Pussy Riot's Nadya Explains Why Trump Is Like Putin, Talks Russia's Alleged Role In Leaked Hillary Emails

Courtesy of Shore Fire
Pussy Riot

"I couldn't see how even one woman in America could vote for Trump," Tolokno says. "It's a vote for sexual assault."

Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokno knows a thing or two about patriarchal bullies. Her part in a 2012 punk protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin put her in jail for more than a year, and beyond that, the overall political environment Putin has fathered in Mother Russia -- one where spying, intimidation and oppression are commonplace -- has left her beaten simply for speaking her mind.  

So if you're wondering why a Russian activist is targeting an American presidential candidate with so much vitriol in her band's new music video, "Make America Great Again," it's precisely because of Putin that she's scared of Republican Donald Trump. "I know more than Americans unfortunately what it's like to have such a guy as president," Tolokno tells Billboard. "We have the same image: A strong leader. But he's not a strong leader -- he's just a bad man."

Pussy Riot's "Make America Great Again" video -- which features politicians and police in Trump wigs arresting and physically branding people like cattle -- is a visually stunning piece from Jonas Akerlund (the high-profile director who's worked for Madonna and Metallica, but did this one pro bono) that starts out funny but gets frightening fast… not unlike certain presidential campaigns.

But the U.S. presidential election is far from the only thing on her mind. "Make America Great Again" is one of three videos Pussy Riot released for their new xxx EP, out Friday (Oct. 28). Also connected to the EP is the bathing-in-blood video for "Organs" and "Straight Outta Vagina," a clip that celebrates the vagina and tries to free it from millennia of patriarchal shaming. "Women don’t feel comfortable discussing their reproductive organs," she tells Billboard. "Everybody comes from a vagina and you shouldn't be ashamed of having one."

Apart from Pussy Riot's new videos, Tolokno recently spoke to Billboard about everything from Russia's alleged involvement with Hillary Clinton's leaked emails to the status of Pussy Riot as a band and as a movement. Here's what one of the few living punks who has stood up to authority and been imprisoned for it has to say about life on earth in 2016.

The first thing that surprised me about the "Make America Great Again" video was how high the production value was for a band like yours. When did you begin work on it?

I started working on it in May with Jonas Akerlund. Everyone on his team was so passionate about raising their voice that they volunteered to work on this video. It looks like very high production, but it was not a lot of money [spent] for a Jonas Akerlund music video because a lot of people donated their time to working on it because they wanted to stop Trump. Plus Ricky Reed, the producer I'm working with on it because I'm going independent and not working with any labels, he paid his own money for costs of this video. He was super upset about Trump as well.

A lot has happened since May, and it's only gotten crazier. Were you expecting it to go this far?

I expected things to go this far but not my American friends, including Ricky Reed. I get a view of that because I'm coming from Russia where we have the same image: a strong leader. Putin has been ruling for 16 years already; I know more than Americans unfortunately what it's like to have such a guy as president. That's why I came up with the idea of burning and stigmatization [in the video]. I wanted to warn people that words do hurt physically. When he calls people "fat pigs" it affects their physical existence. That's why I came up with this image [of "fat pig" being branded on a woman's body].

The polls do show that Hillary is ahead – are you still scared of a Trump victory?

I would say that I hope that Americans will do everything to stop Trump. I would prefer to think in a positive direction. The whole picture of the earth right now looks scary to me. The rise of ultra right-wing nationalist populist moods in Europe, Putin in my country…. I have hope Trump will not happen in U.S. because it will be sad universe to be in. You just have to stop him. You vote against Trump. I would prefer this American election to see the final battle between Bernie and Hillary -- it would bring more interesting political conversation to the table. But we're living in our reality and it's the one we live in, so we need immediate action to stop this fucking idiot. So go and vote, please. I can't.

What do you think about Russia's alleged role in the email hacks in the U.S. election?

My thought is that it doesn’t surprise me at all. The Russian government was reading my emails for years, since 2007, when I first stepped into political activism. And I'm not exceptional. It happens with every political activist. Putin is KGB worker, so it's his primary identity to be someone who will leak something or steal something and show somebody else. It's his main instrument in politics. Plus prisons. Hacking somebody's email, and prison. That's why I'm worried about Trump. I don’t want to see Russia and America going in the same fucking direction. [His supporters] don’t understand what it's like to live in a country like Russia where you can say something and end up in jail for two years. A lot of Trump supporters haven't experienced that. That's why they're so attracted to this idea of a strong leader. But he's not a strong leader--- he's just a bad man.

If he loses, what do you think happens to his supporters and their anger?

I think they will still exist, but I don’t think they will be that angry because Donald Trump, his genius is in raising anger and hatred. If Putin or Trump isn’t on TV screens, the level of anger and hatred slowly starts to pull down.

