Two members of the Pussy Riot performance art group were released from prison Monday under the terms of a sweeping amnesty declared by Russian authorities last week. Both women made use of their first hours of freedom to issue ringing declarations of defiance against the Kremlin.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina walked free after serving 21 months of a two-year prison sentence handed down by a Moscow court in August 2012 for performing a "punk prayer" in a nearly empty church that called upon the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin.
That 40-second performance subsequently went viral on YouTube. Russian authorities, with backing from the powerful Orthodox Church, subsequently put the women on trial and had them convicted on charges of "inciting religious hatred."
That trial, with its odd focus on the "hurt feelings" of religious believers – under Russian law, such charges are usually only brought against defendants who are alleged to have committed violence or inflicted physical damage – attracted a storm of critical global attention and made household names of Ms. Tolokonnikova, Ms. Alyokhina, and the band.
Subsequently, many Western music stars such as Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, and Madonna waded into the controversy to express support for their fellow artists.
Emerging from a prison hospital in Siberia, where she's been held since penning a scathing open letter about prison conditions, Tolokonnikova flashed victory signs and shouted "Russia without Putin," a rallying slogan of Russia's street opposition. She told waiting journalists that she intends to devote herself to working for prisoners' rights in the "authoritarian state" that is Putin's Russia.
"I'm now bound with the penal system by bonds of blood, by bonds of kinship, and I won't leave it alone now," she said once outside. "And I think I can – I will try to make it a little bit better."
Minutes after she walked out the doors, Tolokonnikova was calling on the Western governments to boycott the upcoming Sochi Olympics. Denouncing her release as "yet another pre-Olympics publicity stunt," she added: "I'm calling for a boycott. I'm calling for honesty. I'm calling [for Western countries] not to sell themselves for oil and gas that Russia can supply them with."
Tolokonnikova remained in Krasnoyarsk tonight, staying at her grandmother's nearby apartment, according to local news reports. She said that she will decide on her precise next steps after conferring with her supporters and bandmates.
Alyokhina, who was released several hours earlier, slammed the amnesty as a "profanation" because it applies to only a small number of selected convicts.
"I don’t think the amnesty is a humanitarian act, I think it’s just a PR stunt. Had I been given the choice to refuse this amnesty, I would have, without a doubt," she told the independent TV station Dozhd in a telephone interview.
Unlike former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, released from prison under a separate Kremlin pardon last week, Pussy Riot band members appear resolute to remain in Russia and immediately return to political activism that got them into trouble with Russian authorities in the first place.
Mr. Khodorkovsky, by contrast, told a Berlin press conference Sunday that he's unlikely to come back to Moscow in the near term, and will not engage in overt politics or go back to funding Russian opposition and civil society groups as he did before his arrest a decade ago.
While Khodorkovsky reportedly accepted Putin's pardon after the Kremlin agreed to extend it (without any implied admission of guilt) the amnesty that freed the Pussy Riot women does not lift their convictions.
"There is no way this is the end of it," says Irina Khrunova, Alyokhina's lawyer.
"Just because my client was released from prison, doesn't mean she's been found innocent. For the state she remains a convict; with two months of her sentence shaved off, but still guilty. That doesn't satisfy us. We're going to continue with our appeals, to Russia's Supreme Court and to the European Court [of Human Rights]," she says.