Pussy Riot Activist Nadya Tolokonnikova Tells Her Story at Watermill Center

Nadya Tolokonnikova
Nadya Tolokonnikova

When Russian artist and activist Nadya Tolokonnikova was a girl, she wanted to be an astronomer and “know how the universe is established.” When she was a teenager, she wanted to be a journalist, and wrote newspaper articles about the bad environmental conditions in the city where she was raised in Siberia. By the time she was in college, she’d decided instead to become a philosopher. But then, art came into her life.

Ms. Tolokonnikova, along with her husband, artist Pyotr Verzilov, were in Water Mill last Tuesday night for the first session in The Watermill Center’s new Scaler Summer Lecture Series, which continues through Aug. 13. Their discussion, as well as others in the series, are available online and will be livestreamed here.

Fernanda Eberstadt, who moderated the discussion, described Ms. Tolokonnikova as “probably the most outrageously brave woman you will ever meet.”

Ms. Tolokonnikova was born in 1989 in the Arctic mining town Norilsk. She and Mr. Verzilov were part of the controversial street art group Voina (War), where they were detained for “engaging in sexual acts” in 2008 in a biology museum in response to then-President Dmitri Medvedev’s call for increased Russian reproduction.

In August of 2012, she was convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after a performance art piece by Pussy Riot in Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and sentenced to two years of hard labor in the gulag. She served 18 months and was released after going on a hunger strike.

“Like all artists, I have an idea and I fulfil an idea,” she said, sitting shoeless on stage at The Watermill Center in a little black skirt and a white collar, as projections of Russian protest art played on the wall above her head. “No matter what happens, I have to fulfil it. People ask me ‘Am I afraid of police officers?’ No. I’m afraid something will go wrong and I won’t do what I want to do.”

Ms. Tolokonnikova and Mr. Verzilov pointed out that Pussy Riot simply built on a long Russian tradition of absurdist guerilla art actions in public spaces. Many of those actions have taken place in Red Square in the center of Moscow.

In 1991, artists belonging to the movement ETI (Expropriation of the Territory of Art) spelled the Russian word for cock, khui, with their bodies in Red Square, after the utterance of profanity was banned in public places.

In 1995, artist Alexander Brener, shirtless in boxing shorts and gloves, paced around Red Square demanding that Boris Yeltzin, then up for re-election, come out and fight.

“Of course Yeltzin declined,” said Ms. Tolokonnikova. But, by the rules of boxing, he lost the bout because he didn’t show up.

Ms. Tolokonnikova said Pussy Riot became most active when Putin was elected to a third term as president of Russia in 2012, a questionable constitutional move in a country that limits presidents to two consecutive terms. Putin served as prime minister between 2008 and 2012, during which time he still maintained political dominance in the country.

Eight members of the group performed their song “Riot in Russia — Putin Wet Himself in Red Square on January 20 atop the platform of the Place of Skulls.

“Our idea was quite simple. It was Putin’s third term and we expected everyone to be shocked by that,” she said. “Musicians sing about love…it’s ok to sing about that we are in this political situation.”

“Every time when we started to sing we’d be arrested. You can just imagine the result of political art in Russia,” she said. “You don’t see President Obama going on to talk about a lot of radical art operations in the United States.”

She and the other members of Pussy Riot didn’t know how to sing and they didn’t know how to play guitar, but that wasn’t really the point of what they were doing.

She said the group once decided to stage a “lynching ceremony,” and went into stores with mock official papers saying “don’t worry, we have papers” to prove the government approved of their plans.

It was something that seemed fitting, she said, for a government led by a man who once said that group sex was a nice idea because it gave people a chance to be lazy.

Putin didn’t think she was particularly funny.

After Ms. Tolokonnikova and two other Pussy Riot activists were sentenced to two years of hard labor, 16 hours a day without a break, she began a hunger strike in prison. It created an international scandal that was so huge that she was transferred to “a really nice prison,” as she said, for her final month. Her young daughter Gera, born in 2008, awaited her at home.

She said that, while the goal of the prisons was to pit prisoners against one another, she made friends there who joined in her hunger strike.

“We found out we could have influence,” she said.

“The thing is that Putin tried to tell about our society in more conservative terms than it is in reality,” she said. “If you talk to Russian young people, they really don’t support a lot of these conservative values that Putin wants to show as Russian native characteristics,” she said.

The livestream of Nadya Tolokonnikova’s talk is available online here. The series continues this week with talks by fashion consultant Fern Mallis on Aug. 7, soprano Jessye Norman on Aug. 11 and designer Tom Hennes on Aug. 13. The full lecture schedule is online here.

 

 




Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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