International

How Pussy Riot Rushed to Release 'RAGE' Video to Support Putin Rival Alexei Navalny

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot
Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Icelandic Glacial

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot

The punk band released the new video as protests raged across Russia supporting Alexei Navalny, a jailed opposition leader.

MOSCOW — A Strobe light flickers in a darkened room as a shaky camera hovers over Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, member of Russian punk band Pussy Riot. Behind her a mob of partially clothed youth, some looking like vampires, form an undulating mosh pit.

“A rat whispered to me in the subway: heretic / in the police [station] they stamped ‘heretic’ into my passport...police baton on my ribs... we're getting stronger and it makes you angry,” Tolokonnikova sings in Russian.

So begins “RAGE,” the eerie video from Pussy Riot that Russian authorities tried to sabotage. The band -- a loose collective of female artists ranging from three to 11 members, which is known to be cause-oriented -- released it on Monday as massive protests erupted across Russia in support of Alexei Navalny, a jailed opposition leader and prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin.

"Rage is an emotion that Putin's rule provokes in many Russians," Tolokonnikova, Pussy Riot's founding member, tells Billboard.

Filmed in February 2020, “RAGE,” which she says on the video was an ode to the low-budget horror movie The Blair Witch Project, was originally planned to be released later this year along with Pussy Riot's debut studio album.

But mass rallies in support of Navalny that protesters staged nationwide on Jan. 23, where police detained thousands of people, including Maria Alekhina, another Pussy Riot founding member, prompted Tolokonnikova to release the video immediately.

"It's our collective duty now to apply as much pressure on Putin as humanly possible to force him to release all the political prisoners," she says.

The video shoot at St. Petersburg's Lenfilm studio featured over 200 LGBTQ+, feminist and anti-authoritarian activists. The police interrupted the shoot shortly after it started.

"Instead of 20 hours of filming, we managed to get only one hour before the police cut off the electricity in the entire building," Tolokonnikova recalls. "We were accused by the police of ‘gay propaganda.’"

Police detained Tolokonnikova and another 12 people participating in the shoot, who spent five hours in a St. Petersburg police station before they were released.

Although the RAGE shoot was essentially ruined, Tolokonnikova says she was still able to edit the video from bits and pieces filmed before the police raid.

‘RAGE’ is “about feeling an enemy of the state and a heretic in your own homeland, about the pain and depression it may cause, about jail cells and police batons, and about us all finally refusing to obey and expressing our rage," Tolokonnikova says. "We hope ‘RAGE’ will inspire people to protest, to be vocal, to keep demanding the release of Navalny and other political prisoners, and eventually to chase Putin away."

For many years, Pussy Riot has worked closely with Navalny. The opposition leader survived a poisoning attempt last summer and returned to Russia after medical treatment in Berlin, only to be detained by police for allegedly violating parole in an earlier court case against him. Tolokonnikova was involved in organizing Navalny’s transportation to Berlin last summer. He had slipped into a coma after the poisoning.

"We're pretty much members of one big family of Russian opposition, and we always help each other," Tolokonnikova says. "That's why I take attacks on Alexei very personally, he's not just a guy in the news for me."

An independent investigation uncovered that agents of FSB, the Russian secret service, were involved in the poisoning attempt against Navalny, but Russian authorities have vehemently denied that.

Currently, Alekhina is under house arrest for posting about and participating in the Jan. 23 rally. She is facing two years in prison.
Tolokonnikova is also on the list of potential suspects in a probe into allegedly inciting unauthorized protests, while two more Pussy Riot members, Lucya Shtein and Viktoria Narakhsa, are serving 10-day sentences for taking part in the protests.

In 2012, a Moscow judge sentenced Tolokonnikova and Alekhina to two-year prison terms for staging an anti-Putin "punk prayer" in Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral earlier that year (the crime: “hooliganism driven by religious hatred.”). They served most of their sentences and were released in late 2013.

Meanwhile, Tolokonnikova says she strongly believes that domestic rallies and international pressure could make Putin back down and release Navalny, who received suspended sentences for embezzlement in 2013 and 2014, cases widely considered to be politically motivated.

After authorities imprisoned Navalny in 2013, tens of thousands of people showed up on the streets and refused to leave until he was set free. One day later, Navalny was released.

"Internal and international pressure helps incredibly," Tolokonnikova says.