By Robert P. Helms

November 7, 2017

Last night I attended an event at the First Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street where a Russian anarchist spoke of her experiences and her perspective on social change. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, –or “Nadya Tolokno” to make it easier in the West –is one of the members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot who spent two years in a Russian prison camp on “hooliganism” charges, after they performed uninvited on the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ The Savior in 2012.

This was the first public appearance by Tolokonnikova in Philadelphia. A wonderful local band, We Are Bandits, warmed up the house in precisely the right spirit. The guitarist –with her tiny guitar –declared that it was the magic of witches, exactly what was in the air and in the dancing people, there in the room, that scares the shit out of our oppressors.

I was keen to see and hear Nadya, having followed her case throughout her imprisonment and ever since her release in interviews, in coverage of her public and TV appearances in Europe and North America, and in the documentary film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. The exposure has been steady and her popularity has remained consistent, but what has impressed me from the start is that Tolokonnikova’s message has not been diluted, nor has her reputation as an activist been compromised at all during these seven years since she first belted out her voice on the world stage. Sometimes I’ve been momentarily worried, such as when she stood for a selfie with Hillary Clinton, but last night my young hero dispersed all such concerns.

The turnout last night was good, the spirit strong. The event was organized by First Person Arts. After the band joyously finished their performance, Tolokonnikova simply emerged on the stage without fanfare wearing casual sportswear, waved and bowed to her audience, and then she sat down on a stool and spoke in almost-fluent, pleasantly accented English for about an hour, using written notes. Nadya is a clear-thinking, intelligent and healthy 28-year old of average height. Though not a comedian, she can be quite funny. The talk was more a sharing of experiences than a prepared lecture.

Celebrated Russian anarchists and revolutionists have presented their views at public events for over a century, here in the city. Peter Kropotkin, by far the leading anarchist thinker of his time, gave his only Philadelphia lecture in October 1897 and all the wealthy reformers wanted to meet him. But the “anarchist prince” avoided the high society. Before the talk, Kropotkin dined with the pre-eminent ethnologist Daniel G. Brinton, who was anarchist in his later years as well as an intellectual on par with the visiting Russian geographer. After the event Kropotkin mingled with the local anarchists at a private reception -an evening that thrilled the comrades.

The exiled Russian revolutionary socialist Catherine Breshkovskaya made four appearances in Philly during the cold months of 1904-05 as part of her successful fund raising US tour for the ill-fated revolution then in its early stages in her homeland. Breshkovskaya, affectionately called the Babushka (Granny) had already endure 18 years in a Siberian prison for her opposition to the Tzar’s regime and for refusing to renounce her beliefs.

The brilliant anarchist writer Voltairine de Cleyre was very sick and very nearly died that winter. She had not yet recovered to robust health when, on March 5, 1905, Breshkovskaya made her fourth appearance in Philadelphia, with Alice Stone Blackwell presiding and featuring speakers in several languages. The English address was given by Reverend Russell H. Conwell, the city’s leading Baptist and founder of Temple University who, a few years earlier, had called for the deportation or killing of all anarchists in the United States. At the Babushka event, Conwell gave the US constitution as the model for reform in Russia and stated that Breshkovskaya “has found here a land where, with her ideals of freedom, she will be perfectly at home.”

At that point Voltairine de Cleyre, although not scheduled to speak, asked to do so and was granted the podium. The next day’s Press stated that “she was pale and ill, but her voice rang like a tocsin and her utterances aroused great enthusiasm.”

Not as an American,” Voltairine began, “–though I am one –but as an anarchist, I welcome this noble woman to our ranks. I could not sit still and be silent hearing the truth told in every language but English. The international character of this meeting is a sign that people of all countries are against tyranny, whether in Italy, Russia, or America. But if I could not wish the Russian revolutionaries a better freedom than that which we have in America, I would say to them, ‘You had better lay down your arms.’”

Voltairine’s surprise trashing of the pious and bigoted Russell Conwell 112 years ago came to mind last night as I thought of Pussy Riot’s dissident Punk concerts and Nadya’s own performance art and music videos.

Nadya was encouraged not to lose hope in prison by an essay by Vaclav Havel, a passage of which she read to us. Of the prison ordeal she remarked, “I am a lucky woman,” because so many people are jailed for long terms in Russia but are forgotten, and their condition is regarded as a normal state of politics. Tollokonikova, by the way, was born and raised at Norilsk, described by Wiki as a “heavily polluted, extreme-weather industrial city in the Russian Arctic.” This means that she is no daisy.

She continued by describing her adventures as an activist with Pussy Riot and groups that preceded it.

Tolokonnikova once invited students to scale a fence and project a protest image on the “Russian White House,” to take the places of the drunken activists who originally committed to do it. The students asked if she’ gotten permission to do that –Ha! Nadya added that Russian students were a critical core of the 1917 revolution, but now there is far too little radicalism in the universities.

She concluded with saucily-worded statement of her political beliefs. Last night there was no self-aggrandizement, no boasting, but Nadya was certain to renew her commitment to supporting political prisoners, oppressed women, anti-racist action, and LGBT rights. The questions were prepared in advance by members of We Are Bandits rather than taken directly from the audience. While answering the first of several questions, Nadya explicitly identified herself as an anarchist.

I was hoping for an informal handshake reception after the talk, as is usual for author events, but to my disappointment, there was none.

Lingering in my mind is an old Russian saying that Nadya offered up during the evening: “They fuck us, but still we are strong.”