Pussy Riot Members Released From Prison, Slam Russian Government

'I never felt like a convict because I always felt free,' Maria Alyokhina tells Rolling Stone

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After nearly two years behind bars and much international outcry on their behalf, the two imprisoned members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were released from Russian jail this morning. They had been serving a two-year sentence for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after performing a protest against Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow in March 2012.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were freed from their separate jail facilities, three months before the end of their sentencing, after being granted amnesty last week. "I never felt like a convict because I always felt free," Aloykhina tells Rolling Stone.

Inside the Pussy Riot Trial

But they don't trust Putin's motives in this instance, with the Sochi Olympics scheduled to start in February 2014. "It’s an impersonation," she says. "Formally it’s a general amnesty. But there isn't really an amnesty — the numbers that will be released are very small."

Hunter Heaney, executive director of the Voice Project, promptly released a statement on the two musicians' behalf; it expressed relief for their freedom and echoed Pussy Riots' sentiments regarding the motivations of their release. "We all recognize that the whole amnesty program is a PR move by Putin, likely of course a bit of image clean up prior to the Olympics. Amnesty being ‘granted' to two women put in prison for a 40-second song performance, who would have been released in a mere couple of months after missing nearly two years with their young children and loved ones is, of course, absurd." 

Despite enduring harsh prison conditions over the last two years, their dedication to political activism hasn't waned. As first reported by Rolling Stone, the two will start a human rights organization dedicated to improving the treatment of prisoners, and may expand upon their initial aim to focus on inmates in the region of Mordovia, where Tolokonnikova served most of her sentence.  

"It will be a human rights organization, but in a new style," Alyokhina says. "We will use to the brightness and illumination of the mass media. We're still deciding on the exact form." She seemed somewhat doubtful that Pussy Riot would continue to exist in its previous form, adding that she preferred to wait until the two could speak together to avoid contradiction, but their activism would continue to be provocative. "Whatever we do next will, of course, will be connected with that type of activism that we find is effective," she says. "If a person is connected with art, then that's forever. It's impossible to stop. It's within."

Upon her release from Krasnoyarsk prison, Tolokonnikova yelled, "Russia without Putin!" She told the reporters assembled before her outside the Siberia compound's hospital: "I'm in the mood to work after getting out from prison. My exit from prison is only just the beginning, as far as the line between freedom and bondage remains very narrow in Russia, in an authoritarian state."

Additional reporting by Patrick Reevell.