‘It doesn’t stop with Putin’: Pussy Riot release NFT to mark almost ten years since members were sentenced to two years in Russian penal colony

NFT is based on the art collective’s court sentencing documents and recalls their 2012 Punk Prayer performance in Moscow’s Russian Orthodox cathedral

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Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova © Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova © Pussy Riot

Almost a decade after three members of the Russian art collective Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a brutal prison colony for protesting against president Vladimir Putin, the feminist group is releasing an NFT based on their sentencing documents.

The activists were jailed in 2012 after being found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, titled Punk Prayer, which exhorted the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and concluded with a plea for Putin to be banished.

During the sentencing, the judge cited feminism as one of the reasons Pussy Riot should be removed from society. As the court documents state: “Currently, individuals who identify themselves as members of the feminist movement are fighting for gender equality in political, family and sexual relations. A number of religions, such as Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, have a religious and dogmatic basis that is incompatible with the ideas of feminism.”

As Pussy Riot’s founding member Nadya Tolokonnikova tells The Art Newspaper: “We went against the traditional religion of our country and from there they jumped to the conclusion that we were a danger to society and should be isolated.”

For the NFT, titled Virgin Mary, Please Become A Feminist (a line taken from Punk Prayer), Tolokonnikova has drawn the Virgin Mary in the shape of a vagina over a digital copy of the prison sentencing document. Around the edges are child-like renderings of hearts, flowers and ice-creams mixed with images of burning police cars, anarchist symbols and the rainbow flag. The NFT is being released on SuperRare today with an initial reserve of 13.12 ETH (around $38,000), accompanied by a collection of 222 unique hand-drawn pieces minted for 0.1312 ETH each (around $380). All proceeds will go towards supporting victims of domestic violence in Russia, political prisoners who are currently incarcerated and Pussy Riot’s future art and activism projects.

Repeatedly targeted

Using the court document for the basis of the NFT was therapeutic, Tolokonnikova says. “To begin with I thought, ‘I hate this bit of paper. I just want to burn it’,” she says. “But, instead, I created these childish and really joyful little drawings, which turned something that depressed me into a tool that I used to empower myself.”

Recalling the moment she was sentenced, Tolokonnikova says it felt like it was happening to someone else. “It’s a psychological mechanism to deal with that extreme traumatic experience,” she explains. “I still have some glimpses of it. It felt surreal, I thought it couldn’t be real and that it would just be a couple of weeks. Then, two months after the arrest, I realised that I could be in jail for up to seven years, and that was confusing. After two months in jail, I started to experience extreme headaches which were triggered by depression.”

At the time, British and American officials condemned what they described as a “disproportionate” sentence, while artists and musicians including Banksy, Paul McCartney, Bjork, Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic, and Ai Weiwei called for their release.

Since she was released in December 2013, Tolokonnikova has been harassed, beaten and arrested many times. Several other members of Pussy Riot including Alexander Sofeyev, Anna Kuzminykh and Veronika Nikulshina have recently left Russia “to take a break from constant arrests for a second”, the group announced in a Tweet.

In August, a Moscow court ruled that Rita Flores, a Pussy Riot member who was diagnosed with Covid-19 while serving one of a string of jail sentences in Moscow, will have to return to prison after being released from hospital. Meanwhile, Masha Alekhina has been under house arrest since last winter, a term that was extended in July until 8 January 2022.

US anti-abortion laws

Still, Tolokonnikova remains undeterred. “This is the battle I picked—to bring more positivity, acceptance and democratic rights to the world. It doesn’t stop with Putin. We face systemic oppression, it’s a global issue,” she says.

Indeed, when Tolokonnikova spoke to The Art Newspaper over Zoom, she was on her way to Alabama and then Texas to protest against the strict anti-abortion laws recently enforced in the latter state. She briefly showed her face before turning off her camera, assuming that Russian intelligence agents were listening in.

Pussy Riot's NFT Virgin Mary, Please Become a Feminist (2021) is based on the the Russian art collective's sentencing documents © Pussy Riot

“Alabama is not under immediate danger right now, but it was a few years ago,” Tolokonnikova points out. In 2019, she played a gig in Birmingham to benefit Planned Parenthood and the Yellowhammer Fund, an Alabama-based group that provides funding to women seeking abortions at one of the state’s three operational clinics.

NFTs are fast becoming a way for Pussy Riot to raise funds for their activism. The group successfully minted and sold their first NFT back in March, when the official music video for their latest single, Panic Attack, made 100 ETH (£128,000) on the Foundation platform, with proceeds going towards victims of domestic abuse. In 2017, Russia decriminalised domestic violence, a problem which greatly worsened during the pandemic.

Diversity in the NFT world

Nonetheless, Tolokonnikova acknowledges that the NFT world, much like the traditional art world, is not particularly diverse. “It’s a really male dominated area,” she says. “Earlier this year, I was presented with two choices: I could stay away from it, or I could enter and try to deal with the adversity. So I decided to get involved, because I feel like this space is relatively new so it’s flexible and can potentially adapt to new realities really quickly.”

The artist says she also feels a sense of community among those creating NFTs and sees real potential when it comes to the benefits of decentralisation that NFTs promise. “If you are consistent with your work, you will find your family. In that sense, it reminds me of the activist community,” she says. “For a few years, I was living mostly within the music and entertainment industry, but I feel like that’s stagnating, it’s much more about your personal game. Now I’d love to be around people who want to change the world and be part of something bigger than that.”

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