December 25, 2013 - After nearly two years in prison
for singing a song about Vladimir Putin
in Moscow's main cathedral, the women of Pussy Riot
are no less defiant. Maria Alyokhina
and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
have walked free from prison , and pledged to devote their energies to changing the political system in Russia
and improving conditions inside its prisons.
Bareheaded despite the -25C cold, Tolokonnikova walked out of prison in the eastern city of Krasnoyarsk, flashing a victory sign to reporters waiting outside. "How do you like our Siberian weather here?" she asked, before shouting "Russia
Speaking to the Guardian by telephone shortly after her release from prison in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, Alyokhina said that the pair - who were released as part of a wide-ranging amnesty announced last week - now plan to launch a project which will fight for the rights of inmates in the Russian
"We will be creating very special, colourful and powerful programmes to defend other innocent women in Russian prisons, who are being turned into slaves right now," Alyokhina said, adding that she planned to fly to Siberia in order to meet up with her band mate.
Tolokonnikova confirmed that the two women planned to meet soon to discuss the new project: "Russia
is built along the same lines as a prison camp at the moment, so it's important to change the prison camps so that we can start to change Russia," she said. "Everything is just starting, so fasten your seat belts."
Alyokhina described her prison sentence as a time of "endless humiliations", including forced gynaecological examinations almost every day for three weeks.
She said: "I decided to become a human rights activist when I realised how easy it was for officials to make a decision and force women to be examined in the most intimate parts of their bodies. Russian officials should not stay unpunished, they cannot have this kind of absolute power over us."
Zoya Svetova, a member of the Moscow
Public Oversight Commission visited Alyokhina in Moscow
jail and confirmed that she had repeatedly been subjected to intimate searches.
"Inmates call it 'to be let through the chair' - it is a part of searching process. That is the most humiliating thing for any woman. I am not sure how many times Alyokhina went through it - I guess every time she left the jail to go to court," Svetova said.
Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova and a third band member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was released on appeal shortly after the guilty verdict, were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for their performance of an anti-Putin "punk prayer" inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
in March 2012.
The two were released as part of an amnesty initiated by Putin and backed by the Russian parliament last week, which is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution. The women qualify because they have young children.
Alyokhina told Russian television that had she been given the chance, she would have turned down the offer of amnesty, and served out the remainder of her sentence, which was due to finish in March.
"This is not an amnesty, this is a hoax and a PR move," she said. Tolokonnikova called on western countries to boycott the Sochi Olympics in February in protest at the Russian regime.
Samutsevich also rejected the women's amnesty. "We were innocent when the Kremlin locked us up: it was not amnesty that we expected from Putin; we demand acquittal," she told the Guardian.
The amnesty also provides a reprieve for 30 Greenpeace activists, including six Britons, arrested aboard the Arctic Sunrise in September. They had been bailed last month but were stuck in St Petersburg waiting for a trial for hooliganism that could have seen them jailed for up to seven years. They will now be allowed to leave Russia, though the paperwork looks like it will not be ready in time for them to spend Christmas at home.
The release of Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova came just three days after another prominent prisoner, former oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was released after asking Putin for pardon and receiving it. Khodorkovsky described being woken up by prison guards in the dead of night, transferred to St Petersburg, and put on a plane to Berlin, where he spoke to journalists on Sunday.
Alyokhina said that her release from jail also felt "more like a secret special operation than an act of humanism". She was woken and told she had been released, but prison officials packed her belongings without letting her decide for herself what she wanted to bring and what she wanted to leave for other inmates. She was not given a chance to say goodbye to the friends she had made in the prison, and instead was led to a car and driven out of the prison. She was left at Nizhny Novgorod's railway station with her passport but no money, still wearing her prison overalls embossed with her name and prisoner number.
Alyokhina called friends at the Committee Against Torture, a local rights organisation, who came to pick her up. Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, one of the activists, said: "We were amazed that authorities would do something this ridiculous; secretly sneaking Masha out of jail so that she would not walk free to her family, friends and reporters waiting for her outside the prison walls with flowers."
Khodorkovsky did not fall under the terms of the amnesty but was pardoned separately by Putin, who made the surprise announcement last week. Putin's spokesman said there were no conditions attached to the pardon, which came after the country's former richest man wrote a handwritten letter personally to Putin. Khodorkovsky has said he may not return to Russia
for some time, however. He says he will work on human rights issues but does not plan to go into politics.
Tolokonnikova was moved to the prison in Krasnoyarsk last month, after previously serving most of her sentence in Mordovia, a region known for its Soviet-era gulags. In the autumn, she went on hunger strike over conditions at the camp, and wrote an open letter describing slave-like working conditions and sadistic punishments. She has said that the prison in Krasnoyarsk was much more humane, and on her release she promised that she would work to get the head of Mordovia's prison service fired.
Samutsevitch and the other members of Pussy Riot
are waiting for Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina to return to Moscow. "Pussy Riot
exists, we are not going to stop being active and creative," she said.