(Zoe Williams’s article appeared in the U.K. Guardian, 3/8; Photo: ‘I’m in a panic, I’m crying every day’ … Nadya Tolokonnikova at a concert in Tennessee earlier this month. Photograph: Paul A Hebert/LiveMusicToday/REX/Shutterstock.)

 The Russian artist – who spent two years in a Siberian jail for singing an anti-Putin ‘punk prayer’ – is using NFTs to fight the dictator, raising $7m in five days. At a time like this, she says, only activism will keep you sane

Nadya Tolokonnikova is in a geographically undisclosed location, speaking to me on Zoom, in a Pussy Riot T-shirt, looking purposeful, driven and singleminded. Her feminist protest art has been deadly serious since its inception, when she founded Pussy Riot in 2011. The watching world may have been entertained by its playful notes, the guerrilla gigs in unauthorised places, culminating in the event for which she was prosecuted, in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, when she sang Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.

But the consequences have always been seismic and severe. Tolokonnikova, along with two other members of Pussy Riot, were sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism in 2012, separated from their very young children, went on hunger strike, endured unimaginably harsh conditions and were named prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

Tolokonnikova is “nomadic by nature”, she says. “This planet is my home. I’ve always been an anarchist. I’m not really a big fan of borders or nation states.” But beneath those abstracts there are concrete dangers. She was declared a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin in December, as was the independent news outlet she founded upon her release from prison, Mediazone.

 “Putin just signed a law that said you’re going to get 15 years in jail for even discussing the war in Ukraine,” she says matter-of-factly. “You cannot even call it a war, you have to call it a special military operation.” The jeopardy of being a known Russian dissident is greater now than it has been in decades, and nobody understands that more keenly than Tolokonnikova, who was born in 1989, too young to remember Perestroika.

Yet her focus is anything but self-protective. When Putin invaded Ukraine on 24 February, she and various collaborators from the world of cryptocurrency launched the Ukraine DAO (decentralised autonomous organisation). It was a 1/1 non-fungible token (NFT) of the Ukrainian flag, and the group invited people to bid for collective ownership of the image, raising $7.1m in five days.

“We felt, me and my friends in crypto, that we had to react somehow. I’m personally convinced that in situations like this, activism is the only thing that can keep you sane. Just looking at disasters and tragedies and not doing anything about it is really detrimental for the world, but also it slowly destroys you and makes you feel helpless.” The money has already been distributed to the organisation Come Back Alive, which has been mobilising support for the Ukrainian army since 2014 with medical care, ammunition, training and defence analytics.If you fight with a dictator like Putin, you have to show them that you are ready to die – and I was

Tolokonnikova is devastated by the invasion of Ukraine. “I’m in a panic, I’m crying every day. I don’t think it was in any sense necessary, I don’t think it was in any sense logical. It wasn’t something that had to happen, it’s a disaster that will end thousands of people’s lives. I’m freaking out.” Yet she never had the luxury of complacency about what Putin was capable of. “The global community was extremely complacent, and I see two reasons: hypocrisy, based on greed. People would make statements that they did not support Putin’s politics, and his oppression of the political opposition, and the wars that he started – this isn’t the first war by any means. But at the same time they would continue doing business with him.” Nobody was interested in following the money; asking how the oligarchs coming out of Russia, fetching up in Europe and Miami, had come upon their vast wealth.

“Stupidity,” she continues, bluntly. “This is the second reason. People underestimate how dangerous dictators are. In 2014, we spoke to the UK parliament, we spoke at the Senate in the US, we were asked by a lot of people how they should talk to Putin, how they should frame the conversation, and I always advised that they should be as strict as they could. You cannot play nice with Putin.” This wisdom was won, not so much by her arrest for offending the thin-skinned leader but during her time in prison. “Dictators act a lot like prison wardens. They treat kindness as weakness.”

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