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Pussy Riot star on her first foray into theatre: ‘The audience will understand what it means to be a Russian prisoner’

Nadya Tolokonnikova. Photo: Jonas Akerlund
Nadya Tolokonnikova appearing in Jonas Akerlund’s video for the Pussy Riot song Make America Great Again. Photo: Jonas Akerlund

Known for her provocative performances with punk protest group Pussy Riot and subsequent incarceration in Russia, Nadya Tolokonnikova tells Emily Jupp about bringing an immersive show to London’s Saatchi Gallery


From staging political theatre on a global scale, Nadezhda ‘Nadya’ Tolokonnikova, a core member of the punk protest group Pussy Riot, is bringing her own brand of immersive theatre to London, in which audiences will get a taste of being a political prisoner in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“We are making the show because you have to pay a certain price and you have to make a commitment in order to achieve something,” she says during a break at Wilton’s Music Hall in London, while devising the script for Inside Pussy Riot. “You can’t always be in your comfort zone to make big changes.”

As members of Pussy Riot, Tolokonnikova – along with Maria ‘Masha’ Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich – came to international attention when they performed Punk Prayer at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012. The guerrilla performance attacked the Orthodox Church’s support for Putin during his election campaign.

Nadya Tolokonnikova. Photo: Denis Sinyakov
Nadya Tolokonnikova in front of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Photo: Denis Sinyakov

They were arrested, charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison. This was met by global outrage and protests from human rights groups. Samutsevich received a suspended sentence in October 2012, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina remained behind bars.

Tolokonnikova went on hunger strike three times and spent the final month of her sentence in a prison hospital in Siberia. On December 23, 2013, the women were released. They had been inside for almost two years.

Since then, the Pussy Riot members have continued to make music videos, stage protests and travel the world speaking out about corruption in Russia and drawing uncomfortable parallels with the Russian and American governments.

Now, Tolokonnikova is in London with a play created in collaboration with immersive theatre company Les Enfants Terribles, whose work includes Alice’s Adventures Underground, which was nominated for an Olivier award.

Read our feature on Alice's Adventures Underground in China

Inside Pussy Riot is to be staged at the Saatchi Gallery to tie in with its exhibition Art Riot: Post Soviet Actionism. This piece of “immersive political theatre based on the personal experiences of Pussy Riot” invites audience members to “don a balaclava and stand up for what they believe in”.

The audience will understand in their own skin what it means to be a Russian prisoner

Tolokonnikova is unwilling to give too much away about what audiences can expect, saying she wants to retain an element of surprise.

The reason for doing the play, she says, is so “everyone will have an opportunity to understand in their own skin what it means to be a Russian prisoner” adding it’s important to go through that “to know why you need to protect your own freedoms”. It is about 60 minutes long, and audience members who suffer from claustrophobia or heart conditions are warned that some parts of the production are unsuitable.

Pussy Riot. Photo: Denis Sinyakov

Alyokhina has written about enduring solitary confinement and naked searches in her book Riot Days and has a show of her own this month about Punk Prayer and beyond at Islington Town Hall. She will also appear with Tolokonnikova at the Saatchi Gallery this month as part of Art Riot.

While audiences at Inside Pussy Riot obviously won’t face anything like the abuse the protest group received as prisoners, the play will offer a glimpse of what Pussy Riot experienced when they were imprisoned for protesting against Putin. But Tolokonnikova insists that while it’s informed by her experience, it is not exclusively about her or Pussy Riot.

“One of the most important things I wanted to do with this project was to break the wall that separates prisoners and normal people,” she says. “Or, should I say, so-called normal people who don’t really understand that at any given moment something can happen and you could find yourself in prison suddenly, because sometimes corruption happens. You could just be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Costume designs for Inside Pussy Riot

Tolokonnikova is always aware that she could be imprisoned – or worse – on an almost random basis in Russia. “Our government doesn’t really have any logic in its actions. You can get away with 11 actions and then on the 12th they will say, ‘Okay, this is just too much.’” She adds: “UK prisons are much better than Russian prisons, but still the UK prison system doesn’t do enough about rehabilitation.”

The fear of further reprisals from the Russian regime hasn’t cowed her. In fact, Pussy Riot has set up a media channel, MediaZona, with 20 journalists working full-time to report on protests across the country and mistreatment in prisons.

Nadya Tolokonnikova. Photo: Zarina Kodzaeva

The activist looks at the political landscape that has led to Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the popularity of Marine Le Pen in France, Victor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and, of course, Putin in her home country.

“We started to believe at some point that somebody else can do politics instead of us and that we can hire politicians and they can solve all our issues,” she says.

You have to be involved in key political issues or anyone in power will try to screw you

This, Tolokonnikova continues, is not the case and hopes the show might help make more people politically engaged. “We have to be involved in political issues all the time. We have to be involved in our laws and our key political issues. That is the only one way to have healthy political life – otherwise anyone in power will try to screw you.”

She was arrested on March 2, 2012, the day before her daughter’s fourth birthday, and wouldn’t see her again – or her husband Pyotr Verzilov – for another 10 months.

In prison, Tolokonnikova used what little freedom she had to protest her position. She has a mischievous streak, and tells me about a campaign to convince her cellmates that they shouldn’t watch Russian state television.

“Any television is pretty cheesy, but Russian television hurts, basically. After two months, I protested against television in our prison cell. I was like a community organiser – I had to work with everybody in my cell to convince them that, actually, television is evil.” They put the TV set out with their rubbish bins, but the guards put it back in their cell again.

Tolokonnikova was eventually moved to a penal colony where she was allowed visits from family, but, she says: “This is when hell started.” She worked in a factory with old machinery, sewing guards’ uniforms for 12 hours a day.

Nadya Tolokonnikova. Photo: Denis Sinyakov
Nadya Tolokonnikova. Photo: Denis Sinyakov

The work was tedious but also difficult: if the needle on the machine broke, it wasn’t replaced, but you still had to make your target of 200 pieces a day. If anyone failed to make their target, all 150 prisoners around them were also punished.

“You learn really fast, but then the needle penetrates your finger and your blood is all over the table, but you cannot really stop because you have to keep quota and if you don’t keep quota everyone will lose access to the bathroom, for example, for half a day – or they will lose access to food sent by their families for a week. For prisoners, that is the biggest happiness in life, to finish work day and have candy with friends.”

Audience members coming to see the show on London’s well-heeled King’s Road will not be sewing guard uniforms or forced into bloody physical labour. In fact, Tolokonnikova describes Inside Pussy Riot as being “like a carnival – happy and sad at the same time” and her aim is for the show to change audience perceptions a little. “I hope it will help in promoting prisoners’ rights, helping people take political action and be willing to pay something for standing up for their rights.”

Tolokonnikova says the prison experience has made her “a little bit hysterical about freedom”. She is working on new music and a book deal but has found it difficult to tie herself into the related contracts. “I fear long-term commitments. I have a family and that is the only commitment I want in my life.”

Inside Pussy Riot is at the Saatchi Gallery, London until December 24

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