Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “I have a tremendous urge to feel”
August 1, 2012
The most famous member of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot at the moment of their arrest, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has already spent five months in Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6 in Moscow’s Pechatniki district. The outer walls of the three-storey prison building, on Shosseinaya Street, are windowless: the cell windows face the courtyard, thus ruling out even visual contact with the outside world. This has earned No. 6 the nickname “the Bastille.” When a few weeks ago I sent questions for Nadya, bypassing the Federal Penitentiary Service’s censored correspondence system, I was not sure that I would get a reply. A reply came, however, literally on the eve of the scandalous trial in the Khamovnichesky District Court.
— What reactions, actions and opinions surrounding your case have surprised you (both positively and negatively)?
— It hurts that there are still a good number of sincere, decent Orthodox people who believe we did something awful with our prayer in the temple. There are such people even amongst those who are firmly opposed to our arrest. Although we have been explaining for five months what this was about, it is painful that there are smart, decent people who see something in what we did that is not there and could not have been there.
I am glad that the greater part of thinking society has rallied around our cause, from the letter signed by two hundred cultural figures in our defense and the desperate hunger strikes of the Occupy the Court activists to the fantastic gestures of support from Faith No More, Franz Ferdinand and Red Hot Chili Peppers. We are extremely grateful to everyone, and I’m sorry we cannot say an individual thank you to everyone due to the cell bars between us. Thanks to all of you, life in a Russian prison is not so bitter!
— What have you learned about yourself, about society, about the state during your time in jail? Have you changed?
— The state and society behave like in a textbook on leftist theory: the state punishes and represses, while society resists and changes. Behind bars you see theory coming to life. All that remains is the desire to be, to grow and to give, to share. I want prison ecstasies, epiphanies and revelations about freedom, the lack of freedom and which of these a person needs more for his or her development. I have a tremendous urge to think and feel: in the absence of external stimuli, one’s inner life develops at a furious pace.
— Who are you? How do you define yourself—as a political activist, an artist, a prisoner of conscience, a feminist, a musician?
— A person should be described from various perspectives, but it is his task to escape this description by expanding and redefining the terms used to define him. Hardly anyone expected that feminism in Russia—and even in the world to some extent—would be associated in 2012 with balaclavas, bright clothes and punk music.
— Why, in your view, does the patriarchal model, the vertical model enjoy support in society?
— Man is by nature conservative, and it is more convenient for him to cling desperately to the familiar. Very few people are ready to break and remake what exists in order to change reality. People fear the unknown, and if a woman sees herself as nothing but an appendage to a man, it is quite hard for her to imagine another world and a different relationship.
— How does feminism benefit society? How do you imagine the ideal social order?
— As a Scandinavian social democracy with minimal government interference in the lives of those who want to shield themselves from the state and, simultaneously, strong social support for those who need it and are willing to cooperate with the state. As a society that cares about issues of gender equality, where a male government minister can go on paternity leave, as law enforcement ministers love to do in Finland, for example. There is nothing more natural than feminism. Feminism begins in the third grade, when you realize that all textbooks and clever books are written by boys for boys.
— How do you explain the clericalization of society?
— There is no clericalization. There is Putin, who allows law enforcement authorities to trample all conceivable legal norms and reference fourth-century church councils that forbade taking baths and communicating with Jews. And there is Vsevolod Chaplin, who with the patriarch’s blessing makes shocking, artistic statements and admires the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is no clericalization at all beyond the actions and speeches of these two characters. What clericalization can there be in a society where twenty years ago “scientific atheism” was a compulsory subject in universities?
— What events that have happened since you’ve been in jail do you especially regret not being able to witness and participate in?
— May 6 on Bolotnaya Square and Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge, of course! Then it became clear that in Russia and Moscow there are many thousands of people who are willing to fiercely defend their lives and their future, even if this means directly clashing with the savage riot police.
It was sad to watch stories about May 6 on TV and, even worse, to realize that society does not have the strength to defend the people unlawfully arrested because of these events. Society is still weak, and it’s very, very sad, and so the authorities are not afraid to continue the arrests.
— What do you regret?
— The fact that the books sent to us by our friends end up in the prison warehouse, not in our cells, because of the maliciousness of the authorities at Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6. So you end up reading the Bible and Russian revolutionary classics—Tolstoy’s current affairs pieces and Alexander Herzen. But I also want books from the twentieth century!