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Russian protest art group Pussy Riot wins Woody Guthrie Prize

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Woody Guthrie Prize will be given tonight to artists who work in the tradition of the singer and songwriter who called himself a commonist. Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Mavis Staples are among previous recipients. This year, the prize is being given to the Russian feminist collective and performance art group known as Pussy Riot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLICE STATE")

PUSSY RIOT: No problems in paradise. We'll lock them up. We all got to sacrifice. It won't be long.

SIMON: That's from the 2017 song "Police State." Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova will accept the award. And Nadya Tolokonnikova joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

NADYA TOLOKONNIKOVA: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: So you sang a song at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior church in 2012. What was the song?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: It was called "Virgin Mary, Please Get Rid Of Putin."

SIMON: And how long did you spend in prison for that?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: I spent two years in jail.

SIMON: Why did you sing it? You must have known it would create a problem for some people.

TOLOKONNIKOVA: It was important for me to act. And I never really thought about consequences. Fear paralyzes you, and fear calls autocracies together. If you refuse to fear, then autocracies do not have a chance.

SIMON: You're on the government's most wanted list now for raising money to support Ukraine. Are you worried about your safety?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: I'm not. But people around me are worried. You're right. It is partly because I raised money for Ukraine. I think it's mostly because of the art show that's called "Putin's Ashes" that was done in Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Los Angeles earlier this year. We burn giant Putin's portrait, collect the ashes and make art pieces with those ashes.

SIMON: I gather you ran away from your home in Siberia to Moscow when you were 16 and had some tough years. What moved you to help start what's now called Pussy Riot?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: So prior to Pussy Riot, I had experience of five years of political performance art, and closer to 2011, became obvious to me that I need to speak loudly about my values. So I had to stand up for LGBTQ+ rights, for feminism. And with that goal, I started Pussy Riot.

SIMON: And everything you say rubs Putin the wrong way.

TOLOKONNIKOVA: It's not just us. In general, if you are an activist in Russia, it's fairly challenging, and it's been getting worse and worse in the recent years. Vladimir Kara-Murza just got locked up for 25 years for just publicly condemning the war in Ukraine, Putin's regime. My friend Alexei Navalny is in jail for years, and he's facing pretty much life in jail.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to ask you - you gave some remarks in Vancouver on April 26 where you address President Putin directly. What did you tell him? What did you want to say to him?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: I told him that the Kremlin walls became his prison walls, that he already lost in spirit. That's why he is afraid, that the free world is on the side of Ukraine. The whole world really is on the side of the brave people of Ukraine.

SIMON: I recently had occasion to look this up. Vladimir Putin was reelected president of Russia in 2018 with 77% of the vote. He's pretty popular, isn't he?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: You know, polls exist for democracy. Elections exist only in democratic societies. Everything else is just cruel political theater that has no actual value and completely illegitimate.

SIMON: May I ask, being on the government's most wanted list, do you think in terms of the future?

TOLOKONNIKOVA: I obsess about future a lot. I think it's really important to have positive vision of the future, and I'm trying to maintain this sense of hope - or not even hope, but knowledge. I know that the beautiful Russia of the future is possible because we are here, and we are going to fight for it. It's not going to be easy, but nobody promised us that life is going to be easy.

SIMON: Well, congratulations. You are receiving a very distinguished award.

TOLOKONNIKOVA: Thank you.

SIMON: Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who will receive the Woody Guthrie Award tonight in Oklahoma, thank you so much for being with us.

TOLOKONNIKOVA: Thank you. I appreciate your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.