Pussy Riot band leader on Trump and Putin's similarities

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Story highlights

  • Nadezhda Tolokonnikova says Pussy Riot is more of a movement than a band
  • "You cannot change the whole world as just one individual, but you could start something," she says

(CNN)"Fight the power" -- almost no one embodies this mantra of the American hip hop group Public Enemy better than Russian Pussy Riot band leader Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova.

Tolokonnikova believes that artists should be willing to risk themselves for the causes they believe in and, if necessary, challenge the status quo.
"You can't effectively fight the system being within the system," Tolokonnikova, 27, told CNN in a recent interview in New York. "If you do it, you have to be really, really strong. Otherwise that system will destroy you."
    In 2012, Tolokonnikova and members of her band gained international attention when they were arrested for staging a feminist, anti-Putin punk performance inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
    "If you aren't ready to give part of yourself to do your art, then it means it's not really art," Tolokonnikova said. "Maybe it's some craft or hobby or something, but it's not real art."
    The ordeal landed the group a two-year prison sentence and inspired a movement among younger Russians -- particularly those in the LGBTQ community -- who also voiced their concerns about Putin and a lack of civil protections for gays and lesbians in Russia.
    "After I was released from jail, I had people as young as 16 and 17 coming up to me saying, 'you helped me to get out of the closet,' " Tolokonnikova said. "They actually revealed their sexuality because of this Pussy Riot case."
    Band members of  "Pussy Riot" during a court hearing in Moscow (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova - center)
    While Tolokonnikova was happy to see fellow Russians who previously felt silenced finally find their voice, she said her true goal was to unite people so they didn't have to fight for their power alone.
    "If I could unite five or 10 people, then I'm happy for that," she said. "You cannot change the whole world as just one individual, but you could start something and you never know who the echo from that will affect."
    A scene for "Make America Great Again" music video
    Here's what else Tolokonnikova had to say about music, art, and why she believes everyone should be involved in US politics:
    How would you define what Pussy Riot is?
    You could find 1 million different definitions of who we are, and 1 million different stories from people all around the world who call themselves Pussy Riot. That's actually the whole thing. My goal is not to be identified as Pussy Riot. I am a founder, but it doesn't mean that I own it; it doesn't belong to anybody and so we all define it collectively.
    The true story of Pussy Riot is that we never had an actual band. We started as an art collective, as this crazy group of people who sometimes don't even know each other, and we spread into something much bigger. There have been girls in Greece, and in other places, who call themselves Pussy Riot, too. I think it's a beautiful thing.
    From the beginning, we wanted to be something more than a band and that's why we used masks. So when we found ourselves in court a few years ago, and it was impossible to cover our faces, my main problem was not that I'm about to lose my freedom, but that everybody could see my face now. And, I didn't want to focus that much on myself because I didn't want Pussy Riot to become about me. I still don't.
    Why do you believe it's important for non-US citizens to stay engaged in what's happening in American politics?
    Honestly, I don't believe in borders. I guess I just have some defect in my DNA, because unlike most people, I don't see the point in them. I believe that what's going on in one part of the world influences what's going on in another part of the world -- especially if it's going on in such a big country as America.
    During the last US presidential election, Putin was actively supporting Donald Trump through the Russian media, which is a propaganda machine. So when I made my song "Make America Great Again," it was to make a statement and say that there are some Russian people who are not that happy about Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States -- to say we do have some Russians who are pro-feminist and LGBTQ and for freedom.
    Speaking of American politics, you campaigned for one of the leading Democratic party nominees from the last US election.
    I was a strong supporter of Occupy Wall Street. This was the moment when Western people realized the problem of the 1% versus 99%. [US Sen.] Bernie Sanders was a really important person that embodied this movement. Actually, when I first learned about him, I was really surprised by his success in America because most Americans are brainwashed against socialism.
    So during the Democratic primaries, when you had so many Americans passionately supporting a person like Bernie -- a self-described Democratic socialist -- I thought that maybe there is a really important and significant change happening in the minds of Americans. Even though a lot of his supporters weren't that happy with his decision to ultimately support Hillary [Clinton] as the Democratic Party nominee, I think he still has a lot of credibility and people trust him. So I think that he can re-emerge, and I'm really waiting for more radical moves from his side, so that I can continue to support him.
    So since you were pro-Bernie Sanders, who ran as a Democrat, do you support the Democratic Party?
    I believe that Bernie needs to start a third party. I don't see the difference between the Democratic and Republican parties in America; they are both corrupted. I'm not a political scientist, but as a Russian person who is just roaming around America, trying to understand what's going on here, I don't see a f***ing difference. I think they're all protecting money. Or, they're protecting people who have money, and that's their only one goal to exist. I don't think that kind of political system is healthy for the people.
    I've seen the same thing in Russia. That's basically the whole idea of Putin. He doesn't have any beliefs. He doesn't have an ideology. He's basically a KGB agent who happened into being President. The same thing is going on with Trump in America. He says he wants to "make America great again," but what really could make America great is to just take care of people -- not the oligarchs -- but just take care of the people.
    This interview has been edited for length and clarity.