Interview With Pussy Riot Member 'I Want Justice'

Pussy Riot activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova talks about her plans following her release from prison, what she has in common with former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and her five-year-old daughter's drawings.

Interview Conducted By

REUTERS

Despite the short nights since her release, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova seemed rested and combative when she sat down for a first lengthy interview with SPIEGEL last Friday. The conversation took place in a car, on the trip from Vnukovo International Airport into downtown Moscow. Her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, was sitting next to her. Tolokonnikova, 24, her fingernails painted a bright red, was in good spirits. Before long, she began talking about the "poor conditions in our prisons and our country as a whole."

She said that she bears no hatred against Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that she is determined to change the system he has created. Then the Pussy Riot activist began singing a few lines from a song she had written while in prison, in which she pokes fun at Putin's tendency to appear in photos that highlight the macho side of his personality.

"You're catching a fish, but I want rebellion," she sang. Before attending a press conference at the studio of opposition TV broadcaster Dozhd, she went to see her five-year-old daughter Gera, who had been living with Tolokonnikova's in-laws since her arrest.

SPIEGEL: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, how do you feel after your return from prison in Siberia?

Tolokonnikova: It isn't easy to return to reality after being disconnected from it for two years. And to be honest, I feel a burden of responsibility to those who are still in prison, as well as those who have supported Pussy Riot and me in this difficult situation. Since I was released from prison on Monday of last week, I've only been able to sleep two or three hours a night. Now is the time to given something back to those who believed in me. Perhaps I'll make mistakes in the process. I think I'll need help along this path from people who think in political terms and aren't indifferent to everything.

SPIEGEL: What was everyday life like when you were in prison?

Tolokonnikova: I spent most of the time at a penal colony in Mordovia. This is what my day was like there: Wake up at 5:45 a.m., 12 minutes of early-morning exercise, followed by breakfast and forced labor as a seamstress. Being allowed to go to the bathroom or smoke a cigarette depended on the guards' mood. Lunch was greasy and of poor quality. The workday ended at 7 p.m., when there was roll call in the prison yard. After that, we were sometimes required to shovel snow or do other cleanup work. Then we waited in line to wash up a little, and finally we went to bed.

SPIEGEL: Were you able to read books?

Tolokonnikova: There was almost no time for that. My intellectual exercises took place at the sewing machine.

SPIEGEL: Were you treated decently while in custody?

Tolokonnikova: No. It was terrible. They tried everything to break me and silence me. The collective punishments were the worst, almost unbearable. Because of a small gesture, or when I asked the camp management to observe the law, 100 people were assigned to a punishment unit, where beatings were customary. I was treated better than others, simply because there was so much public attention. In my case, they did adhere to the eight-hour workday required by law. The other women were often forced to slave away for up to 16 hours a day.

SPIEGEL: How could the Russian penal system be reformed?

Tolokonnikova: I'm not claiming that everything I say here is the ultimate truth. But this is what would be needed: more exercise, a broader selection of work activities to reflect the talents and propensities of prisoners, and decent pay, so that prisoners can occasionally buy something without outside support. I was paid all of 25 rubles a month for sewing uniforms day in and day out. In euros, that's the equivalent of 60 cents ($0.82). I would have been in bad shape if I hadn't received food packages. It would also be very important to prevent prisoners from harassing their fellow prisoners. And I also think educational activities are important. For example, why shouldn't prisons feature the occasional guest performance by a theater group?

SPIEGEL: Because the Russian penal system is geared toward punishment and revenge, rather than correction.

Tolokonnikova: To change that, my fellow activist Maria Alyokhina and I are in the process of founding a human rights organization for prisoners. We call it "Zone of Law," because in Russia penal colonies are commonly referred to as zones, and because we want laws and human rights to be observed there. The bureaucrats who are responsible for our penal system should be guided by humanism and not the principle of the lash. I was so engaged with all of this that I even saw these new, humane prisons in my dreams. I also dreamt about finally meeting the leftist Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. He is a great role model for me.

SPIEGEL: Do you already have concrete plans, or have you thought about new campaigns?

Tolokonnikova: There was certainly enough time for that in prison. We will soon focus our performances on the rights of prisoners and reforming the penal camp system.

SPIEGEL: How did you keep yourself going during your imprisonment?

Tolokonnikova: By sticking to my principles, and with support from the outside and my faith.

SPIEGEL: Is it true that you asked your father to bring you an icon when you were in prison, and that he did so, as a pro-Kremlin tabloid newspaper wrote?

