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"For a Permanent Revolution in Switzerland!" Nadya Tolokonnikova presented her Book "How to Start a Revolution" in Zurich

The place is packed, sold out. It is one of only eight presentations of the book in the German-speaking world (1). The participants have not yet entered the stage. It shows, apart from a desk on the left side, two antique red arm chairs with a small table between them, with wine glasses and flowers on top of it. In front of the red curtains there is a banner identifying the reading of Tolokonnikova as part of the literature program of Kaufleuten. The black and white picture portraits Nadya in a frisky thinker's pose with a pageboy closely encircling the handsome feature's of her face. Her slim figure is accentuated by a black dress with white dots. There is a nouvelle-vaguish touch to the picture. All this seems to be a little at odds with the occasion... but then again, what would be fitting for the occasion? What kind of event will this be anyway: a reading of belles lettres, a political event, a show event?

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Stage Design, Kaufleuten, Zurich, 03/15/2016

When Nadya comes on stage, she is wearing a casual black two-piece and sneakers, which will be placed on the cushion of the arm chair most of the time as she sits down, Indian-style. Nadya has the gestures of an actress, of a woman aware of her beauty; at the same time, there is something adolescent to her presence. The moderator, the journalist Mikael Krogerus, creates a relaxed atmosphere by starting off the conversation with some getting-to-know-you questions. During the interview he will not avoid difficult questions, but he will not exactly rub Tolokonnikova's nose into more critical assessments of her story.

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Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mikael Krogerus, Kaufleuten, Zurich, 3/15/2016

The action in the Christ Savior Cathedral was, of course, one of the main topics of the interview (as it is in Manual for a Revolution). Tolokonnikova is somewhat dissatisfied with being identified with this action in particular, as in her mind it failed. It did not have the element of surprise, church officials had been given notice by anti-extremism forces about the forthcoming action, and members of far-right religious groups were present.. The group was merely able to gather a few seconds of recordings of the so-called punk-prayer before their action was interrupted. With their eyes wide open, the women stepped into the trap which had been prepared for them, although it was not predictable that the consequences would be so harsh. Tolokonnikova's misgivings about the action are thus, in a broader sense, 'aesthetic' – that the action could not be executed fully. As for a counter example, she pointed out an action of the art-activist group Voina, a member of which she was when she co-founded Pussy Riot: "The Storming of the White House". This action, in which a huge grey skull was projected onto Moscow's so-called White House, declaring the parliament to be toxic, took place in the night from the 6th to the 7th of November 2008. The 7th of November had been, before its abolition under Putin, the day of the commemoration of the October Revolution, and is, by lucky circumstance, Nadya's birthday.

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Nadya (1. r.) with Voina before the group's schism, preparing the action UMVED, near Moscow, 05/08/2008 (2)

What this child of the revolution does affirm, though, is the political legitimacy of the "Punk Prayer". Critics of Pussy Riot's practice have argued that the show trial against the women was used effectively by the troubled administration of Putin to discredit the opposition movement as a whole. Citing this accusation of Pussy Riot as of an 'elitist revolution', Krogerus still was not able to unsettle Tolokonnikova. She would, the activist insisted, indeed represent a minority position in Russia (referring implicitly also to Pussy Riot's supporting of the LGBTQ-movement) and thus she demands the protection of her right to free speech, regardless of the popularity of her opinions. Tolokonnikova, since recently temporarily based in the US, made a reference to First-Amendment-Rights as something that would be needed in Russia. The Punk Prayer was actually intended to push people out of their comfort zone. That is, of course, the point where the discussion about the political effectiveness of 'art-activism' gets interesting, or rather, would have become interesting – because, as so often happens in public discussions in Switzerland – the moderator did not broach the subject again. What if we look at the practice of Pussy Riot from the perspective of political wisdom? If massive public attention cannot be gained simply from anti-government symbolism, but only when symbols and actions are employed, which can be denounced as 'blasphemous' by the opponent, and if – furthermore – the representation of this actionism in the eye of the general public in Russia is clearly under government control, where then is there actually a perspective for any politically effective 'art activism'? At the time of the mass protests against Putin's third term candidacy, Patriarch Kirill had urged the believers not to participate in them, but instead pilgrimaging to a Christian relic, which was momentarily in display in Moscow. This had made him the butt, next to Putin, of the 'Punk Prayer'. Now, if Pussy Riot had wanted to exercise counter propaganda to the patriarch and compete with him over the audience he speaks to, wouldn't then their language have had to be fit for this cause? Tolokonnikova's demand, that such unpopular speech should be protected no matter what, is in itself an appeal to an ideal which will only be supported by a minority in Russia. It may not be feasible to find an easy solution to this 'strategical problem', but, I think, the willingness to reflect about it, is a fair expectation. But maybe, we have even to concede that these questions belong to the past of the year 2012. No one seems to be ready any more to step into the 'blasphemy'-trap anyway. The actionism of self-victimization, provoking the punitive power of the state, seems to be the only thinkable form of actionism that makes sense in the current climate of hatred of a war-leading society. I, of course, speak of Pyotr Pavlensky, who recently in his action "Ugroza" ("Threat") set the entrance of the state security headquarter, the Lubyanka, on fire in November 2015, for which he is on trial currently.

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Pyotr Pavlensky in Dec. 2013 (3)

Another main topic in the interview with Tolokonnikova was – as it is in "How to Start A Revolution" – her experience of prison and hard labor. The activist describes – though rather sketchy, as the whole book is a collection sketches and aphorisms – the human rights violations perpetrated against prisoners in the Russian Federation. In the tradition of the tsarist political prisoner, she is still able to read and write extensively while in prison. Sentenced to a labor camp in the far-away province of Mordovia, and thus delivered to the successor of Stalin's GULAG system, this changes drastically. She is put to work in a seamstress brigade which has to produce police uniforms. If we remember the preoccupation of the Voina group with the figure of the policeman in Russian society, there is quite a bit of irony to this.

Also, ironically, the labor camp has given Tolokonnikova the opportunity to enrich her experience of lesbian love and sexuality and thus might have strengthened her credibility as a LGBTQ-activist in the eyes of some people. In the camp, of course, men were almost completely absent – apart from four male mechanics, supposedly alcoholics, to whom some women give themselves to in their desperation. Not only does Tolokonnikova observe the more or less love involuntarily 'lesbian' love life in camp – the hurried caresses and sex acts among female prisoners, which they manage to sneak into their leaden work lives. Tolokonnikova also readily admits in the book to have wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity to encounter love with women under these circumstances. This adds an interesting element of 'sexual liberation' to the book, also sexuality itself is described as a somewhat resistant part of the prisoners' subjectivity. This most interesting subject was unfortunately not all discussed in the interview in Kaufleuten. Why not? One might suspect that such 'lightheaded behavior' might have been frowned upon by the more conservative parts of the audience in Kaufleuten. After all, Tolokonnikova had to leave husband and daughter behind in Moscow when she was moved to the Mordovian labor camp. Thus she has confessed not only to 'lesbian', but also to extramarital sex.

Then again, 'lightheaded behavior' seems to be hardly more enjoyable for the Western bourgeois than in the case of a Russian 'enfant terrible'. I was startled that the reading of a passage of Tolokonnikova's book about an artistic-activist strategy by Voina, which I find highly chauvinist and repulsive, – the forcible kissing of female policewomen – could evoke the most hearty of laughter. Tolokonnikova recounts that no male activists could be found for this activity (!), and this bravery was only found among six female activists. The moderator followed up with a question about "feminism", an instance of which this activity supposedly presents. Oh, really?! I wonder what kind of reaction the disregard for the physical integrity of a civil servant would evoke in Switzerland. But as representatives of a dumb and brutal police state, Russian policewomen seem to deserve no respect whatsoever, according to these LGBT-activists and their Western admirers. The figure of the Russian art activist seems in some instances – this should not be read as general characterization! – to function as the Other, representing the idealized self of the Western observer and enabling him the enjoyment of regressive behavior in the name of progress.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova went into hunger strike twice during her imprisonment. The second time, in the camp in Mordovia, her life may have been only saved because the commissary for the protection of human rights in the President's administration, called and gave in to some of her demands for improvements in the penitentiary conditions in the Mordovian camp. Upon arrival in the camp she is diagnosed by it's director of having fallen under bad influence as an adolescent. She conjectures, ironically, whose influence that might have been – "The influence of whom? Aristotle? Sartre? Simone de Beauvoir?" (4) No doubt, this 26-year old is a remarkable personality. Her power of will is astonishing. And so is her self-confidence. That she will mobilize Aristotle against the Russian penitentiary system shows that she feels responsible for the entire history of Reason and Enlightenment. And this even comes somehow natural to her. She rarely comes across as a know-it-all; mostly she demonstrates the authenticity of a genuine truth-teller. But given her self-confidence, tougher questions could have been asked. I think there is no excuse for the publishing's house policy of not allowing questions from the audience after Tolokonnikova's readings. Though I agree with the assumption of a representative of Carl Hanser Berlin, uttered in a conversation with me after the show, that a lot of torturous monologues from people in the audience would otherwise have had to be endured, I think this decision is wrong, because the price the publishing house paid this way, was that the event approached the appearance of a propaganda show which should enroll without any disturbances of our common 'comfort zone'. And if our ever more managerial political processes deter democratic deliberation, shouldn't there at least in talks about things as unimportant as art-activism be room for some gibberish?

Surely, everybody finds it hilarious when Tolokonnikova calls Putin "a wannabe-superhero gone mad, riding on horses half naked, fearing no one and nothing, except for homosexuals." (5) Still it must be said, that Tolokonnikova can only become this man's adversary within this order of things, this simulation of democracy, typical for Russia and maybe typical of our age. In his notorious 1967 Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord called the Soviet Union "a local primitivism.". In his comments of 1988 to the earlier book he wrote:

Spectacular government, which now possesses all the means necessary to falsify the whole of production and perception, is the absolute master of memories just as it is the unfettered master of plans which will shape the most distant future. It reigns unchecked; it executes its summary judgments. It is in these conditions that a parodic end of the division of labor suddenly appears, with carnivalesque gaiety, all the more welcome because it coincides with the generalized disappearance of all real ability. A financier can be a singer, a lawyer a police spy, a baker can parade his literary tastes, an actor can be president, a chef can philosophize on cookery techniques as if they were landmarks in universal history. Anyone can join the spectacle, in order publicly to adopt, or sometimes secretly practice, an entirely different activity from whatever specialism first made their name. Where 'media status' has acquired infinitely more importance than the value of anything one might actually be capable of doing, it is normal for this status to be readily transferable; for anyone, anywhere, to have the same right to the same kind of stardom.(6)

Russia's President is a spy, pretending to be a politician. But his revolutionary adversary Tolokonnikova is an artist, philosophy student, and yes: activist, but as such does not bear many similarities with the professional revolutionaries we know from history, and for whom attachment to a popular movement was everything. And I don't write this to discredit Tolokonnikova; that's just the times we live in. I guess, on this level of popularity Russian Opposition doesn't get 'more real' than Tolokonnikova, but still, sometimes we cannot shake off the dreadful feeling of 'reality being in crisis'. In the West as well. After all, in the US the time-honored GOP will most likely be pressed to nominate a successful businessman (or rather the son of one) as their presidential candidate, pretending he is a valid political candidate. And within the framework of big politics, why wouln't he be? The show must go on.

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A revolutionary in Russia, a supporter of 'Political Revolution' in the US (7)

Last summer the remaining members of Pussy Riot dissolved the actionist group Pussy Riot, accusing Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina of a glamorous life style and of having sold out Pussy Riot as a brand. It is hard to guess from the outside who they are and what legitimacy they have, but it's hard to believe that Tolokonnikova wouldn't know – as she claimed, when asked. Tolokonnikova can with some right deflect their 'fundamentalist' criticism and point to the fact that she is in an open field of experimentation. Right now, the 26-year old wants to make music with the help of producers in LA. Why not? It may be argued that she has every right to utilize the value of the brand Pussy Riot. She has added to it and suffered for it more than any other member of the group. And besides, the joyous activism of Pussy Riot is unthinkable anyway under current circumstances. But as Tolokonnikova is a highly intelligent woman, I don't think that she has to be shielded from the question, where she thinks she is heading. A 'revolutionary', or dissident, for that matter, does not gain all to much credibility by making jerky Rap Videos like the current "Chaika", where Tolokonnikova retells the story of the racketeering of the son of the Russian Attorney General Artyom Chaika as analyzed by the Russian NGO Anti-Corruption Foundation in a documentary film; or for that matter by appearing on TV serials – Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova and her husband Pyotr Versilov have appeared in House of Cards, truthtelling to "president Petrov". The bitter truth might be that her current aura is built on what dissidents where ready to do time and again: go to jail. But the risk of ending up in jail for art (or the uttering of an opinion, for that matter) is nowadays still a lot smaller in Russia than it had been in the Soviet Union. In art it is right now merely the 'blasphemy trap' and strategies of conscious self-criminalization which will land you in jail. Oppositional politics and investigative journalism that touch 'real issues' are much more risky. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have founded the NGO Zona prava which is dedicated to the fight for human rights in the Russian penitentiary system. If this endeavor will be seriously and energetically pursued by Tolokonnikova, there is no doubt, terrific opportunities for her to get in trouble will occur again. Not that this is something to wish for.

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Still from Chaika (8)

Unfortunately the use of 'Anti-Putin-events' within Western cultural business is all but clear right now. On the one hand, it can be a show of solidarity with forces who have not given up the fight for democracy in Russia. On the other hand it may just reassure the feeling, that she is not understood and despised by the West. The outrage at Putin has already maxed out, and legitimately so. But sadly, there is less and less critical value in it. An Anti-Putin stance takes no risk in the West right now, it is not a critical position. This does not mean that the opposite is true, and Pro-Putin positions, as they are currently found in the radical left in Germany as well as in the populist right, have more critical value just because they are less mainstream. But our duty as critical intellectuals in the West right now is hardly to spit at Putin but to ask our politicians what their vision for a peaceful coexistence with the Russian Federation as a regional power actually looks like, what the relation of the European Union and Nato should look like, et cetera... And yes, Tolokonnikova's advice that Switzerland should look much more closely at the origins of the money the Russian oligarchs (as the above mentioned Artyom Chaika) invest here, is indeed a very good one! To that effect: "For a permanent Revolution!" in Switzerland, Europe, and Russia.

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I couldn't fool Nadya into writing just "For a Revolution in Switzerland!". Hence the intelligent title of this article...



(1) The English translation of Tolokonnikova's book, How to Start a Revolution, is announced to be published in autumn of this year.

(2) umved is abbreviated for "unizhenie menta v ego dome" – "The cop's humiliation in his [own] house"; by Documentator of the art-group "Voina" ( [CC SA 1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

(3) by Maksim Belousov (own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons; for those fortunate enough to read the true language of humanities, see Sandra Frimmel's "Künstler, Terrorist oder psychisch krank?", at: Geschichte der Gegenwart (03/10/2016).

(4) Nadja Tolokonnikowa: Anleitung für eine Revolution, Hanser Berlin, p. 151.

(5) Ibidem, p. 11.

(6) Guy Debord: Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, at:, p. 6/36.

(7) (c) Denis Sinyakov, 2015.

(8) (c) Denis Sinyakov, 2015.


This text presents knowledge gained within the project "Literature and Art on Trial", based at Zurich University and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. It is the last part of a three-part-series on the art margins blog about Russian engaged art and its functioning in Russia and the West.

Matthias Meindl
Author: Matthias MeindlWebsite: Switzerland
Matthias Meindl (Dr. des.) is currently working in the research project "Literature and Art On Trial", funded by the Swiss National Foundation and based at Zurich University. He is co-editing (together with Prof. Sylvia Sasse) a collection of essays, case studies and documentation on this subject. 2014 he has defended his PhD-theses in Zurich about the Political Positioning of Artists and Writers in Post-Soviet Cultural Space, which he began writing at Center for literary- and Cultural Research in Berlin (until 2011) is. As a translator he is working (together with Prof. Georg Witte, FU-Berlin) on a collection of texts by Moscow poet and activist Kirill Medvedev.

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