Pussy Riot’s Advice on Surviving in Trump’s America, Delivered in Miami Beach

In the 40-minute talk, Tolokonnikova ranged widely, offering an extensive reading list, from Roland Barthes to Mikhail Bakhtin, laying out an autobiography of her political dissent and touching on her time in prison.The talk ranged from "vaginal globalism" to the lessons of hard prison time.

“Let all the people in! Listen to your women! Stop killing black children! Make America great again!”

So runs the refrain to Pussy Riot’s song “Make America Great Again,” screened in Miami Beach Thursday night during the Art Basel fair, when the band’s founder, Nadia Tolokonnikova, gave a lecture to a supportive crowd by the pool at the Nautilus Hotel on Collins Avenue in South Beach. The musician and Russian dissenter, who spent nearly two years as a political prisoner, was invited to Miami by New York gallery The Hole.

In the 40-minute talk, Tolokonnikova ranged widely, offering an extensive reading list, from Roland Barthes to Mikhail Bakhtin, laying out an autobiography of her political dissent and touching on her time in prison.

 Nadya Tolokonnikova as Donald Trump in Pussy Riot’s video “Make America Great Again.” Photo via YouTube.

Nadya Tolokonnikova as Donald Trump in Pussy Riot’s video “Make America Great Again.” Photo via YouTube.

The talk was full of gems, like when she urged Americans to revive the example of the California punk band the Dead Kennedys by launching a band called the Dead Trumps. She stopped short of calling for the Trumps’ demise, but she did slyly point out that the Kennedys, by implied contrast, didn’t deserve to die. She then paused and concluded simply that the Dead Trumps name would be “so cool.”

The climax of Tolokonnikova’s lecture came just at the end, when she rhetorically asked the audience, “How can you survive a Trump presidency?” She drew on her own time in prison in Putin’s Russia as an analogue for Americans’ coming experience under Trump:

Find or create alternatives. If your government doesn’t represent you, build your own social network and provide a safe environment for people around you. Help those who are more vulnerable than you. There are a lot of people who will lose their health and will probably lose their lives because of a Trump presidency.

When Tolokonnikova was unjustly imprisoned, she continued, she knew she could fall into self-pity, but she realized that there were many people who have been undeservedly struck down, for example by disease, with no resulting fame, whereas Pussy Riot’s members gained worldwide support during their imprisonment. So, she concluded, she was in a position of relative privilege, even behind bars. It also gave her a real-life lesson in Michel Foucault’s theories about prison, she added.

Altruism, she went on, is ultimately the best answer to the challenge of an authoritarian government.

You don’t have to just think about yourself. Think about people around you who you can help. It will help you—strangely.

She pointed out that right-wing governments and politicians are in the ascendancy throughout Europe as well. “We are in deep shit, and there’s no point in pretending we’re not,” she said.

Build alternative institutions. They could be small, like a gallery or educational program, or an NGO that helps people to improve their health conditions. If everyone does that, things will improve, and that is the way we can take over people’s hearts and minds. We can’t do a lot by just words, because people don’t trust words anymore.

She also related her experience of starting a foundation that helped prisoners on their release. The organization willingly helps some people who are Putin supporters, she said, in the hopes of showing them that other organizations can be more effective than government.

Tolokonnikova finished off by showing the “Make America Great Again” video, recorded in May, which portrays brutal police officers burning Tolokonnikova, literally branding her as a pervert and an outsider. “I have slight hope it won’t be like that,” she concluded, “because it’s really dark.”

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Chris Alexakisart