious “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s hallowed Christ The Savior Cathedral. Wearing colorful dresses and their trademark balaclavas, Pussy Riot stormed the altar while chanting “God, drive away Putin! The Lord’s shit!” in a rapturous mixture of rage and religious ecstasy. The demonstration and resulting guilty verdict landed Tolokonnikova in IK-50, a penal colony near Siberia, for two years.

When I press her on her fearlessness, she laughs. “It’s more of an ideal than anything else. I have tons of fears.” Tolokonnikova has been out of prison for more than six years now, and has fully recommitted to making art (and noise) as the leader of Pussy Riot. But while the group hasn’t eased up on its commitment to challenging the Russian government, the strength of the Kremlin’s grip is no less paralyzing for Nadya today than it was on the day she was sentenced. “I saw how our authoritarian system works from inside, and what it can do, even to brave people,” she says. 

Earlier this month, Tolokonnikova and her fellow group members gathered in St. Petersburg to shoot a music video for their song “Rage,” which she says is about “living as an enemy of the state in your own country.” The shoot was cut short when police arrived at the production studio, dubbing the song an extremist work of “gay propaganda.” (Homosexuality is still illegal in Russia.) Despite paying to rent the space (rather than, say, occupying it), Pussy Riot was promptly thrown out. The following day, Tolokonnikova and 13 other artists were arrested without charge while preparing for a fashion shoot for a friend’s label. The photos in this piece were taken in the jail cell where Nadya and her friends were detained.

Tolokonnikova’s latest stint behind bars is well-documented. When I mention that I enjoyed her jail Instagrams, she laughs. “We were so bored in there.” Her frustration at having Pussy Riot’s work stifled is soothed in part by the prospect of gaining a larger platform in the West. And the sentiment runs both ways: certainly our stuffy, fractured political system is in desperate need of a Pussy Riot infusion. So we invited Tolokonnikova to share her thoughts on pretty much everything, from how to be a good punk to the toy store demonstration of her dreams.

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Nadya poses in her jail cell

ON PRISON:

“The prison camps are like the Soviet army. We’d wake up at 5:45 am, clean the dormitories, and hurry to the factories. Prisoners work 16-hour days making police uniforms. I only worked eight because of the media attention. But that only made things harder. I was unpopular with the guards. They knew they couldn’t touch me themselves because of the media, so they punished other prisoners. They’d punish prisoners by beating them, withholding their medication or preventing them from calling their relatives.‘And do you know why?’ they’d say, ‘Because of her.’ People were prohibited from looking at me. That creates an insane sense of isolation. But others had it worse.”

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ON BEING INTERRUPTED BY THE POLICE:

“Sometimes when the cops arrest you and it makes the news, it’s good enough that the story’s out there. But when you’re actually trying to make a piece of art, it’s more problematic. This time [recording ‘Rage’] it was frustrating. It’s not enough for me to just tell you this story, I want to make our art.”

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Nadya poses in her jail cell

ON JUNGLEPUSSY: 

“She’s a really empowering feminist performer. I’ve been a fan of hers for years. Her song ‘Bling Bling’ inspired me to dump a couple of exes who were not nice to me. It was so cool to hang and make a song with her. I hope to make more.” 

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ON VIC MENSA:

“I met Vic at a friend’s party. Vic loves to tease me about how, when we first met, I was just shouting in the mic with no rhyme or rhythm. He was like, ‘Yeah, that was pure punk.’ After I got out of jail in 2013, I decided to explore how Pussy Riot’s music would sound if we did it properly. We’re an activist movement, so we didn’t really know how to make our songs sound…good. [Laughs] This probably makes me a bad punk. I love our early songs, but why not develop?”

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Nadya poses in her jail cell

ON HER DREAM MEMBER OF PUSSY RIOT:

“This is the most difficult question you can ask. I think Bernie Sanders. We’ve met a couple of times, but I haven’t had a chance to put a balaclava on him.”

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ON HER DREAM DEMONSTRATION:

“I have a long-term dream that I’m sure will come true. The FSB is one of the most evil organizations in Russia. Recently, they arrested several young activists and accused them of being part of a terrorist organization called ‘Network’ that doesn’t exist. They were tortured by FSB. I don’t have a lot of love for FSB. But what’s great about the FSB building is that it’s right next to Children’s World, the biggest toy store in Russia. My dream is to occupy the FSB building, throw out all the officers, and sell toys there.”

Nadya posing in her jail cell

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ON PARENTING:

“The most beautiful part about children is that they rebel against their parents. I was a rebellious kid. I think if you don’t reject at least part of what your parents teach you, you’re not a real kid, you’re just like a potato. But it’s kind of funny, in our family, I’m constantly trolling her about it. I’m like, ‘How are you going to rebel against me? Are you going to get a banking job?’”

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Designer: Chesche Design

Stylist: Zoya Prosekova

Makeup: Vlada Krukovskaya