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August 20, 2014

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Pussy Riot tells all

Why in the world did Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, let Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina out of prison?

It was hard not to wonder about that last week as the two formerly imprisoned members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot made their whirlwind tour of New York: appearing on “The Colbert Report”; dropping in on Samantha Power, the U.N. ambassador; being introduced by Madonna at a huge Amnesty International rock concert at Barclays Center and visiting The New York Times’ editorial board.

Pussy Riot became famous in February 2012, when five of its members, wearing masks, took to the altar of Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox church to sing an anti-Putin song. Three of them were soon apprehended and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Nadezhda and Maria were sentenced to two years in prison. (The third member of the band to be charged was given a suspended sentence.)

Then, in late December, with two months remaining on their sentences, the government released them under an amnesty law that seemed plainly aimed at quieting criticism in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics of Russia’s treatment of political prisoners. Or at least those political prisoners well-known in the West.

Just a few days earlier, for instance, Mikhail Khodorkovsky had been freed by Putin after more than 10 years in prison. During that time, Khodorkovsky had become an eloquent spokesman for those who opposed Putin’s crackdown on dissent and freedom. But he had also once been Russia’s richest man, and he had undoubtedly done some unsavory things in putting together his business empire years earlier. Even though the charges against him were bogus, there were people, and not just in Russia, who thought he was only getting what was coming to him.

But Pussy Riot? You couldn’t ask for more appealing activists. Not only had their prosecution been unjust, but they were young and attractive and intelligent and fearless. After they were released, Amnesty International invited them to New York and set about making sure their voices were heard by as wide an audience as possible. If Putin’s plan was, in fact, to quiet criticism during the Winter Olympics, it backfired spectacularly.

The conference room on the 13th floor of The New York Times building was standing-room only for Maria, 25, and Nadezhda, 24. We asked the obvious question: Are they worried that Putin would put them in prison again? No, Maria said.

“In the two years since we were imprisoned, the situation in Russia has gotten so much worse,” she said. “And if we couldn’t keep quiet about it then, we certainly won’t keep quiet about it now.”

It was understandable that so many people in Russia were afraid to speak out, they said. Maria noted that many institutions in Russia were based on “a conveyor principle, which stamps out identical things, and that’s what they’re trying to do to people, too.” Nadezhda added that when the whole country sees completely innocent people being jailed, “then, of course, it is going to make a lot of people become more silent.”

It was their firm belief that Western support mattered. Just knowing there were people calling for their release helped sustain them when they were in prison — and, they were convinced, ultimately helped bring about their release.

“The lesson that we learned from this is that Putin is concerned with the opinions of the Western press,” said Nadezhda. She urged the West to push for the release of less-well-known prisoners “who perhaps deserve to be freed even more than we did.” She mentioned especially those who had been arrested May 6, 2012, while protesting “the rigged elections right before the inauguration” of Putin. They had been in prison ever since. Their sentencing is set for Feb. 21 — conveniently after the Olympics.

Eventually, the talk got around to what it was like to be in a Russian prison.

“We were constantly watched,” Maria said; in Russia, she added, “the more they watch you, the harder your life is.” Nadezhda said that in some prison colonies, prisoners worked 16 to 20 hours a day. For punishment, prisoners were sometimes locked outdoors, even in the cold and the rain, for eight hours at a stretch. Yet despite the miserable conditions, Nadezhda described their time in prison as “a very important and educational experience,” and said that they were “going to apply the lessons we learned in our future work.”

They plan to push for prison reform when they return to Russia; one of the places they planned to visit while in New York was Rikers Island.

By the end of the meeting, I wasn’t wondering anymore why Putin let them out of prison. The more powerful question was what kind of government would put people like Maria and Nadezhda in prison in the first place?

Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.

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