Tolokonnikova: Yes, an image of the Virgin Mary. However, the frame had to remain outside, because it was made of glass, and it was felt that I could have tried to commit suicide or attack others with broken glass. My grandmother gave me the frame after I was released, and on Thursday, before my flight to Moscow, I put the image back into the frame.

SPIEGEL: So you found comfort in an icon during your imprisonment?

Tolokonnikova: It was important to me, because my father and I have always maintained a strong tradition in our family. Whenever we went to church together, we bought an icon that we particularly liked. Over time, we accumulated quite a collection of icons at home. That's where my intellectual roots lie, if you will.

SPIEGEL: And you, of all people, initiated an act of political protest in the country's most important church. Would you do it again today?

Tolokonnikova: No, but that doesn't mean that I wish to distance myself from the performance. At the time, I was determined to do something against the alliance between the Kremlin and the church, and in our opinion the Cathedral of Christ the Savior seemed to be the best place for that.

SPIEGEL: Can you understand that Orthodox Christians felt insulted when you berated Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church, as a "bitch?"

Tolokonnikova: Of course I understand that. But don't forget the role of government propaganda in this whole thing. There was never any mention of the political core of our performance in the Kremlin media. Our performance was simply portrayed as an act against the religion. But it wasn't.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe in God?

Tolokonnikova: I believe in fate. And in the depths of my soul, I am an Orthodox Christian. I think the New Testament is especially important. What Jesus and his disciples preached and did was a great thing.

SPIEGEL: As a result of your sentence to two years in a penal colony, you became a global icon of freedom and the struggle against the authoritarian Putin system, but you also became a sex symbol. It's a role that you probably don't like, as the leader of a feminist punk band.

Tolokonnikova: Well, if I am a sex symbol, it's certainly not in the classic sense. I'm opposed to the traditional image of a woman's role. But if someone finds our Spartan and combative performances sexy, like the one in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, that's just the way it is. No one can claim that our protest in the church coincides with the classic image of women.

SPIEGEL: You make a point of looking good. Even in the Plexiglas cage in the courtroom, you were always wearing makeup.

Tolokonnikova: So? Men should also pay attention to their appearance and occasionally use cosmetics. I support equality. Everyone should feel free to live out the parts of their personality that correspond to the classic male or female image.

SPIEGEL: How do you feel about the Femen groups, which express their political protest by going topless?

Tolokonnikova: I admire these women for the tenacity and regularity with which they conduct their protests. But performing half-naked wouldn't be my thing.

SPIEGEL: Is the former oil tycoon and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky right when he says that, after Putin released him and granted an amnesty for Pussy Riot, the government has become "a little more human?"

Tolokonnikova: There is no thaw. That's the expression we always used in the Soviet Union to describe a liberalization policy initiated from above. The government was simply forced to react to pressure from below, and to pressure from society. This is the result of the colossal and daily efforts of those who campaign for civil and human rights in Russia. However, I'm afraid that there will be new acts of repression after the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Games are incredibly important to Putin, and he was trying to ease tensions a little. If foreign leaders now travel to Sochi, they will be legitimizing Putin's policies. They should boycott his games.

SPIEGEL: Khodorkovsky wrote an open letter in which he somewhat condescendingly addressed you as girls. How you feel about him and his plans to go to Switzerland?

Tolokonnikova: Our paths in life are very different. We have only one thing in common: our experience in the camps. I hope that, in my case and that of my fellow Pussy Riot activists, it results in our devoting all of our energy to campaigning for the release of innocent people, the improvement of prison conditions and a more democratic political system in Russia. If Khodorkovsky wants to support our projects, he should do so. But we will certainly not ask him or others for financial assistance. Of course, he was imprisoned for a longer time and under more severe conditions than I was. Perhaps Mikhail Khodorkovsky wouldn't be the worst president for our country.

SPIEGEL: Are you grateful to Putin for granting an amnesty for Pussy Riot?

Tolokonnikova: I'm grateful to those who supported us month after month, in Russia and abroad. I owe my release to the people, and not to our political leadership. That's why we must continue to apply pressure.

SPIEGEL: But the overwhelming majority of the Russian people rejected your performance in the church and approved of your punishment.

Tolokonnikova: Yes, under the influence of government propaganda. I was allowed once to travel from the camp to the provincial capital, Saransk, because I had to submit my petition for early release there. I was able to watch television briefly for the first time. And what did I see on the news? A minute and a half on the civil war in Syria and the many victims there, and then 20 minutes about Putin in Siberia and how he caught a big pike. That's just crazy.

SPIEGEL: It seems to us, though, that notwithstanding government propaganda against Pussy Riot, you aren't particularly popular.

