Nadya Tolokonnikova speaks into a microphone in a black suit, against a black background.
Creator of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist protest art collective, Nadya Tolokonnikova speaks about her time in prison for participating in an anti-Putin performance called “Punk Prayer” in Moscow in 2012, as a part of the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series at the Michigan Theater on Thursday evening. Tess Crowley/Daily. Buy this photo.

Hundreds of community members, students and staff gathered at the Michigan Theater Thursday evening to hear Pussy Riot founder Nadya Tolokonnikova discuss her self-directed film, Putin’s Ashes.

Pussy Riot is a Russian feminist art collective consisting of women committed to contributing political and musical acts of defiance against Vladimir Putin, the Russian government and capitalist ideology. They have received critical acclaim, backlash and solidarity since their founding in 2011. This semester, the group is featured in the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s “Arts and Resistance” theme, which seeks to engage the University community in the power of the arts to shape society.

Chrisstina Hamilton, Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series director, opened the event by discussing Tolokonnikova’s background and journey since her last visit to the University in 2014.

“Our guest … was sentenced to two years of prison performing ‘Punk Prayer,’ ” Hamilton said. “(Tolokonnikova is) also co-founder of the independent news service and media outlet Mediazona and co-founder of Unicorn Dao, a collector’s decentralized autonomous organization dedicated to collecting and incubating NFTs created by female, nonbinary and LGBTQ+ artists.”

When Tolokonnikova began the “Putin’s Ashes” series in exhibitions across the U.S., Putin pronounced Tolokonnikova as one of the most wanted criminals in Russia. The film features a group of women burning a portrait of Putin.

After presenting the film at the event, Tolokonnikova said she is a threat to the system, not because of physical or actual power, but because she sees her courage as contagious. She told the crowd she believes everyone has this power and has a moral obligation to use this power for good. 

“I gave myself a promise that I will dedicate my life to resistance,” Tolokonnikova said. “Putin equals death, humiliation, torture, imprisonment, darkness, eternal winter, stagnation … The dark ages for Russia. Courage is an ability to act in the face of fear.”

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Art & Design junior Georgie Correa said Tolokonnikova’s story and artwork have creatively inspired them. They said they admired Tolokonnikova’s strength and took it as a sign for people to get more involved in politics. 

“I have an interest in (Tolokonnikova) because I have heard of Pussy Riot a lot,” Correa said. “Her work is referenced a lot in the (School of Art & Design) curriculum. Her attitude about protests and political art is a sign for me to get into it.”  

Art & Design freshman Akari Fu told The Daily Tolokonnikova’s strength and creativity were an inspiration to them.

“I was actually excited for today’s speaker especially because I researched the speaker and I had not heard of (Tolokonnikova) before,” Fu said. “She’s accomplished so much and went through so much. I always have an admiration for people who use their art, creativity and voice to make a difference in the world.”

Art & Design freshman Ben Levitsky told The Daily he thought Tolokonnikova’s artwork was interesting and conveyed a message unlike anything he’s seen before.

“It’s a completely different genre of art and I have not seen something like it before,” Levitsky said. “I thought what Tolokonnikova is doing is amazing. She is doing as much as she can to stop the spread of a dictatorship.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Maleny Crespo can be reached at