Distributed Dissidence: An Interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova
Yana Sosnovskaya

Mon Nov 22 2021

Pussy Riot provocateur speaks on building a decentralized movement before blockchains, how Web3 tech changes activism, and mistakes made trading NFTs.

During his nearly two decades in power, Vladimir Putin has been on a mission to squash countercultural movements in Russia. One of the most visible examples of this was the 2012 arrest of feminist activists Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, co-founders of the feminist punk band and art collective Pussy Riot, following a performance in a Moscow cathedral. The Russian government accused the group of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility,” and their subsequent imprisonment for 18 months captivated the globe, with celebrities like Slavoj Žižek and Madonna denouncing the regime’s attempts to restrict freedom of speech and political dissent.

The situation has hardly improved. Even as late as April of this year, Russian artist Yulia Tsvetkova was tried on charges of disseminating “pornography” after allegedly posting images of stylized vaginal artwork online. And in September, Alyokhina was handed a one-year “restrictive freedom” sentence in Moscow for allegedly violating measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus: She'd summoned her fellow activists to a protest against the two-and-a-half-year detention of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who was poisoned by FSB agents in August 2020.

Though she declined to comment on her whereabouts, Tolokonnikova has been posting a number of Instagram photos outside Russia lately—and experimenting with new formats. In October, she released a collection of 333 NFTs titled “ACAB,” layering hand-drawn images of faces in balaclavas, security cameras, and vaginas over the court sentencing documents that sealed her fate behind bars. It was a different type of gesture from the live performances that Pussy Riot became known for (see: “A Punk Prayer” and “Putin Zassal”), but a fitting next step in her journey: The decentralized nature of blockchain technology makes it easier for activists to fundraise and coordinate while escaping government surveillance—and besides, Pussy Riot was always something of a DAO. She donated some of the proceeds from the sale to victims of domestic violence and political prisoners in Russia.

Tolokonnikova spoke to FWB about the story behind the project, her thoughts on blockchain as a vehicle for political organizing and fundraising, and her greatest hopes and biggest fears for Web3.

“ACAB” feels deeply personal. Could you share a little bit about the project and what your idea was when you started it?

My idea at first was to make a one-of-one [artwork called] “Virgin Mary, Please Become A Feminist”; it was sold on SuperRare to PleasrDAO. I started to work on that project because I had this idea of releasing it on August 17, which [was the 9-year anniversary] of the day when I was convicted. I started working on this project with my prison papers in July, but then it just didn't feel right for me to release one-of-one, because I'm not particularly good at hanging out with people who happen to have a lot of money. My history is completely different: I'm hanging mostly with people who are misrepresented, who don't own a lot.

I thought that maybe I could fractionalize my art piece. And then I started to talk with SuperRare about that, but they didn't have integration. It was a bummer. The answer was to create a collection that comes with this one-of-one. And that's how the “ACAB” collection happened. At first, it was 111 pieces, but then it grew to 222 pieces. That made me uncomfortable because I'm a person who loves to share, and I'm really working poorly with scarcity moments. So I was like, “Okay, fuck it, it's going to be 333 pieces.”

The idea behind [the project] was to give positive meaning to my prison sentence, which was not something that I enjoyed. I drew these little happy drawings on top of the documents, and now I can stare at my own prison sentence without actually wanting to die; I think that had a big therapeutic effect. With this drop, we gave keys to supporters of Pussy Riot, and now everyone who owns a piece can come to Pussy Riot's events—[like the one we did] with Friends With Benefits for NFT.NYC.

In the future, we want to gamify it even more, like asking people to perform certain activist actions to get access to future waitlists. Pussy Riot’s community brings a lot of joy to my life, and a lot of joy to the lives of others.

How did you get involved in Web3? When was the moment that you realized there was something in it for you?

Well, first, I hate a lot of things about Web2. I never was a good match with places where you don't have ownership over your data. Facebook, Google, Instagram—when we enter Instagram, it’s like we're entering a new country, but we live there in total dictatorship, without having anything to say about our constitution. We spend a significant amount of time in our lives [there] and we're contributing so much to this country’s economy, [but] we never get any benefits from it. More than that, we can just lose our citizenship.

