Reading the Pussy Riot act

Nadya Tolokonnikova, of female punk protest collective Pussy Riot, on the danger of UK conservatism, living in Moscow, and how the middle-class anti-Putin movement is waning.

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“Moscow calling!” The Belarusian rock band Brutto tear into their adaptation of the Clash classic. A roar erupts from the audience packing out Koko, the opulent late Victorian theatre (now a club) in Camden, north London. A giant discoball reflects the 1,500-strong crowd’s red-and-white striped Belorussian revolutionary flags.

It’s the tenth anniversary of the Belarus Free Theatre, a group that has gained international support in solidarity with artists oppressed by authoritarian regimes. The gig, tagged “I’m with the Banned”, featured protest artists from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine outlawed in their home countries.

None have caused greater disruption than Pussy Riot. The feminist punk collective, familiar from their balaclavas and neon tights, are as angry as ever. The publicity around Pussy Riot peaked in 2012 with their guerrilla “Punk Prayer” gig at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, which landed two members in Siberian penal colonies.

But Nadya Tolokonnikova, who was released in December 2013 after 18 months, swaps the band’s avant-garde approach for a straightforward speech when she addresses this London crowd. Stepping rather shyly on to the stage in cherry red Doc Martens, a black skirt and baggy brown “Matriarchy Now” T-shirt, the 25-year-old’s presence nevertheless stuns the crowd into silence.

She warns Britain against authoritarianism. “You might think that conservative, chauvinist pigs are far away. But actually they could be very close . . . If Prime Minister Cameron calls migrants a ‘human swarm’, we have to show migrants our warmth and solidarity.”

I meet Tolokonnikova afterwards in the sweaty greenroom. She is looking doubtfully at a packet of crisps, running a hand through her choppy black hair. The only words I can make out from her Russian are “Worcester” and “sauce”. She crinkles her nose and opts for an apple instead.

“The problem I see here and in other European countries and America is that the young generation – who didn’t take part in all these empowering movements in the Sixties and the Seventies, for who it's just history – take this freedom for granted.” She gesticulates theatrically, her long red fingernails glinting in the harsh backstage lighting. “That’s why I think there’s a possibility they can lose it. Because they don’t want to fight any more.

“When I ask, ‘Why don’t you take part in political demonstrations?’ they tell me that every problem is solved. But it’s not true!” she says. “Politicians know it and they do what they want. That’s why there’s a rise in conservative tendencies across Europe, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Trump in the US, obviously, and David Cameron. I want young people in your country to think more about that.”

Despite her international appearances, Russia is never far from her mind. Since being released from prison, Tolokonnikova has been horsewhipped by Cossacks while protesting at the Sochi Winter Olympics, had paint thrown in her eyes by plain-clothed policemen, attacked when trying to give food to former fellow prisoners, and most recently was detained over a prison rights demonstration. Yet she still lives in Moscow.

“I can still do something useful in Moscow. We don’t want to just give Russia to Putin and go away.”

But she believes that Russia’s anti-Putin movement has died down; she claims it peaked at the end of 2011, when Putin announced he would serve a third term and Pussy Riot formed. “After Putin came to power, he created a huge amount of laws to stop and fine protesters . . . He put a lot of people in prison. Obviously, the activity went down, because people who take part in demonstrations are mainly middle-class. They have something to lose and they’d rather not lose it,” Tolokonnikova says.

“But they don’t sleep, they are still awake – waiting. I have a lot of people in my circles who aren’t demonstrating right now, but they are ready.” As she warned in her speech: “Jailing your enemy is a bad idea. He will only grow stronger and his voice will become louder.”

Staging a Revolution: I’m With the Banned, a solidarity concert on 18 October at KoKo, preceded Staging a Revolution: a two week festival comprising 10 productions and 10 discussion platforms to celebrate Belarus Free Theatre’s 10th anniversary in 2015.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister