In the mid-Nineties in Norilsk, Siberia, seven-year-old Nadya Tolokonnikova dreamt of being an advertising executive — drawing up pitches for Fanta and Coca-Cola commercials.
It might be a surprisingly corporate dream for the future face of Russia’s Pussy Riot, but nothing is quite what it seems in Siberia. Even today, Norilsk is a “closed city” — closed off from foreign visitors, with any movement heavily monitored by the government.
“It’s detached from everything else,” she says. “We don’t have a summer. It’s dark as hell. You can’t go to school half the year — it’s just too dangerous to leave.” Isolated in a region known as the “sleeping land,” she had two options: drink vodka and do heroin — like many of her compatriots — or try to create something in that massive, icy void. “Everything normal for [Americans],” she says, “we had to reinvent, and treat it as a work of art.”
Perhaps that’s why Tolokonnikova could see potential where so many could not. Two decades later and thousands of miles from Siberia, the founding member of the Russian anti-government punk collective has emerged a leading figure — bright pink balaklava and all — at the intersection of NFTs, cryptocurrency, and activism. In the past year alone, she’s raised more than $12 million dollars to support humanitarian aid, reproductive justice, domestic violence survivors, and funding LGBTQ and female artists. “Crypto has opened my mind,” she says, “that I could use money as a revolutionary tool.”
And she has. Her newest NFT project — a collaboration between her, Rolling Stone, and internationally renowned photographer Ellen von Unwerth — takes aim at the rapid rollback of reproductive rights in the U.S. Collaborating for the first time, they’re releasing a series of portraits of Tolokonnikova that reflect on art and sexuality, imagining a world where women, men, and everyone else are equal. One special “cover image,” emblazoned with the Rolling Stone logo, will enter into an auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Tolokonnikova’s and John Caldwell’s reproductive rights charity portal, LegalAbortion.Eth.
This release punctuates a year of new and thrilling activism for Tolokonnikova. It’s been more than a decade since Pussy Riot protested the government’s cozy relationship with the church in an iconic guerilla performance that landed her and fellow founding Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina a two year sentence in a Siberian penal colony. And while Tolokonnikova has been politically and artistically active since her release — leading the Kremlin to classify her as a “foreign agent” in 2021 — she truly returned to the global stage at the beginning of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
Less than a week after Russian boots crossed the borders, Tolokonnikova helped raise more than $7 million by auctioning off an NFT of the Ukrainian flag — the 10th most expensive NFT ever sold — and every dollar was directed toward medical aid in Ukraine. In a moment when traditional funding methods had broken down, and wire transfers into the country took days, if they ever got across the border at all, UkraineDAO was a brazen mobilization of funds across the globe.
It showed Tolokonnikova what crypto was capable of. On the heels of UkraineDAO, she launched another “decentralized autonomous organization”: UnicornDAO with co-founder John Caldwell, which uses the same fundraising structure to commission and buy NFTs by women, non-binary people, and other artists in the LGBTQ community. UnicornDAO features many heavy-hitters in Web3, including graphic artist Beeple, Sia, and Grimes — who announced her board membership by donating her art video, “New Gods,” to the collection. In two months, UnicornDAO purchased more than 1,000 works and raised $4.5 million dollars to commission NFTs.
Many of the artists collected by UnicornDAO stem from queer, feminist collectives that originally hail from Russia to use money raised from hundreds of NFT sales to flee the country. “We used this money quite literally to save their lives and now they live in a safe place,” Tolokonnikova says. And when Roe v. Wade was overturned, the decentralized structure of UnicornDAO was able to pivot, launching LegalAbortion.Eth, and distributing half a million dollars to reproductive rights organizations like Fund Texas Choice, SisterSoung Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, Center for Reproductive Rights, NARAL, Fos Feminista, URGE, and Planned Parenthood.
In this flurry of success, Tolokonnikova isn’t naive to the potential pitfalls of crypto. She acknowledges the environmental impact — the industry was responsible for an excess of 27 million tons of carbon dioxide between mid-2021 and 2022, rivaling the impact of crude oil and beef — as well as the risk of scams, washing, and market volatility. Less than a week after UkraineDAO succeeded in its rapid-fire efforts, President Biden signed an executive order calling for a sweeping review of cryptocurrencies, sparking speculation regarding how the blockchain and these digital currencies could potentially influence domestic politics, including campaign fundraising — not to mention the potential for Russians to use cryptocurrencies to dodge mounting sanctions.
But through the eyes of a Siberian who has always had to reinvent her surroundings, it’s a tool for a job. “I’ve learned that, while change may not happen overnight,” Tolokonnikova wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “in time, small actions can build to something lasting and profound.” And since the success of UkraineDAO, Tolokonnikova has continued to leverage the technology and community behind crypto to disrupt and raise funds for artists and creatives often relegated to the margins.
“I don’t do things just because they’re shiny or making money,” Tolokonnikova offers up more recently, deflecting back to the central mission behind her obvious results when pressed on whether crypto is perhaps losing its novel shine. “Pussy Riot isn’t Pussy Riot if it’s not connected with activism to benefit people who are disadvantaged historically. My challenge in the very beginning was ‘Can I use it for things I’ve been pushing for, really, the last 15 years?’”
It’s one of many tools that she’s discovered in unexpected corners of the internet. In the summer of 2021, Tolokonnikova launched her OnlyFans page — which now boasts more than 33,000 subscribers. She contextualizes her activity on the adult-content platform as an extension of her protest activism. A self-described dominatrix, she says, she initially worried what other people in her feminist sphere would say about it. But like everything she does, protest and feminism are fundamental to the work. She refers to the subscriptions as “reparations for thousands of years of oppression.” “It’s still about the matriarchy,” she says. “I treat it as a conceptual art project. It’s about putting us in the right place — deifying a woman’s sexuality.”
