Pussy Riot video
Culture

Russia Is Still Trying to Stop Pussy Riot from Making Art

Nadya Tolokonnikova tells VICE UK how their video shoot for "БЕСИТ / RAGE" got shut down by police in February, and shares photos they were able to keep hold of.
03 March 2020, 8:45am

On the 21st of February, 2012, five members of the Russian protest art collective Pussy Riot burst into Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in balaclavas, shouting about rotten dictators and begging the Virgin Mary to incarcerate Vladimir Putin.

Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria "Masha" Alyokhina were arrested first, followed by Yekaterina Samutsevich a few weeks later. On the 17th of August, all three members were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and sentenced to two years imprisonment. The remaining members escaped arrest after the protest and reportedly left Russia, fearing prosecution.

Since then, the name Pussy Riot has become synonymous with resistance. Their "Punk Prayer" earned them global notoriety, while Nadya and Masha have become mainstays of the political art world, making public appearances (including at Glastonbury Festival and The Edinburgh Fringe) to speak about riots, resistance and anti-authoritarianism. Their lives – both inside the penal colony where they served their sentences, and after their release – have been heavily documented through films and memoirs.

While their protest efforts are something of a given to Western audiences, in Russia it's a different story. Last month, Russian police prevented Pussy Riot from filming a new music video at a studio in St Petersburg. They cut the electricity and eventually raided the building. Speaking to VICE UK, Nadya detailed what happened and what comes next.

On the 9th of February, 2020, Russian police broke into the St. Petersburg location where Pussy Riot were filming a video for our upcoming single "БЕСИТ / RAGE" (prod. by Chris Greatti and Crazy Demxns). Russia has a federal law "for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values", which is also known as the "gay propaganda law" or the "anti-gay law". We were accused of "gay propaganda", "extremism" and "making an illegal video", but we didn't even have a chance to shoot anything. How could the police know we were creating "gay propaganda" before the video was even made?

"The Russian government's mission is to make sure Pussy Riot never makes a single piece of art again."

In 2012, myself and Maria Alyokhina were sent to penal colonies for two years after staging a performance inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. "It's your fault for doing illegal guerrilla action," we were told. "Next time, rent a place properly and do whatever you like there, nobody will tell you anything."

We've done what they told us to do. This time, we even had a contract with a studio, we had documentation – but it didn't matter, because the Russian government's mission is to make sure Pussy Riot never makes a single piece of art again.

When we were trying to film the video for "БЕСИТ / RAGE", "anti-extremist" police forced the studio (Lenfilm) to cut off electricity in the building. When we realised it wasn't going to come back on, we rented an electric generator. However, the police had surrounded the building and wouldn't let us bring the generator in. We managed to take some photos in the dark using flashlights, but soon enough police raided the building and we were kicked out. No legal explanation was given to us.

A total of 150 activists, mostly female and queer, took part in the shoot – including me, Sasha Sofeev (a campaigner for the freedom of political prisoners), feminists Lolja Nordic and Nixelpixel, and Lorina Rey, a drag queen who recently took part in Charli XCX's show in Moscow. "БЕСИТ / RAGE" is dedicated to a pain that we – anti-Putin activists, feminists and queer people – feel being the enemies of the state in our own country. As the lyrics in the song go: "A police baton on my ribs / I'm singing with blood today."

On the 10th of February, the following day, myself and 14 friends were arrested for attempting to stage a fashion photoshoot. It wasn't connected to the video shoot at all – I just had an extra day in St. Petersburg to hang out, so me and my friends decided to take some photos. We were arrested inside a studio while I was getting my makeup done. With no explanation, we were detained, and spent three hours in a police station.

It's sad we don't have freedom of speech or freedom of expression in our country. We spent $15,000 (£11,710) on video production, and everything we've been working on over the last three months has been ruined by the police – partly because of the absurd "gay propaganda" law, and partly because Pussy Riot are labelled "enemies of the state" in Russia.

We put all our love and passion into preparing the "БЕСИТ / RAGE" video, and we're still planning to finish it. At least there's one positive to take away: we must be really powerful and influential if the government is so scared of our art.

See more photos from the shoot by Sasha Chaika below.