Nadya Tolokonnikova is only 29, and she has already lived quite a life.

The Russian singer, conceptual artist and political activist has served two years in a prison labor camp for performing an illegal protest concert in 2012. She is also a founding member of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, and her book “Read & Riot” was released in the fall.

Below, she talks about her illegal performances, advice to live by and more.

Where did you get your sense of agency, or rebel attitude, I guess, the idea that one single person can change things with action?

I feel like it’s really weird to be a Russian person and don’t have a rebellious spirit inside of yourself. Because you start to seriously study history of Russian Revolution in school when you’re 13 or 14 years old. So you start to rebel, and you feel like there should be something more than just my hormones and everybody’s telling me that I’m just a stupid teenager, and I will get calmer when I will grow up.

The Russian Revolution is really controversial thing in Russia. Because it brought us Stalin, it brought us great repressions. It brought us 1937, this year when so many people were killed because of nothing. I loved the art but wasn’t sure of the politics because of consequences. For me, it was the time when Russia really was ahead of everybody else, but not with tanks. Not with media wars. Not with the buying politicians abroad, but with art, poetry — Malevich, Kandinsky, Mayakovsky. Pretty much everything. And [studying that era was] when I decided that I’m a patriot. I am. I really want my country to be ahead. But I want to just use different tools. Not war, but culture and education. It was a promising time, I think. And I wanted to re-create something like that. Because I was just 10 years old when Putin came to power and when freedom started to crack down.

Do you remember the first way you noticed that?

You can actually feel it. So many people think that kids don’t notice those things. But I clearly noticed it. Partly because of my father, maybe. Because in ’90s, we would go with him to concerts and to festivals of electronic music, punk rock festivals. And even that started to feel so different after a few years of Vladimir Putin in power. Like, more controlled and just completely different energy. And television, too. As a kid, I liked to watch television and political programs. And I was reading political magazines because of my crazy father.

He was, like, “Oh, you shouldn’t read Cosmopolitan. You should read political magazines.”

So I could see the difference when I was 12 years old.

When did you start doing protests and illegal performances?

I ended up at my first rally when I moved to Moscow from Norilsk. I was just curious and I went by myself. I was nervous. I didn’t want to be arrested. But luckily, they were sexists, and they didn’t arrest me. But they arrested all the guys. [Laughs.] After the first time, I realized it’s not scary; it feels really amazing to see people who think in the same way as you. Because I was concerned with things like education. It was my first year of studying philosophy at Moscow State University, and I was so excited going there. I was interested in queer politics ever since I was 16. But after a few months, I realized that there is so much bureaucracy, Soviet-style censorship, if you want to write about things like queer politics. So I was disappointed.

We started our first activist collective that’s called Voina, which means “war,” to make illegal protests all over Moscow. My favorite one was storming of the White House when we projected a skull and bones on their White House of Russia — Russian Federation. I went to the art college in Moscow — I didn’t know anybody and I come with my daughter, who is 6 months old at the time, and start to talk to people. You know, “Come with me and storm the White House tonight.” They were like, “Ha, ha, ha.” “No, I’m serious, it’s an art action, and it’s really important.” And then our team just started to climb on this fence, which was six meters long. Basically, the idea was to just show people that even if they surround themselves with a six-meters-long fence, it doesn’t protect them from us. And if three people can do it, then imagine if, like, 3 millions of people would go there and do the same thing.

You were a young mother when you started some of your biggest actions. Did that have an influence on you?

In terms of energy and dedication, it works in a way that I want more action. Because I faced many situations of sexism [as] a young mother. Partly because of that sexism that has driven me and my friends to make all-girls band. Right now, it’s a female and queer band, but initially we made it all-girls band. Because when I was in the previous collective, I had numerous encounters with other members who they said: Right now you shouldn’t take part in action because your hormones; take care of your kid. You should just sit home.

Even in the most progressive people politically, like anti-Putin, anti-Kremlin, we still have a lot of sexism.

It takes a lot of courage to stand up to one of the most powerful people in the world, to know you’re getting on their bad side. Where does that courage come from?

I think partly it comes from studying history. You see that people have done it before. You know, when I was asked to write an essay in grade school, I wrote about Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the great pioneers of the women’s vote. And you realize that they are the same people, made of flesh and blood, and they changed patterns of history against many powerful men.

Did you have moments, maybe serving your prison term, that affected your resolve, where you said to yourself, “This is just too big for me to take on, maybe I need to change”?

I didn’t change, so I think that’s what matters. I remember myself being desperate, but I don’t think that I made [the decision] to quit my activity. I just felt like s---, that’s it. But it’s not about heroism or something. All of us, we stick to our image of ourselves that makes us feel good. And that was my image. I guess, that’s why people die for their beliefs. Like, if I know that it’s the Earth revolving around the sun, and they told you you should say, “No, the sun is moving around the earth,” and you’re a scientist, you’re like, f---, why would I say that? Because it really hurts to give up part of your personality. I even got a certain pleasure that I really, how you say, had a chance to reassess my beliefs, and was happy about what I found.

Do you have advice that you live by?

When I met [Dmitri] Prigov the poet and artist, he told me:

“Don’t live within a lie.”

It was initially a phrase of Vaclav Havel. Don’t lie to yourself. And don’t follow lies.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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