Pussy Riot Unveil Plans for Human Rights Organization

Freed musicians return to Moscow to announce next steps, which do not include touring

Maria Alyokhina Nadezhda Tolokonnikova Pussy Riot
DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot
By |

On Friday, Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina held their first public press conference since their release from prison on Monday. They unveiled their plans for a new human rights organization and said they remain committed to bringing down Russian president Vladimir Putin.

"The system ought to be in shape. We're going to force it to get into it," Tolokonnikova told hundreds of journalists at the studios of the Russian opposition TV station, TV Rain. "We intend to help with the advancement and reaction to complaints of prisoners about the conditions of their incarceration. We want to provide them with legal aid."

Photos: Inside the Pussy Riot Trial

The two activists flew into Moscow this morning from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where Tolokonnikova walked free from jail on Monday. This was the first time since they were jailed that the two women have been in the Russian capital.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina said their new human rights organization will be named Zone of Law, a play on "the zone" (shorthand for "prison camp" in Russian). The new organization will offer legal aid to prisoners who complain of violence, threats, abuse and overwork. The women hope their high profile will also allow them to draw media attention to abuse in the system. The press conference fleshed out what Alyokhina told Rolling Stone just hours after her release: that the organization would be "a new type" of human rights non-governmental organization. They also distinguished during it that they were speaking as individuals, not as representatives of Pussy Riot.

"We already started to do this [human rights work] in the camp. There we had nothing; the only thing we had was our will," Tolokonnikova said. "After my hunger strike and letter, the 16-hour slave-working day has become a thing of the past, and they've begun to release people on parole. Fear has appeared among the guards at the colony. It's unbelievably important now to continue this work."

Alyokhina added, "We really are provocateurs. But there's no need to say that word like it's a swear word. Art is always provocation."

In November, Pussy Riot told Rolling Stone of their plan to found such an organization focusing exclusively on the Mordovia region, where Tolokonnikova was being held. The organization they announced today appears to be considerably more ambitious, covering prisons across the whole of Russia. During the press conference, both brought up individual cases of prisoners they felt needed urgent help, including a woman dying of cirrhosis of the liver in the camp where Alyokhina was held. The two women said that Zone of Law would rely largely on crowdfunding, as well as support from some of Russia's more prominent opposition figures.

Tolokonnikova said that her time in prison changed her understanding of what her goals were and that it was "absolutely obvious" she would not now participate in the band's 2011 "punk prayer" against Putin that led to their arrest and imprisonment.

"I was smaller, I was younger and I had other understandings about my goals," she said. "I don't think that you have to chain yourself to some moments in the past. I would like to be judged by those things that I'm going to do now."

Although their tactics have changed, the women's ultimate goal remains the same: to topple the president's regime.

"Our attitude to Putin hasn't changed. As before, we want to do what we said in our last protest for which we were imprisoned – we want to drive him out," Tolokonnikova said, referring to their "punk prayer." "Our political ambitions never disappeared, and possibly they've even got bigger."

While their "punk prayer" was essentially an abstract scream of protest against Putin's rule, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have now set themselves more specific goals. Though the less glamorous work of pushing prisoner complaints through Russia's complex bureaucracy may not win them many new fans abroad, it may help earn them greater respect with their countrymen, many of whom are still opposed to the band.

This move also pits them squarely against a Putin regime that has suddenly latched onto the prison system as a way to improve its image. The amnesty that freed Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina is part of a broader effort to prove to critics that Russia is becoming more humane to its citizens. On Monday, Alyokhina told Rolling Stone the amnesty was "a lie," a PR move intended make Russia more attractive before the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The two women also called for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's most famous prisoner, to become the next president of Russia; he was also released last week when Putin personally pardoned him. Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia's richest man, spent 10 years in labor camps after falling afoul of the president, and he is considered Putin's most serious potential political challenger. Khodorkovsky has already announced his intention to work to free Russia's remaining political prisoners and praised Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina shortly after his own release.

"If he considers it necessary to collaborate with us, it would be a great honor. It would be an ideal and conceptual collaboration," Alyokhina said.

The third member of Pussy Riot, Ekaterina Samutsevich, was not present at the press conference. She was released on a suspended sentence in October 2012, and can be called back to jail anytime until the end of her sentence in March. Her bandmates said they will meet with her in the near future to discuss working together.

"We have no taboo about Ekaterina Samutsevich," said Tolokonnikova. "We have something to share, she has something to share."

The two activists also ruled out the possibility of a Pussy Riot music tour and said they had no plans to perform concerts. Tolokonnikova said they might travel around Russia to promote the ideas, but that these would not take the form of concerts.

Said Alyokhina, "I think we can popularize our ideas without concerts."