Today, Maria Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, two members of Russian art troupe Pussy Riot, were released from prison. The pair were pardoned under an amnesty signed into law last week by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The self-styled "punk band" Pussy Riot had become an international cause célèbre in 2012 after three members were sentenced to two years in prison for performing an anti-Putin punk song at a Russian Orthodox church (the third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released earlier this year).
So, what is the first thing they decided to do when released? Why, make Putin look stupid of course.
When Nadya Tolokonnikova was released from a prison hospital in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, she reportedly shouted to the waiting reporters “Russia without Putin!” “There is no new Putin,” Tolokonnikova later told BuzzFeed's Miriam Elder. “This is a small step back, but a small one. There are still plenty of people in the jails.”
Maria Alekhina was similarly unequivocal in her dismissal of her freedom. “If I had a chance to turn it down, I would have done it, no doubt about that,” Alekhina told Russia's Dozhd TV. “This is not an amnesty. This is a hoax and a PR move.”
Most Russia watchers agree that their release and that of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky were PR stunts ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Regardless, it takes courage to be released from Russia's notorious prison system and immediately criticize the man who put you there.
The act that put Pussy Riot in prison wasn't a particularly noble one — even in most Western countries, forcing your way into a place of worship and performing a blasphemous song wouldn't be met with much support, and it's never really appeared that the group seem to have much of a coherent political ideology to back up their anti-Putin rants. But thanks to the complete overreaction to the performance by the Russian state (probably driven by Putin's desire to keep the support of the Orthodox Church) and their remarkable eloquence and dignity during the trial, Pussy Riot became worldwide heroes to people who had never cared about Russia before.
Vladimir Putin is a very smart man, but Pussy Riot have continually made him look stupid. It will be interesting to see what they do next.
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