Tolokonnikova: I was dealing with precisely that majority of the population in the camp. But when I explained our acts of protest to the women there, they were quickly on our side. People in Russia can distinguish between truth and lies. Besides, modern art has always evoked negative reactions. After all, we're not a $100 bill that everyone likes. On the contrary, the task of the modern artist is to provoke and divide society.

SPIEGEL: Letters that you received in prison from your fellow activist Maria Alyokhina, who was released, suggest that Pussy Riot would have no objection to the commercial use of your brand. Do you want to turn your fame into cash?

Tolokonnikova: No. We once thought about making money to help non-governmental organizations that, for example, want to promote feminism and environmental protection in Russia. We were in pretrial detention with a number of female entrepreneurs, and they urged us to do it. But we quickly turned our backs on such ideas.

SPIEGEL: Will you make appearances abroad?

Tolokonnikova: Of course. Not in concerts, but in the form of lectures on the Russian penal system.

SPIEGEL: What's the first thing you'll do on this Friday evening, when you see your five-year-old daughter Gera?

Tolokonnikova: Quietly draw cats and rabbits together.

SPIEGEL: How did you stay in touch with your daughter while in prison?

Tolokonnikova: We were allowed to talk to each other on the phone once a week, and sometimes twice. And Gera was able to visit me once every three months. She would bring me drawings during those visits. Once, she even drew a plan to help me escape from the camp. An escape plan.

SPIEGEL: How did you explain to your daughter the fact that you were in prison?

Tolokonnikova: She knew early on about what I do. She saw our music clips, of course, only the ones without foul language. I explained to her early on what elections are, and she knew exactly who Vladimir Putin is. I once jokingly told her that Putin would definitely come to our house on March 4, the date of the 2012 presidential election. It's also Gera's birthday. She was so scared that she crawled under the table.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel guilty that you and your husband have neglected your daughter, because of your political protests?

Tolokonnikova: A man would never be asked that sort of question.

SPIEGEL: For instance, you took Gera along to demonstrations, as a protective shield, so to speak. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung even compared you to members of the Red Army Faction, a German terrorist organization, who neglected their children.

Tolokonnikova: Those kinds of comments stem from a deeply paternalistic viewpoint. Society is still trying to reduce women to the confines of their private lives, to husband and children, home and hearth. Every woman with a career has to make sacrifices when it comes to her children. It's no different with me, as a political activist, than with businesswomen, of which there are thankfully more and more in Russia. Or a female cabinet minister. And besides, we are fighting for changes so that our children will live in a better Russia one day.

SPIEGEL: In letters to your fellow activist Maria Alyokhina, you express the suspicion that the third Pussy Riot activist, Yekaterina Samutsevich, cooperated with the government so that they would release her on probation. Will you meet with Yekaterina now, or are you hopelessly estranged?

Tolokonnikova: We will see each other soon. And I now believe that she was released because there was too much pressure on the Kremlin.

SPIEGEL: What do you hope to achieve, now that you are free?

Tolokonnikova: Justice, truth and beauty.

SPIEGEL: Would you say that life in the camp changed you?

Tolokonnikova: I understand Russia much better now, simply because when I was there I was interacting with women from social groups that I would never have encountered before. That's very important for a political activist like me. Besides, I gained an inner peace, the serenity of a prisoner, so to speak.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Tolokonnikova, thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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bet 12/30/2013
1. thanks
Thanks a lot for how you are and what you do Nadezhda. There is a lot to be done in this world for the people's freedom, in particular for wemen's freedom. You are one big step in this struggle. Thanks again. My best whishes for Pussy riot in 2014 and the next years to come
spon-facebook-10000044319 12/31/2013
2. Pussy Rioters Want $$$$$$
«Freed Pussy Riot rockers say they will continue to rock Russian system» - CNN Dec 25 2013 Pussy Rioter Maria Alyokhina: "Nadezhda Tolokonnikova & I plan on working to change the conditions … which we definitely compare to slavery in Russia's women's prisons… Seriously we need FUNDING from the west immediately, we don't care even if it is from George Darling Soros… Many people die there physically and many people die inside… So please help us fight this menace & we promise to eradicate it totally … All we are looking for is 50-to-100 million US dollars for this Just Cause … «Thank you Ladies & Gentlemen and Donors .» Give them the big bucks, George and CIA! Their amazing musical talent deserves no less. Arnold Lockshin, political exile from the US now living in Moscow, Russia
joe 01/02/2014
3. riot
I am amazed at the brazenness of this woman's invoking her religious roots when her crime was desecrating a church. This is an international farce. Suddenly she and Khodorkovsky are sainted in the western press. This interview was notably different in tone than the one with Assad. Isn't it possible to take her and her shallow propaganda drivel off the front pages?
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