Trump had been saying racist things for months and but there was seemingly no major change in his support base. But the leaked audio where he talked about grabbing women "by the pussy" actually seemed to dissuade some supporters. Obviously that word is part of your band name, too. Aside from the sexual assault element of his leaked audio, why do you think that word has so much shock value?

I think it's the content where Trump uses the word 'pussy.' We used the word in empowering sense and Trump use it in a derogatory sense. He is trying to diminish women. That's why we came up with the band. Not just pussy but Pussy Riot, to show the world that pussy could have teeth and a voice. And Trump is coming from usual patriarchal perspective where he thinks women are just another object and treats women like his jewelry or cars. That's what is so shocking for a lot of people, especially women. I couldn't see how even one woman in America could vote for Trump. It's a vote for sexual assault. A vote for Trump is a vote for rape.

Your "Straight Outta Vagina" deconstructs a lot of religious imagery. Where did that idea come from?

Religion [has been] repressing for females and reproductive organs for a long time. If you take a look at what was going on before Christianity, it wasn't that patriarchal. In some religions before it you could see female priests. But Christianity blames women for being cause of the Devil, all this crap about Eve. Unfortunately modern society oppresses female sexuality -- it seems 'not idealistic' enough for Western society, so that's where it comes from. I want to come back to pre Christianity vagina where the vagina was divine. And it is divine. It gives birth. Everybody is coming from vagina and you shouldn’t be ashamed of having one. Unfortunately our culture is all about dick. And I love dicks. I love them more them Trump loves women. But it's a big problem that women don’t feel comfortable discussing their reproductive organs. And people who try to fix their labia? Why would you do that? We need to bring this amazing thing into our discussion.

This song's lyrics are awesome. When you're writing do you start with the lyrics or the music?

I started with lyrics and wrote the line "Does your vagina have a brand?" and I accidentally found myself in the weirdest place on earth for me – Hollywood Hills. Don’t ask me what I was doing there. I stayed there for a few days. This culture of women being nice to men for their careers, I thought that was gone but it's not. I saw so many women who want to sell their vaginas, and not for a good price. I wrote this line and came to [producer] Dave Sitek [of TV on the Radio] and he told me this line attacked him.

This song has a different sound for Pussy Riot, almost disco-y, not so punk as in the past. Are you trying to move past that?

I feel like if you really want to call yourself punk you have to reinvent yourself all the time and keep asking questions. [Ask questions of] everybody who you meet and of yourself. What is punk about today? Because punk is not about tradition. I adore old punk, but it would not be punk to repeat same thing right now. Punk for me is when you come to studio and say to your collaborators, "let's do something we've never done before." These three songs [on xxx] are really different and I can guarantee you everything else you'll hear after that -- and we recorded a lot, a lot -- will not sound like anything else. You could call it punk. You could call it pop. You could call it classical. It's weird music.

How did you end up working with Dave Sitek and Ricky Reed on the new songs?

Pretty accidentally. Because two people were fired from their jobs after my previous music video in Russia, and I thought I didn’t want to put people in danger anymore, so I started to look at people outside of Russia and I met these guys. I need real collaborators. I didn't want to make someone think I'm just scandalous Russian feminist. I can be an asshole sometimes, but not that much. But I didn't want them to bring me to another universe, like, let's say pop music. I'm not ready for that. Dave Sitek is known for weird stuff. Everyone was telling me, "Sitek? He's crazy." I was like, "Yeah that's what I need."

What's the status of membership in Pussy Riot right now? Are past members in it, or is it fluid?

Membership is open. You could be member as well. It's important to understand with Pussy Riot that we've always been a movement -- we've never been a band with membership where somebody could be excluded. We don’t have board meetings. A lot of people who were active in Pussy Riot in say 2011 are doing different things right now. So we opened the media outlet [MediaZona], which is one of two or three independent media voices right now in modern Russia. So we're doing that very important Russian thing which has nothing to do with music. I'm founder of it, but I don't own it. Pussy Riot is an open thing.

What about your life? Are you traveling mostly, what do you do?

I travel a lot. I'm mostly in Russia and Moscow and Los Angeles, sometimes in New York. I ended up working with people in Los Angeles so I stayed there. Basically I'm where I can be useful.

When you're in Russia, do you feel uneasy?

Um, yeah. I'm neurotic. I have reason to be, though, because for Russia, the politician Boris Nemtsov [an opponent of Putin] was killed right in front of Kremlin. And a lot of people were beaten, including us. We were beaten several times. It's not that easy. But we have media outlet so we have to work there, and Russia is still the most important place for me. I could have experiences in other countries, but for myself, I think, "How could I apply it for Russian reality?"

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