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Pussy Riot talks 'Matriarchy Now'

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Our next guest spent almost two years in a Russian prison. Nadya Tolokonnikova is one of the founding members of the Russian protest collective Pussy Riot. It was a decade ago when Nadya and others were imprisoned after staging a protest performance in a Moscow cathedral protesting Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church's support of him. Now she's back in the spotlight with a Pussy Riot mixtape just released on Friday. It's called "Matriarchy Now" and has songs featuring various artists, from Salem Ilese to Big Freedia. And Nadya Tolokonnikova is with us now. Thanks for being here.

NADYA TOLOKONNIKOVA: Of course. Thank you for having me.

ESTRIN: Why is your mixtape called "Matriarchy Now"?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: Because I love matriarchy, and I think now is the best time to bring it on. Our rights are being attacked, and that's just not cute.

ESTRIN: So let me start with the first song on the mixtape, "Princess Charming."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRINCESS CHARMING")

PUSSY RIOT: (Singing) I got a big magic wand, and I use it all the time. Take this stupid fairytale and make it all mine. Going to change up the plot 'cause the slipper never fit. Won't be slaying dragons, I could tame them, make them sit.

ESTRIN: This is not the typical Disney princess rescued by Prince Charming. What is this song about?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: We made this song with Salem. Salem is known for her criticism of Disney. We wanted to take our own stab at, you know, thinking about traditional gender roles and Disney and how it teaches us to be passive and just wait for somebody to come and save us. And, yeah, we decided to subvert it a little bit and wrote "Princess Charming."

ESTRIN: So let's talk about Pussy Riot because you and several members of Pussy Riot served nearly two years in prison. The Russian government convicted you for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. And today you're still leading protests, and you are advancing activism. So talk about how Pussy Riot's activism has evolved in all these years since you were in prison.

TOLOKONNIKOVA: I think it's a good lesson to every dictator who wants to silence activists and artists. If you put them in jail, often they will get out even stronger, and they will have bigger platform, more influence. That's what happened with us. And we ended up in jail, being a small movement. We had perhaps just a few dozens of members. And then got out of jail to hundreds and thousands of people identifying themselves as Pussy Riot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLASTIC")

PUSSY RIOT: (Singing) I am plastic. If you drop me, I won't break. I stay perfectly in place, no concerns and no complaints. I am plastic, smile on my face, but there's something by the waist. I have nothing more to say.

ESTRIN: I mean, one of the things that you've done in recent years - you co-founded an independent publication, MediaZona, that does some of the best reporting on crime and justice in Russia today. And, like a lot of independent media in Russia, it is under a lot of pressure. It's blocked by the authorities, but it's still alive. Can you talk about why journalism?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: It is something that started in 2014. And we just got out of jail - me and Masha Alyokhina - and it was clear to us that it's really important to have sources of information that people can trust. And we didn't have a lot of them. And we were in a unique position where we could generate enough money to get it off the ground, get MediaZona off the ground, because we just got out of jail. A lot of people wanted to hear us. And we used 99% of our speaking fees to fund MediaZona. And financial freedom and financial independence is the key to having an independent voice in Russia.

ESTRIN: Let's talk again about the mixtape. Let's talk about the last song on your mixtape, "Poof" - and a word I can't say on our airwaves - featuring Big Freedia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOF BITCH")

PUSSY RIOT: (Singing) I turn your prison into clubs where everyone is free. And now the bars are rattlesnakes. They'll slither at your feet.

ESTRIN: And there's a line in the song that says, I turn your prison into clubs where everyone is free. What are you singing about there?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: It's - the song is dedicated to magic thinking. I really believe that it is important to keep this magic and childlike, naive approach to life - to be able to fantasize about a better world because it's something that unlocks your imagination and our collective imagination. And think about if build a world where everyone's free and there is no prisons, and money just fall from the tree and there is no police and celebrating your own power. 'Cause it basically says, we can just destroy you by saying poof, and you will be gone. And, you know, it's just - it's really empowering to feel like that. I feel a lot like that. And, like, when I think about Putin, I liked it. I like to think in this way. And I believe that one day I will make him disappear.

ESTRIN: Well, you know, Pussy Riot is an early example of a successful protest movement in Putin's Russia. Today, though, Russians I know say they're afraid to be criticizing the war in Ukraine. They're afraid that they could be jailed, even by clicking like on something on social media. So what forms of protest are possible now, today, in Russia?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: Yeah. For MediaZona, it was our policy - wasn't even an option. Like, we just told everyone in MediaZona they absolutely have to leave. I mean, pretty much everyone I know, they had to leave, you know, from Pussy Riot. It's a tricky question. I don't feel like I'm in a position to advise people who are inside Russia because it's really extremely dangerous. And I feel like it's something that everyone has to decide for themselves.

ESTRIN: Nadya Tolokonnikova is a founding member of Pussy Riot. The mixtape "Matriarchy Now" dropped on Friday. Really interesting talking to you. Thank you so much.

TOLOKONNIKOVA: Amazing to talk to you. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOF BITCH")

PUSSY RIOT: (Vocalizing, singing) Alakazam, I (inaudible) blood on your hands. Cancel your plans. You ain't walking over me. We got a plan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.