Raising a 14-year-old daughter, she’s keenly aware of how limited our culture is when it comes to talking about sex — and how that enables the misoginy and homophobia that she campaigns against every day. She hopes that her OnlyFans community can create a safe place to educate people on real-world sex positivity. “There is a famous phrase,” Tolokonnikova says. “‘There is no sex in the Soviet Union.’ We never had sex education in school. One day a crazy guy came and told us our vagina has memory; that if we had sex our future kids will somehow look like that guy. My mother had a really hard time talking with me about sex. It made me think there was something wrong with sexuality. Me and my daughter — we discuss everything so transparently. It allows her to grow up without scars around sexuality. A lot of my work in my art is just unpacking that baggage. In order to teach kids how to swim you just throw them in the ocean. I don’t do that with my kids, but I do it with myself.”
That ethos seems to tie together all of Tolokonnikova’s work: crypto, sex work, and her lifeblood, performance. The self-described “introvert” seems to throw herself into the ocean every time she gets onstage — a spectacle that is still steeped with the protest spirit of “punk prayer.” “I don’t think many things have changed,” she says. “I am a performer and have always been a performer. I don’t feel that different from putting together an illegal fashion show in 2011, or what we did in the Red Square 10 years ago.”
Tolokonnikova’s been touring on the back of her Pussy Riot mixtape, Matriarchy Now, which dropped in early August and features heavy genre-blending tracks with titles such as “Hatefuck,” “Plastic,” “Sugar Mommy,” and “Poof Bitch.” The album was executive-produced by Tove Lo and is packed with feature players like Big Freedia and Slayyyter.
The day after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the immediate “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens, Tolokonnikova took the stage at New York City’s (Le) Poisson Rouge. Rocking what she calls her “rave dominatrix nun,” she shouted, “Anyone can be in Pussy Riot!” — a rallying cry for anyone who dared to join the movement.
Throughout the show, she’s flanked by two masked, neon-green, thong-under-fishnet-sporting go-go dancers. (“The production value is important because it’s a language,” she says. “More people are going to hear you if they feel you have put in the thought and effort to communicate with them.”) And toward the show’s end, after sharing a supportive lament for Ukraine in her native tongue, teasing out defiant collective fists in the air, the formidable front woman hoisted up several fans from the packed audience onto the stage as if she were dragging fellow soldiers over the trench top — each clad in their seemingly requisite DIY Pussy Riot balaclavas — emphasizing an evermore urgent, biting war cry for personal freedom and bodily autonomy.
That rallying cry — that anyone can be in Pussy Riot — is meant to be taken literally. “I do not want to be a band,” Tolokonnikova emphasizes over the phone a few weeks later, squeezing a brief conversation in between Zoom calls with major auction houses, hosting Twitter Spaces and crypto conferences with her Web3 comrades, daytime liaisons with the United States Secretary of State, and brief respites of normalcy with her daughter (Tolokonnikova spent the previous evening buying her a bicycle). She generally rejects hierarchy, she says, both inside and out of Pussy Riot. “I don’t think we need to look for leaders, necessarily, but to look for communities and groups of people who share our thoughts, feelings, and values.” The other founding bandmates have drifted, and now, Tolokonnikova has said, Pussy Riot is a “loose network” of activists; anyone can protest under the banner of Pussy Riot.
When the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision leaked, pointing to the creeping inevitability of overturning Roe, the Pussy Riot umbrella started to get bigger, pulling in activists and cryptoenthusiasts into the same, guerilla-style bubble. Tolokonnikova returned to her guerilla roots. Representing UnicornDAO and Pussy Riot, she teamed up with the Lakota indigenous femme-led Ikiya Collective to protest the ongoing attack on women’s reproductive rights. On June 9th, they boldly unfurled a 45 foot “Matriarchy Now!” banner from the Austin State Capitol building’s 3rd floor, while wearing Gopnik tracksuits and green scarves. Members from Ikiya Collective, seen in a self-produced recap video wearing bespoke Pussy Riot balaclavas, spoke about how the Capitol resides on Coahuiltecan, Tonkawa, Comanche, and Apache ancestral lands and how women from their communities are often at higher risk for substandard health care, especially during childbirth, as well as sex trafficking and domestic abuse. With this protest intervention, Pussy Riot took another leap forward as an intersectional, international, cross-cultural binding agent; mobile and fluid.
It’s had a rippling effect. “To give an example, just yesterday I saw a tweet from Siberia of a girl in a Pussy Riot outfit and mask hanging ‘No War!’ banners around her building in Omsk,” Tolokonnikova explains. “I’ve seen it happening all over the last ten years across the globe. It is by no means the only way to protest for reproductive rights or generally for freedoms, but I think it became one of the more effective ways. It’s easy: you put on a bright balaclava, go to a visible place to express your opinion and you become more than yourself, you become a member of the movement; a superhero.”
Photographer: Ellen von Unwerth
Talent: Nadya Tolokonnikova
Video Producer: Lukas Chmiel
Fashion Stylist: Jules Wood
Makeup Artist: Devra Kinery
Hair Stylist: Dennis Lani
Manicurist: Nori Yamanaka
Digital Tech: Andrew Day
Lighting Crew: John Ciamillo, Gaspar Dietrich
Set Designer: Devin Kelly
Producers: Alexey Galetskiy, Ryan Fahey