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pussy riot’s nadya tolokonnikova talks us through her new protest project: immersive theatre

With her Pussy Riot run news service and new theatre production, Nadya Tolokonnikova is hoping to educate the world on the brutal Russian prison system.

Frankie Dunn

"Putin is really scared of strong, powerful women," opens the trailer for the Inside Pussy Riot Kickstarter campaign. "We are not afraid to speak up… that's why we ended up in jail for two years." To refresh your memory: on 21 February 2012, five members of feminist punk band Pussy Riot entered Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. While performing their anti-Putin Punk Prayer, protesting his authoritarian rule, corruption and abuse of human rights they were immediately arrested and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in a labour camp.

This Autumn, the group's Nadya Tolokonnikova plans to give you an intense trip through her wild but real life experiences -- from the original church performance, to their trial, the prison cells, the forced labour -- in collaboration with London's Olivier Award nominated immersive theatre company, Les Enfants Terribles. With all the magic of Banksy's Dismaland (who the theatre company previously worked with), feel what it's like to be a political activist and prisoner in today's Russia and learn the importance of protecting your own human rights. To be a part of the movement, support the project on Kickstarter and spread the word.

When we skype Nadya in Moscow to find out more, she's just spent the morning with Alexi Navalny - the lawyer, activist and good guy politician gearing up to run against President Putin in the 2018 Russian election. They talked for an hour while livestreamed on his YouTube channel. "They have a channel because we don't have any independent television without censorship here," Nadya explains, "I really like Navalny because he has a sense of humour which is so unusual for politicians."

Were you aware that there's a Pussy Riot-run news service? On release from prison in 2014, they decided that it was a basic human right to have access to the truth. And so, by hiring journalists who had been fired from their jobs because of censorship, Mediazona has been providing Russian people with real news for the past three years and currently gets around 1.4 million unique visitors a month. Frequently calling out Russian leaders for their unreported crimes, their writers are often attacked and their site under threat. But if they're shut down, Nadya is certain that with VPN and Tor Browser, they'll continue to find ways to get their message across. "I don't believe that people can really stop you from speaking out, unless they kill you… which does happen."

Read: This is a Pussy Riot manifesto for getting to the truth of punk and bringing about the change we need in 2017.

Yikes. So, tell us about your immersive theatre project.
I might not sound it, but I'm a positive person, promise. It's known that I was smiling all through my conviction. A paper wrote that they put me in jail for three things -- because I'm a feminist, because I danced in a church, and because I was smiling in court. I'm not ashamed of any of that. Everyone is talking about what Russia is today, but I don't think there's a clear understanding, so we want to start translating our media channel into English. But another form of communication is art, which is sometimes more powerful than media, and so we looked to theatre.

Where did you first get the idea for exploring immersive theatre? Had you been to see some and thought you could do it better? Make it more real?
Those are the exact thoughts I had. Almost immediately after we were released in 2014, I started to look for different forms of communication with audiences. Pussy Riot started as a band who tried to find something beyond audiences watching musicians on a stage. That's why we performed our illegal things and got put in jail for two years. So I visited a couple of immersive theatres; I really liked Sleep No More in New York and I had seen Alice's Adventures Underground by Les Enfants Terribles in London. I thought it was fantastic but I always want more political meaning. I really believe that at this point in the world we need to all start caring about politics, otherwise politicians will just take care of us and we'll end up in concentration camps and everybody will be on the same page as Kim Jong Il with obedient people. We need to politicise every medium, including immersive theatre.

You performed at Banksy's Dismaland -- did that provide a lot of inspiration?
Yes. We performed the song Refugees In and it was there that we first started to create immersive theatre. Guests thought they were coming to a Pussy Riot concert but instead, they'd see a clash between armoured police and protesters -- the protesters started among the audience, giving them the feeling that they could be arrested too.

What will happen in Inside Pussy Riot?
We will arrest people, we will put them in solitary confinement, and we will make them produce police uniforms, as I had to.

I know the economy of miracles, and when you get a miracle you've got to give it back to the world and make something useful out of it or else it won't come again.

So you're hoping to both disturb and educate audiences?
It's really important to keep the educational side of it there -- I don't want to make entertainment out of prisons. We want to tell people what's going on in prison facilities, that it's not just a Russian story. We can change things together if we just push our authorities and tell them we won't stand for the current prison system any more. It's really uncomfortable to think about it, but there's a huge part of the global population who will literally die in prison. And some of them aren't in prison because they committed a crime, they're in prison because of corruption or because of a mistake.

What did you learn from your experience in prison?
As an activist in Moscow I spend most of my time speaking with students and professors from the city. I thought that, as people here in Moscow don't support Putin, maybe somewhere in Russian provinces they do. But when they put me in prison I had the opportunity to speak with people from all social groups and I learnt that they don't actually support President Putin either. They told me, "we are not blind, we see corruption, we see that authorities don't care about us and we're waiting for a moment where we can actually change something." They asked if would stay in touch, if I could call on them for the real revolution.

When is the revolution?
Good question. Hopefully next year! It will be a year of elections. We just had two big events, one in March and one in June, where young people came to the streets with a very clear message calling for justice, to get rid of Putin, and for an end to corruption. And it looks like they will keep coming. You have to be 18 years old to vote, but you don't have to be 18 years old to come out and protest.

Will you be part of the cast?
I will be part of the cast for the premiere, but I see my role mostly as a person who tells the story through the theatre as co-creator and co-producer. I don't necessarily want to go through that experience one day after another. I served my time already!

A very good point. Is it difficult to relive?
It doesn't really hurt me because when we were released from jail, we didn't stop talking about it, we started a prison rights organisation. We had enormous exposure when we were put in prison, which is crazy because that doesn't happen today. Honestly, it sounds terrible, but everyone is now so used to oppression here in Russia that people aren't surprised anymore. That's why it was a miracle that people paid attention to our detention. I know the economy of miracles, and when you get a miracle you've got to give it back to the world and make something useful out of it or else it won't come again.

Credits


Text Frankie Dunn
Photography Denis Sinyakov