Even before I learned about Web3, I had been talking about [these problems] for years at my lectures. So when I learned about Web3, and people who are starting this whole movement [around] owning your data and owning your content, it made sense to me to become part of it.

What are your thoughts on decentralization and decentralized technology as a tool for activism specifically?

First is just sending money without being tracked by the government. In Russia, we have this “Foreign Agent” law: basically, every time you work on human rights stuff and you get money [from] abroad through a traditional banking system, you almost automatically label yourself as a foreign agent, which creates all sorts of complications. You have to report to the government every single transaction you do: If you go to the supermarket to buy yourself tea, you have to write a report after that to the government body. So basically, they want you to be ineffective, because you’re stuck producing this insane amount of paperwork.

Crypto is definitely a big hope for that, because you can transfer money without being tracked. It's also good for raising money. I know a lot of charitable projects or projects with charitable components in the NFT space.

I push this space with all the power I have as an activist: You earn, but also at the same time, you give. I feel like it's almost becoming an inherent ethos of the space—you always have to give back—and that's definitely helped a lot of activist organizations get a bunch of money from people in crypto. I personally [have raised a lot more money for women’s rights organizations and political prisoners using crypto] than I had been able to [in previous] years.

I had a really interesting conversation with [Ethereum co-founder] Vitalik Buterin about that—how blockchain can be used for making our democracy better. He talks also about quadratic fundraisers, and that's all really visionary. I love to be in the space where there are visionaries, because one of my goals in life [is] to think about the future: to think about the long-term consequences of what we decide today, and just present people with different dystopian and utopian visions of the future. This is my goal as an artist.

Scaling was always a big question for me as a political activist. You want people to have access to public goods, and you want to create public goods. How do you create that without actually governing a centralized body? [I] never had answers to these questions, and I'll be lying if I tell you that Web3 gave me all the answers. But it gives me hope that we can come up with solutions that are going to be scalable enough to provide people public goods without necessarily coming back to the USSR.

Do you get the sense that people in the Web3 community care about the causes you are fighting for?

[The NFT community] has an incredible combination of interesting human beings. A lot of them care about human rights and art and female rights. They might have different political views than I do, and that's okay. There is beauty in talking to people with different political agendas. There are anarchists and people who are as obsessed with building an inclusive world like me. I find really interesting alliances here.

What are some of the most meaningful Web3 projects you’ve seen?

I love everything feminist in this space. I love that a lot of female characters’ projects are popping up, and I know that much more are in the works. I like that they're not competing with each other, but rather trying to help each other, which is what communities who are underrepresented or oppressed [should] do instead of trying to fight one another, right? I think if we are underrepresented, we [should] be like, “Oh my God, you do exactly the same thing as I do. Let's just do it together.” I like Sad Girls Bar a lot.

Do you buy NFTs?

I do, and I did waste a lot of money on NFTs. I'm terrible at trading; I was just buying from artists I loved. When the Bored Apes craze started to happen, I didn't know what to do as an artist, because it was a new thing for me. At first, I was like, “You guys are all insane—go buy Fvckrender instead.” Then I started to dig more into the community side of it, and I was like, “Oh, now I understand.”

Now I do hold some of the collectible NFTs—definitely not CryptoPunk, because it's a little bit out of my price range, but I would love to have it. So if anybody wants to gift Pussy Riot the Crypto-fucking-Punk, you absolutely can: Pussyriot.eth, baby.

Within Web3, there are already a lot of discussions happening around financial and societal inequality. Do you have any worries about the space?

Well, it's just a tool; it's all about the intentions of people who use it. [But] it's a powerful tool, so obviously it can go any way. That's why I think it's important to continue talking about ethics and [making] sure that we have a long-term plan for making it a tool for positive change.

