Pussy Riot Members Are on House Arrest and Can’t Even Get Groceries

Nadya Tolokonnikova explains the mass arrests of protesters in Russia and how a “gay propaganda” law is being used to silence LGBTQ+ activists.
August 17, 2021, 2:06pm
Image of Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikov
Photo by Yulya Shur

Nadya Tolokonnikova, founder of Russian punk rock group and performance collective Pussy Riot, speaks with gracefully articulated rage. “Sense of humor and courage are the main instruments to fight Putin’s regime,” she said in a recent interview with VICE news, where she described the wave of arrests and persecution from law enforcement that has shaken her community of collaborators and activists this year. 

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Two members of Pussy Riot, Masha Alekhina and Lucy Stein, were among the thousands of protesters arrested in Russia in January while calling for the release of President Vladimir Putin's most vocal opponent, Alexei Navalnvy. Since January, seven other members of the group have been detained in a string of arrests at Pussy Riot gatherings and protests for charges ranging from petty hooliganism, to expressing gross obscene language in public, to refusing to cooperate with police. 

One law being leveraged heavily by authorities to raid and shut down Pussy Riot gatherings is Russia’s controversial “gay propaganda” law, which prohibits the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.”  The legislation, signed by President Putin in June 2013, says it is “aimed at protecting children from information promoting the denial of traditional family values.” In practice, according to OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the law has been used to target LGBTQ+ political activists, and there has been an uptick in violence and hate crimes motivated by bias against LGBTQ+ individuals in Russia since it passed. 

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As Russia gears up for parliamentary elections this September, Tolokonnikova updated VICE on Alekhina and Stein’s situation and how one law has given Russian authorities license to target LGBTQ+ individuals and silence their voices. 

VICE: When we last spoke, your bandmates and peers in activism, Masha Alekhina and Lucy Stein, had recently been among thousands of protesters arrested in one weekend while protesting for the release of Alexei Navalny. Are Masha and Lucy still awaiting trial? What charges are they facing? Nadya Tolokonnikova: Yes, Masha is facing two years in jail, and she is under house arrest now. Lucy Stein, her partner, is facing two years in jail as well. Lucy is on curfew, so she can leave the house during the day from 6AM to 10AM. These are pre-trial detention measures in place before the trial. At the trial, the judge will determine a jail sentence, from zero to two years.

Can you explain the communication restrictions Masha is under with her house arrest? Under house arrest, Masha is only allowed to be in touch with members of the immediate family, which is defined really conservatively in Russia. Her same-sex partner is not considered a family member. She doesn't have access to the internet legally. Imagine being quarantined through the pandemic, only you don’t have internet access, and you can’t leave your house even for 10 minutes. That takes a toll. She’s stripped of the possibility to work from home and earn money for her family. Her son is 14 years old, so that’s basically torture for her mentally.

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She cannot go to the store to get food, but at the same time, she’s not allowed to go on the internet to order food. That’s an interesting hole in the law. How are people supposed to eat? 

How big of a role does the “gay propaganda” law play in society in Russia and in the situation Masha is in?  According to a number of human rights groups, hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people have risen dramatically in Russia since this law was passed. It plays a big role in society. Every society has people who hate and every society has homophobes. The question is whether or not it feels okay for people to show it. After this law was introduced and widely discussed on Russia television channels, the police began using it to prevent activists from mobilizing, even when their messages were not connected directly to LGBTQ+ rights.

Supporters of Alexei Navalny in Berlin, Germany march to demand his release from prison on January 23, 2021

Photo by Omer Messinger/Getty Images

For example, I was shooting the music video for “RAGE” in Russia [in 2020], and the police shut down the shoot using this law. They did not see our script. Our script was not about LGBTQ+ people in particular; it was just about freedom of expression. It contained nothing special about LGBTQ+ rights, but the police used that law to shut it down. This year, my colleagues from Pussy Riot and I organized an event to raise money for Lucy and Masha, because they were both under house arrest at the time, and the police shut down the event, quoting this law again. 

Anything that is somehow connected to people who are different in their gender expression or their sexuality is subject to be banned in Russia because of this law.

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Was that the first time the Russian authorities raided a shoot of yours?Well, we were arrested a number of times just attempting to shoot something, so whenever we shoot a music video in Russia, we have to act like we’re making something illegal. 

When we were shooting the video for “I Can’t Breathe”—a song we wrote in memory of Eric Garner, who was murdered by the police in the United States—we made an agreement not to plan anything about the video using our cell phones. We only spoke about it in person. That helped us to make it happen without being invaded by the authorities.

Is there any new music you’re working on that has helped you maintain a sense of hope and progress?
There is one song in particular that I'm really excited about, called “Utopia.” We were trying to think about something positive. We talk a lot about things we’re resisting, but it’s important to keep sight of a positive image we’re trying to bring to life—it’s like a carrot in front of your nose. So, we started the song with What if life was really perfect? Do you really want to hurt me?”

The sound of it is really euphoric and happy. What we wanted to achieve with this song was to share a sense of hope with our fellow activists, which I think is so important. It’s a pretty dark time, especially for Russian activists. We wanted to give them a feeling that there is another world just around the corner, it’s possible.

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What would a utopian future look like for you? I think it’s important to note, there could not be just one utopia for everyone. One person’s utopia is inevitably a dystopia for someone else. People have the right to disagree with your version of utopia. I think the problem with the Soviet project is that they did not make this note.

One version of utopia, in my mind, could be a parliamentary democracy. We would move from a presidential democracy because it inevitably allows one person to grab too much power. We would see more experiments with electronic democracy happening in Russia and around the world. I believe that we have all the technical instruments now to implement more elements of direct democracy but we’re not using them. We’re acting like we’re still living in the 19th century and technologically, we are not. We can vote much more, on smaller issues on a daily basis. I would like to see a combination of representative and direct democracy. 

With parliamentary elections around the corner, what do you think the Russian government wants now? They want to silence the opposition and make us afraid. We constantly talk about this within our community. The consensus is that, even if the government may have arrested some people, it’s impossible to stop the movement. That is what they don’t understand. The more they arrest people, the more anger and political rage they cause in others who are still free. You cannot arrest everyone. So it will surface at some point. It’s difficult to predict, but it’s impossible to stop.

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There are other opinions. Some people think the Russian government silenced the protests, but that’s not what you see when you go on TikTok, and see thousands of young people talking about politics and openly resisting Putin. Putin has ruled Russia for the last twenty years. So everyone twenty years and younger lived all their lives with Putin, and at the same time, they exist in the same internet space as everyone else, all the other teenagers in other countries. So, imagine that contrast? 

Time flies. New generations are coming. If it’s not this year, it might take five years or so for them to grow up and get a little more power, but it’s impossible to stop it.