The Women of Pussy Riot Are Launching a Powerful New Protest Movement

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Jan. 9 2014 5:40 PM

“I Was My Own Person Again”

The women of Pussy Riot made meaning out of a horrific experience in prison. Now, they’re launching another protest movement in Russia.

Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (R) and Mariya Alekhina in a cafe in downtown Moscow, January 3, 2014.
Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina, left, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in a cafe in downtown Moscow on Jan. 3, 2014.

Photo courtesy Denis Sinyakov

MOSCOW—Maria (Masha) Alyokhina squints and holds her new iPhone close to her face; she is very nearsighted. Out of prison for less than two weeks, she is wearing clothes chosen for her by someone else and working out of the backroom of a friend's gallery. She dials the number of a women's penal colony in Mordovia, a Russian region whose correctional institutions are one of its biggest industries. She looks momentarily lost when someone answers, but recovers quickly and assumes a businesslike tone.

“We would like information on the situation with Victoria Dubrovina, who is currently in punitive solitary,” she says.

“We can't give out information over the phone,” answers the woman from Mordovia. “And who are you?”

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“We are from the media,” Alyokhina lies and stumbles.

Who is she? She is one of Russia's most famous political prisoners, famously released in advance of the Olympic Games in Sochi. With Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, her collaborator in the balaclava-clad art group Pussy Riot and co-defendant in the trial that captured the world's attention in the summer of 2012, Alyokhina is now refashioning herself as a prisoners' rights activist. When the two women were arrested, just under two years ago, they were college students who had come up with a prank. It was a prank that changed the way much of the world viewed Russia—and changed their own lives profoundly—but it was still a prank. They emerged from prison on Dec. 23 as political activists seasoned by time behind bars, surrounded by public and media attention in Russia and abroad, and motivated by a need to address the pain and abuse they have experienced and witnessed in prison.

Members of the Russian radical feminist group 'Pussy Riot' sing a song.
Members of the Russian radical feminist group Pussy Riot sing a song in Moscow's Red Square on Jan. 20, 2012.

Photo by Denis Sinyakov/Reuters

The action that got them arrested, tried, and convicted of felony hooliganism was a 40-second performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. In what they called a “punk prayer,” they appealed to the Mother of God to “chase Putin out.” Now they are taking their message to the most oppressed and marginalized of Russia's citizens: its prison inmates. They think an injection of democracy and transparency in Russian society's most inhumane sector might get the job done faster than the Holy Virgin.

“We are representatives of society,” Alyokhina says into her phone. The woman in Mordovia hangs up.

Russian President Vladimir Putin released the members of Pussy Riot—as well as nearly 30 international Greenpeace activists, held since September, and Russia's other most famous political prisoner, businessman and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky—in a last-minute scramble to save the Winter Olympics, which begin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Feb. 7. In early December a series of Western European leaders, apparently heeding Russian opposition activists' calls for a political boycott of the games, announced they would not be going to Sochi; the U.S. delegation, announced by President Obama on Dec. 17, includes no high government officials. Putin, for whom the Olympics are an important personal project and who treasures his photo opportunities with world leaders, saw a disgrace in the making. With the releases Putin was rushing to clean up Russia's image, which has been badly damaged by his crackdown on critics and activists—one that began in earnest with the Pussy Riot arrests.

The Greenpeace activists went home to their respective countries; Khodorkovsky went to Germany, into what appears to be involuntary exile. Only Alyokhina, 25, and Tolokonnikova, 24, remain in Russia, speaking out. Their message is: Do not buy the newly varnished façade. Russia is continuing to abuse the rights of its own people in ways most cannot even imagine. And anyone who goes to the Olympics, whether as an athlete, a spectator, or an official, in effect condones these abuses.

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As soon as she was released, Alyokhina flew not to Moscow to see her family but to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk to see Tolokonnikova. (As co-conspirators, the women were not allowed to serve time in the same penal colonies.) There they strategized for a few days before flying to Moscow and seeing their children—Tolokonnikova's 5-year-old daughter, Gera, and Alyokhina's 6-year-old son, Filipp—before holding a press conference, the first of their lives. They are the subjects of three documentaries (including one shortlisted for an Oscar), at least one book, numerous public campaigns, and thousands of articles, but their activism used to be anonymous—fame came to them while they were behind bars. The most important thing they learned from their first press conference was that, at least for now, they have a large international audience.

Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (R) and Maria Alyokhina (L) walk outside Yemelyanovo airport in Krasnoyarsk, December 24, 2013.
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova walk outside Yemelyanovo airport in Krasnoyarsk on Dec. 24, 2013.

Photo courtesy Denis Sinyakov

“I was worried that no one would be interested in prisoners' rights,” Tolokonnikova says. “I thought this might be just something Masha and I want to work on because we have experienced it.”

But prison is an object of almost universal fear and interest in Russia. The country has one of the world's highest percentages of its population behind bars—not as high as the United States, but a key difference is that in Russia the risk of landing in prison cuts across class lines. No one knows the exact figures, but human rights advocates estimate that more than 15,000 and possibly more than 100,000 of Russia’s roughly 700,000 inmates are entrepreneurs sent to jail by competitors or extortionists. And then there are the political prisoners, a population that is growing despite recent high-profile pardons. Opposition activists are arrested seemingly at random; many of them are not leaders but ordinary grassroots activists or even one-time participants in a demonstration.

The goal of this tried-and-true Soviet tactic is to frighten people away from any and all opposition activity. It’s effective, but its flip side is that when Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova speak about the abuse of prisoners, they grab the attention of millions of Russians who fear winding up behind bars themselves. Since leaving prison, they have appeared in public wearing borrowed or donated clothes, all of them unfailingly trendy because the donors are their fans in the media and fashion industries. This sends a stark message: When two young, well-turned-out women talk about being subjected to what amounts to torture, they really call attention to the fact that it can happen to anyone.

Their high profile afforded some protection in prison—Alyokhina was not forced to work the extremely long hours of other inmates—but it also drew much unwanted attention. Prison authorities tried to ensure they were both isolated and scared; they threatened other inmates with retribution for associating with the women, whom they perceived as potential troublemakers, and rewarded them for harassing the Pussy Riot convicts. Alyokhina was threatened with bodily harm within days of landing in her dorm at a penal colony in the Urals in December 2012; she asked to be placed in protective solitary confinement.

Protective solitary differs from punitive solitary in name only—it is the same place, so cold that no amount of warm clothing can remove the chill. The fight for warmth is one of many battles for a semblance of physical comfort and human dignity that inmates face on a daily basis. Tolokonnikova and her lawyers battled the authorities for several long winter months before she was allowed to wear a warm kerchief instead of a chintz one; she fought a similar battle to wear warm boots in winter and light shoes in summer instead of the prison-issue shapeless plastic footwear, in which feet either freeze or swelter. The privilege of wearing what are known as “civilian” shoes was regularly revoked as punishment, not only for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova themselves but for other inmates, with the clear purpose of pitting the larger prison population against the activists.