Friday, September 19, 2014

Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova: ‘I suppose we have nothing more to lose’

Nadya Tolokonnikova spent 18 months in jail after Pussy Riot’s protests against Vladimir Putin. She is feted across the West but now she just wants to concentrate on the real work of reform in Russia

Tolokonnikova’s opposition to Putin remains paramount. She believes the decision to prosecute her and two other Pussy Riot members came from him personally, and was not triggered by the action in the.. Church, but by his fury at an earlier performance in Red Square, where they sang “Putin has wet himself!”
“Probably no one would have noticed our protest if Putin himself hadn’t highlighted it to the whole world,” she says. “It seemed pretty stupid of him and that’s why we think it was a personal reaction – no political adviser would ever have advised that response. He’s lost all contact with the world, lost touch; he’s convinced that he will continue to be in power, and is certain he can do what he likes.”
She still attends the occasional anti-Putin protest, but there are fewer of them now. The decision to lock up the Pussy Rioters sent a chill through the opposition movement, as did the arrests of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his supporters.
Tolokonnikova
Tolokonnikova being detained by police at a protest in central Moscow in February 2014. 
Photograph: MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS

If Nadya Tolokonnikova wanted to abandon protest and flee Russia for a life of quiet exile in the west, it wouldn’t be so surprising. Although she was freed, by presidential amnesty, last December after serving 18 months in prison for participating in an anti-Putin punk protest, the Pussy Rioter remains under the close watch of the Russian state. Naturally, her emails are monitored; more disturbingly she recently discovered that state security agents dropped by a cafe she regularly visits to install bugging devices. She has been horsewhipped by police in Sochi and had green paint thrown in her eyes by plain-clothed officers in a regional branch of McDonald’s.

Many of her friends and fellow protesters have decided to leave, in a new wave of departures that she describes as “the emigration of disillusionment”. In the two-and-a-half years since Pussy Riot, in rainbow-coloured tights and balaclavas, stormed into Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral to sing their Punk Prayer (“Virgin Mary, mother of God, banish Putin! Virgin Mary, mother of God, banish him we pray thee!”), the optimistic exuberance of Russia’s anti-Putin protest scene has mostly faded to despair.
Tolokonnikova, 24, hasn’t stopped protesting and is not contemplating exile, but for the moment her protest has morphed into something quieter and narrower. Instead of dedicating herself to the overthrow of Putin’s regime, she has set up a prison-reform project and launched a news agency website, Mediazona.
We talk via Skype, early in the morning. She is initially reluctant to press the camera button, explaining that she has only just got up and is not ready to be seen. Then she agrees. Her face is pale and flawless, her green-tipped hair pulled back. Catapulted to global fame during months of televised court appearances she is instantly recognisable. She walks around the flat carrying her laptop, trying to find the best signal, greeting various unidentified Pussy Riot members and supporters who hover in the background.
Recently she has met her heroes Patti Smith and Noam Chomsky, spoken at Harvard Institute of Politics, and spent half the night following her talk protesting outside a police station at the arrest of a Harvard student for trespassing (he was later released). She is feted for her bravery, and gets rock star treatment everywhere she goes, but she says that she is always anxious to return to Moscow, to get back to work. She laughs at the notion of Federal Security Service (FSB) agents trying to wire up her favourite cafe, and says with the wry understatement that flows beneath most of her comments: “It’s obviously not very nice. It makes you realise that the conditions we endured in prison aren’t actually that different from the conditions we’re faced with now that we’re free.”
Although Pussy Riot as a movement is “absolutely still alive”, Tolokonnikova and her fellow group members have been sobered by events in Ukraine. “We’re not planning anything for the moment, because it feels very difficult to protest against the main thing on the agenda in Russia right now with our carnivalesque performances. Pussy Riot exists as a group to react to political events, but it would look a bit cynical to comment on the war, where people are dying every day, by putting on brightly coloured balaclavas and launching into an irony-infused performance. It doesn’t feel appropriate. That doesn’t mean we won’t again in the future.”
The last Pussy Riot action was in Sochi last February when Cossack guards moved in and started whipping and beating performers. “Before the [Winter] Olympics, the Pussy Riot form felt [like a] very appropriate way of protesting,” she says, “because the Olympics was an event that you had to laugh at. It was the most expensive Olympics, and a big part – according to numerous investigations – of the money ended up in officials’ pockets, just at a time when things were not going so well with the Russian economy.”
Instead she and Alyokhina, who served 18 months in a different jail, recently launched Zona Prava (Justice Zone), a campaigning charity aimed at improving conditions in Russia’s jails. They had hoped to start work while they were actually in prison, but “the camps turned out to be very difficult places,” she says.... read more: