Pussy Riot 2020 by Neil Krug
Photo: Neil Krug
Music

Pussy Riot Goes Pop

We spoke to Nadya Tolokonnikova and producer Vitya Isaiev about their new EP, the future of activism and their aim to "make pop revolutionary again".
18 May 2020, 4:44am

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It's been almost a decade since five members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot disrupted Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior in multicoloured clothes and balaclavas, screaming "bless our festering bastard boss" and imploring the Virgin Mary to "banish Putin".

The action was so visually striking and widely reported that it's been absorbed into our collective memory, alongside other international milestones of its time, like "Gangnam Style" or social media actually being used to effect political change. The name Pussy Riot is now so omnipresent in pop culture, particularly in the west, that it's almost easy to forget their "Punk Prayer" landed three of them in Russian labour camps for two years.

Since her release in December of 2013, founding member Nadya Tolokonnikova has become the name most associated with Pussy Riot. Inspired by the Russian avant-garde and Moscow Actionism in the 1990s, Pussy Riot has taken many different artistic directions, but their output has always been underpinned by a specific concept. Simply put: they always have a point to make.

Pussy Riot’s latest EP, НОЖ / KNIFE, sees the collective dip their toes into Russian pop radio. Collaborating with producer Vitya Isaiev, best known for his work with the subversive viral artist Monetochka, the two tracks – "НОЖ / KNIFE" and "ОНА / HER" – overturn the misogynist clichés of Russian pop by using its sweet, uplifting sounds to tell two stories: one about a woman fighting back against an abusive partner, and another in which the heroine kills a man who tries to rape her. Both are inspired by a wider conversation about domestic violence in Russia, when a law passed in 2017 reducing sentences for domestic violence provoked backlash and a serious debate about legislation.

Ahead of the EP we spoke to Nadya and Vitya about the new songs, the future of activism and their aim to "make pop revolutionary again".

Photo Credit: Neil Krug

VICE: Hi, guys. How's the coronavirus situation been for you both so far?
Vitya: It's been fine for me, actually. I’m not in Moscow right now, I’ve been away for three to four months, but not much has changed for me at all.

Nadya: Same. I prefer not to disclose my location, but at the place where I am it’s relatively peaceful. For me, besides losing the part of my identity as a performing musician, nothing terrible is happening.

Initially in the US and the UK it seemed that one thing activists were quite worried about was not being able to protest or organise in person, but since then there’s been a lot of digital activism – people hijacking Zoom meetings to protest evictions and things like that. Nadya, as someone with personal experience of in-person protest being shut down very forcefully, do you have any thoughts on how activism can play out during lockdown?
Nadya: I think if you really want to remain active, you can, it’s just a matter of finding new ways. I’ve always been inspired by Katrin Nenasheva – a performance artist, or an "actionist", as we call people in Russia who do especially brave actions. She’s been really active during lockdown, and her latest action was to put a note for everyone who lives in her [apartment block] – it’s a big building in the city, so there’s a lot of people – about domestic violence, saying some of the residents have heard noises from a neighbour's apartment. She announced that from 5PM to 7PM she’d be sitting downstairs, ready to talk to that person about what’s going on. She also has a background as an artist / psychologist, so I believe she can really give people some help. I still believe in the power of virtual realities, because I think it’s important for us to stay in touch with each other and be organised so we won’t have lost those connections when we can gather again.

Was Katrin’s action an inspiration on the EP? A running theme across both songs is women exacting revenge on men who have done violent things to them.
Nadya: The inspiration for the EP came more from our personal lives, and what we see around us. In the last few years, domestic violence has become one of the most important topics in Russia, and while it’s a dramatic topic we’re here to celebrate the importance of it being discussed for the first time in decades. It was sidelined as an issue while we were talking about ways to oppose Putin, and we still want to oppose Putin, but we want to point out that it’s really important to take care of women and everyone who is being abused, especially in their homes.

Vitya: For me it was obvious a long time ago that domestic violence is wrong, so I’m just happy this topic is starting to get somewhere in Russia, but the EP wasn’t a conscious idea to get revenge through music. The sound was inspired a little by this cliché Russian pop music that we all grew up listening to or hearing somewhere. Every time you’re in a cab in Russia the radio has all this masculine pop music playing, where the guys sing like, "Come here, suck my dick" or whatever [_Nadya laughs_], and you’re thinking, 'How is this dude singing this shit?!' So I wrote to Nadya saying we should make this chauvinistic song but with a feminine message, to disarm it somehow.

Nadya: Vitya told me, "Let’s play with the genre" and tell a story about this strong woman who doesn’t need a man – she’s in love with a woman, but he refuses to believe that and keeps chasing her. He eventually comes to her apartment to rape her, so she kills him. End of story. He whispers in her ear, "Love is violence."

Vitya: Which is a common [thing to hear]. You’d be surprised how cliché everything about Russian pop music is. It’s all these themes from the 90s with a more sexualised strong male presence, which really bothers me. I was raised by a single mother, my father didn’t take any part in my education or upbringing, and I always saw it as a real big problem the way that women are treated in Russia. I was raised on Miyazaki’s work too, which obviously has a lot of strong female characters. I never really thought how [domestic violence] could be so prevalent in a place like Russia, where there’s a lot of strong women – women who are stronger than men.

Nadya: I always love hanging out and working with Vitya. As Russian people, we really love to complain to each other in kitchens – or in chats, which is the more modern version of that – so I was just complaining a lot about my life, about partners who have emotionally abused me, so we were like, "OK, we have to transform this somehow."

Photo Credit: Neil Krug

So, for you, talking about these things through the medium of pop is a form of rebellion, because it’s taking something masculine and violent and subverting it?
Vitya: Exactly. There were two things happening in Russian pop [that each song on the EP is inspired by]. There were songs that were like "take me over the seas and kiss me everywhere, I’m 18’"with these wild chord changes – kind of like "Autumn Leaves", the jazz standard – which is very typical to Asian and Russian music. Then there’s a stereotype that older Russian women are obsessed with 90s Latin music, like Jennifer Lopez – so the second track is inspired by this playful Latin sound, which is now mostly used in a Russian genre called "smokehouse rap".

Nadya: When Rina Sawayama released her album earlier this year and explained why the songs sounded so drastically different, she said something like, "I pick the topic, then the concept, then whichever genre will reflect it best or whatever will be most interesting" – and those words were really important to me. I feel like that a lot too. My brain has been shaped by conceptual art, and conceptual art gives you a lot of freedom to mess with genres and topics. If you find a way to subvert even the most mainstream sound, which I believe we have done in this instance, it’s thrilling. It’s punk to me. Punk hasn’t been a specific look or a specific genre of music for a long time. A lot of people still stick to the old definition of punk, but if you’re a punk, why would you stick to definitions at all? It kills the whole idea. We want to make pop revolutionary again!

Did that concept inform the music video too?
Nadya: The idea behind the superhero is actually really old. When we started Pussy Riot we wanted to present ourselves as faceless superheroes, which is why we were wearing balaclavas. We wanted to protect our identities, but mostly we wanted to protect this artistic idea that we don’t need to show our faces, we don’t have to be judged only on how we look, we represent this idea of really angry feminist activists who are fighting against the patriarchy. That was all destroyed when we were arrested. Our identities were revealed, and it became more about our personalities. It was something that we had to deal with at the time, because we didn’t have much of a choice – but honestly, I cared much more about losing this artistic concept than losing my freedom. We believed in it to that extent.

So lately I’ve been coming back to the idea of creating a Pussy Riot "character". The video is like a "choose your fighter" game, where you build and train your own feminist superhero. She learns how to box, kick sexists, use a spray can – I believe in the power of art and graffiti, because most of the buildings are owned by this white male cis boring man, and you can come there with your spray can and take back the world.

Pussy Riot comes from a very Russian perspective and experience, but your messages have a fairly global audience and appeal. Is that something you’ve always had in mind with your art, to try to reach the biggest possible audience?
Nadya: I do think that’s the case, but I wouldn’t say it’s a conscious strategy. In the beginning especially [what Pussy Riot was doing] reflected the way we see the world. Most of the people involved happen to be anarchists, and as anarchists we don’t believe in borders or nation states, so it was natural to us from the beginning to even pick a name that’s in English, although a lot of Russian people didn’t understand why. I think it just reflects that we are globalised – in a good way, in this case.

Vitya: The strange thing about music is you never think about anything you do to be "Russian", or whatever, because we all grow up listening to what’s good – like when I was in musical training I’d play a lot of Bach, and I love James Blake and Frank Ocean. I don’t think [Russian] is as well represented over the world as it could be, but I think the reason behind Russian music not being as recognised is political or economic. Everyone knows Tarkovsky, whether they like his films or not – and his films have some of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. It’s a pity for me that the only Russian group everyone in the USA knows is Gorky Park. Oh, and Pussy Riot!

Nadya: And t.A.T.u!

Vitya: Do you think t.A.T.u is representative of Russian music?

Nadya: If I do a DJ set and I don’t play t.A.T.u, it's like… I’m fired [_laughs_].

In terms of protest in an authoritarian state like Russian there are clear opposing forces. There’s the corrupt state who use police power and label peaceful action extremist gay propaganda, like what happened with you very recently. Whereas, in a democracy, protesters can legally say whatever they want – but things are very messy and fragmented and it doesn’t really feel like there’s one unified "bad guy", if that makes sense. I was wondering if you had any opinions about protest tactics in terms of what does and doesn’t work in democracies, compared to authoritarian states?
Nadya: I think what you’ve described is a classic concept of my favourite philosopher, Michel Foucault. It’s biopolitics – power structures that don’t have a face, but they still have power over you, and they’re actually much more powerful because there is no one person you can rebel against. That’s a much more difficult situation to get out of. I would compare it to abusive relationships, where your partner is passive-aggressive and operates through guilt – not through direct violence, or screaming at you, or using physical force. That’s more difficult to recognise, and when you recognise it you start to feel guilty yourself because you’re like, 'This person is so nice to me, why would I leave him?' And I think it’s the same thing with a government that works more like an evil corporation, not as a dictatorship.

Vitya: In a country like Russia, you have to think about what you want to demonstrate. Take a person like Putin, for example – this is a man who’s afraid of mistakes, afraid of being human, even. There’s not a single time where he’s said, "Sorry, I fucked up, let’s see what we can do." It’s always, "It happens, it’s not a big deal." The best way to ruin his persona would be to humour him, to make him look like a little helpless creature. With a lot of stuff happening in Russia, you have to identify what you want to expose by flipping it. With a democratic society, someone like Trump is immortal because he’s clearly always fucking up. Everything he does is a fuck up. He’s a person you can’t kill with reason, so there’s something else you have to do to kill this persona’s image.

Nadya: It’s important analyse the situation and define the concepts and the ideas you’re fighting for. Formulate a strong picture of a better future that you actually want for yourself and people around you, so you don’t fight that much against something, you fight for another concept of the world. If you still feel like it’s useful for you to fight against something, then you fight against certain ideas and praxises and methods. I think people like Greta Thunburg really understand that. She doesn’t struggle much against certain personas – she mentions them, but for her the fight is about saving the planet and fighting against corporations who are burning our earth. I think that’s the approach for the activism of the future.

Photo Credit: Neil Krug

How do you think art and music can affect politics?
Nadya: At some point in my life I realised that my strengths are coming up with art concepts and maybe motivating people around me, not making plans. I spent two years in prison for something I didn’t plan to spend two years in prison for – nothing in my life goes as planned! I lead by instinct, by emotion, and I’m fucking proud of it. So maybe I make political music and political art because I felt like other people’s political music and art was something that inspired me the most. Maybe I was just in love with the avant-garde of the early 20th century in Russia too much. I was really sad that it was all gone after the bolsheviks, and I’m really proud of that part of Russian history. It was a time when Russia occupied the whole world – not with weapons, but with art and ideas. Russian artists were really influential, so I’ve always wanted to go back to that time and a really important part of that time was that artists were driven a lot by their political ideas. They wanted to be useful. Not all of them, but it was a big factor. I wanted to be like them.

Vitya: The great thing about music is that it’s really entertaining, and the best way for people to learn is through entertainment. The most fucked up way to learn is when you only read about things – you never learn anything that way. Music is always giving us this chance to learn something, to experience something, with the least amount of work possible. I think that’s the case with this collaboration too. We can send this message, which is important, but in order for it to accomplish or mean something it has to be fun to listen to. All the art I’ve mentioned – Miyazaki or Tarkovsky or whatever – are things people are drawn to because they enjoy it. THey like to watch it, or feel it. That’s the main thing about art. You’ve got to have fun! You can have fun and be stupid and that’s good some of the time, but if you have fun and do something good – that’s the best thing that can happen to you at any moment of your life.

@emmaggarland

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.