Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Talks Raising Millions for Ukraine: ‘The Goal Is to Become Putin’s Biggest Pain in the Ass’

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova has long been averse to the idea of national borders. Although the Russian-born punk rocker’s career spans roles as a performance artist, musician and activist, the 32-year-old has become known for her activism against the Putin regime — and is what landed her in a prison outside of Moscow for two years in 2012 after she and Pussy Riot denounced the Russian leader during a guerilla music performance. Most recently, it’s even thrown her into the arms of the globalized Web 3.0 world of crypto and NFTs – technology that she sees as a new tool she can use to help spread her fight the power on a larger scale.

Tolokonnikova’s recent ventures as an NFT artist have already proven to be wildly successful: she helped create UkraineDAO, an NFT of the Ukrainian flag that raised more than $7 million only two days after Russia’s first military invasion. And now, much of her time is spent curating art for UnicornDAO, whose current exhibit called Patriarchy RIP focuses on the gender pay gap within the art world.

“I stepped into the NFT world because I wanted to find better tools for activism, I’m always looking for something at the intersection between art and technology,” she tells Variety. “I believe that if you want to make a revolution, you have to embrace what the world is giving you in terms of tech.”

The public art exhibition, produced in collaboration with SaveArtSpace, features ten female-identifying and/or LGBTQ+ artists whose work is currently being displayed on billboard ad spaces across nine U.S. states. The artwork is displayed alongside Tolokonninokova’s own NFT artwork, inspired by an alternate reality in the metaverse where the patriarchy is dead.

Much like the way she views all her work, Tolokonninokova sees the value of crypto-activism as something far larger the product itself – in this case, a non-interchangeable unit of data stored on a blockchain, but in previous projects: a live music performance or physical art gallery or immersive theater production. While achieving the final product is certainly satisfying, it’s really the community and network she builds throughout the creative process that she views as the core building blocks of any effective activist movement.

In many ways, NFTs are perfectly emblematic of such community-building. The UkraineDAO, for example, was able to raise millions of dollars because of the individuals who chose to buy ownership of a portion of the digital image, whose contributions became the stockpile of money donated to Ukraine. As of March 9, the Ukrainian government claims to have raised nearly $100 million from crypto donations.

“The problems that we face today are global problems — like war and global inequality or climate catastrophe — and these problems cannot be solved with our current models of governance, which are based on nation states,” Tolokonnikova says. “I‘m trying to build networks and like-minded communities to make sure that as a human being I’m the tool powerful enough to effectively fight Putin. The goal is to become Putin’s biggest pain in the ass that I can.”

Her digital projects have also given her the opportunity to disrupt the male-dominated NFT world by creating a space that highlights work by marginalized communities. Female artists account for just 5% of NFT sales, while female artists in the traditional art world represent only 2% of the market. The current exhibit highlights these disparities more pointedly than some of her other projects, but the redistribution of power and resources is a consistent aspiration apparent in her work.

She says she’s determined to continue incorporating crypto in her activism, with the fight against the Ukraine invasion a top priority. But she also admits she doesn’t have a long-term plan. “It’s difficult for me to predict right now she,” she says. “Putin doesn’t follow any rules anymore.”

While the oligarchical corruption within Russia has become front page news in Western media over the past month, Tolokonnikova has been witness to these simmering tensions for years. She notes that Putin really began this war in 2014 with his annexation of Crimea, an ongoing conflict that escalated dramatically when he launched the invasion of Ukraine this month.

“It hurts me to see those people who think that they can just close their eyes when this is happening in Ukraine and not get involved,” she says, although she acknowledges that she also doesn’t have any solutions to offer either, aside from her emotional investment. She’s been playing shows across the country as a way to relieve this stress, most recently taking the stage at SXSW for a few electropop DJ sets.

“I can’t help myself from crying on stage but anger is very important in going through all of this” she says. “Because I can cry, you can cry — we can cry together.”

 

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