One of the really sad scenarios is that it's just going to increase existing inequality, and I'm fairly concerned [about that], with a lot of people in Web3 being libertarians and not really caring about distribution and redistribution. I get their arguments; so many friends of mine are libertarians. I respect them, but I don't want to live in the society these libertarians would want to create. To me, it means that if I become weak, for whatever reason, nobody's going to support me. I'm suffering from major depressive disorder because of my jail time—it was triggered by PTSD. Today I'm good, but tomorrow, I have no guarantees that I'll be a functional human being. We all have these vulnerabilities, and we want to live in a society where there is a tomorrow, no matter what's going on.

I want to see more people talking about this in the community: guaranteeing people their basic human rights. I'm all for universal basic income. I feel like when you have basic human rights on paper, you have theoretical access to education and [healthcare]. In a lot of countries, even if it's written in the constitution, you don't have the material means to actually go and get your education. And I think the possibilities have to be backed by money. So whenever somebody asks me how to support vulnerable members of the community, how to empower women, I say, “You don't have to empower women; women know how to empower themselves. Just give them tools, give them the platform, give them the space in your community, and also give them the money.”

You co-founded Pussy Riot in 2011, as a decentralized organization. Have you ever thought about Pussy Riot as being a kind of early DAO?

Yeah, absolutely. It's funny to me how I always see people rediscovering [Pussy Riot] in Web3 entities—what we started 10 years ago. I love everything decentralized, and it was difficult to explain to people, the 10 years Pussy Riot was around, “What the fuck is the structure of Pussy Riot?” It's just a group of people with no leaders and we're collectively making decisions—people were blown away by that. They didn't understand how it could work, but it did work for us.

I'm stoked that so many people are excited about building a DAO. I feel like we’ve already had one for 10 years, but maybe at some point I'll formalize it, because I definitely want to introduce a token.

Your co-founder, Maria Alyokhina, recently received a restriction-of-freedom sentence; other Pussy Riot Russian members have been detained, imprisoned, even poisoned, and a lot of them have left the country. Do you support members of Pussy Riot who are left in Russia? And what is their opinion on your Web3 activity?

I do support them financially, and at some point, they want to make their own NFT drops. Maria and her girlfriend were preparing some NFTs around their love story. Maybe we'll make a collective drop for all Pussy Riot members.

I'm leading this Web3 activity while leading music and the music video side of things in Pussy Riot. It always was pretty natural in our collective; if someone wants to develop Pussy Riot with something in particular, they have freedom to do it. For example, Maria—she's much more about book writing. She’s writing about her recent experience with almost being jailed again. She has her theater projects, and leads them, because I have no natural interest in theater.

Pyotr Verzilov, who is also part of Pussy Riot, is a publisher of Mediazona. His talents are being a good manager, a good communicator, and leading that project and making sure it has the best talents we can find in the Russian media. Pyotr makes sure that Mediazona always has money to pay our journalists salaries—we have 50 people working in different offices all around Russia. We're like a mushroom: We're growing everywhere and throwing [down] roots.

You live outside of Russia at the moment—is that correct?

I do not comment on my geolocation.

Do you still feel connected to Russia and like you have a good grasp of what's going on there?

Because I just absolutely do not talk publicly about my geolocation, I can't truly say if I'm inside Russia or not. But I can say that I do have a good grasp on what's going on there.

After everything you’ve experienced, what’s it like spending time in different countries and learning more about the social and economic inequalities they’re dealing with? Has there been anything eye-opening about that?

I think no political system is ideal; it was all created by humans, and humans have flaws, and that's okay. I'm mostly interested in the Russian political situation and in global issues. But I rarely dive deeply into any other countries' problems, because we have so much information in this world, and we have to focus on what we want to achieve, if we want to achieve it.

I think activists and people who are concerned with wellbeing on this planet should communicate with each other more and come up with some sort of coalition that will make sure we are fighting global issues. I think all governments suck, honestly.

Yana Sosnovskaya is a cultural entrepreneur with a background in film and fashion, currently leading communications in various Web3 projects. Originally from Moscow, Russia, she is based in Los Angeles.

Original artwork by Nadya Tolokonnikova, graphics by metsä.