Pussy Riot Pair, Reunited in Siberia, Vow to Fight Russian 'Totalitarianism'

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova behind bars during the Pussy Riot trial.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova behind bars during the Pussy Riot trial.
 

MOSCOW -- More than 18 months after being jailed for staging an anarchic musical protest in a Moscow cathedral against political repression in Russia, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alokhyna, freed members of punk band Pussy Riot, were reunited Tuesday in Siberia.

Released early Monday from prison sentences of two years in penal colonies thousands of miles apart, the women met again at Krasnoyarsk airport and defiantly vowed to fight to free Russia from "totalitarianism."

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Alokhyna, the first to be freed, flew to meet her friend, who had spent recent weeks in a prison hospital in the city, 2,000 miles east of Moscow.

The pair, who had emerged from brutal prison conditions little changed in many respects from the days of the Soviet Gulag, vowed to set up a group to fight for prisoners' rights. Tolokonnikova Monday labeled Russia a "totalitarian system" and said this was the first step toward nationwide reform.

The women were joined by Pyotr Verzilov -- Tolokonnikova's partner  -- and close associate Denis Sinyakov.

Sinyakov is a Russian photographer and one of the Greenpeace "Arctic 30" protestors who were freed under the same amnesty bill announced last week by the Kremlin, which led to the release of around 20,000 inmates. His freedom may signal that foreigners involved in the same action could soon be allowed to go home.

Alokyhna was first to taste freedom early Monday, released from jail in Nizhny Novgorod, north of Moscow. She has defiantly dubbed the amnesty a political PR stunt by Russian president Vladimir Putin. She said she would have refused her freedom under such arrangements had she been given the choice.

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Tolokonnikova, freed later in the day flashing the two-fingered "V for Victory" gesture first popularized by British wartime leader Winston Churchill, immediately called for a boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics to highlight the ills of what she labeled "the Russian totalitarian machine."

The pair plan to return to Moscow late Thursday to meet the international media in a joint press conference Friday.

"They will discuss different plans for the future, including those voiced Monday to build a movement to protect the rights of prisoners, before flying together back to Moscow," Verzilov said.

Alokhyna said Monday she experienced repeated and unnecessary intimate gynecological examinations while incarcerated. It was part of a systematic attempt to break her spirit, she claims.

Russian Orthodox archdeacon Andrei Kuraev, a prominent blogger on Russia church affairs, said that prison had done nothing to reform the young women.

He criticized Alokyhna for flying directly to meet Tolokonnikova in Krasnoyarsk Monday night instead of  being reunited with her small child.

"Suffering does not improve everyone; only the smartest. Poor minds cannot see the sense of being sent suffering," he said in remarks posted on the Russian version of social media site Live Journal.

Russia's Orthodox community was horrified by the "punk prayer" performed by the young women at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012, with many considering it blasphemous.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon and Russia's most promiment "political prisoner" who was pardoned and immediately released Friday after 10 years in jail -- and is now in Germany -- urged the women not to harbor any bitterness.

In a personal message published on his Internet and Facebook sites Tuesday evening Moscow time, Khodorkovsky wrote:

"Dear girls,

"I know the last months have been a living hell for you, and I am happy to learn that this torture, unworthy of a European country in the 21st century, has ended.

"Releasing political prisoners makes those in power at least a little more humane. What is probably more important for you now, is to find the strength not to keep any hatred and anger in your hearts, after your ordeals of imprisonment.

"Congratulations!"

Releasing political prisoners makes those in power at least a little more humane.
What is probably most important for you now, is to find the strength not to keep any hatred and anger in your hearts, after your ordeals of imprisonment.

Three members of Pussy Riot were arrested and charged with "religiously motivated hooliganism." All were convicted and sentenced to two years in penal colonies, although the third woman, Yekaterina Samusevich, was freed on parole after making a successful appeal.

Appeals by Alokhyna and Tolokonnikova were repeatedly rejected.

The presence of Greenpeace photographer Sinyakov at the Krasnoyarsk meeting could signal that foreigners among the "Arctic 30" protestors may soon be allowed to leave Russia.

Russian officials have said in recent days that red tape is holding up the release of the British and other foreign members of the environmental group, as they don't have Russian visas or entry stamps in their passports.

The foreigners were brought into Russia under arrest without the usual formalities after their attempt to board a natural gas drilling platform last September in the Barents Sea in protest against the pollution dangers from Arctic oil exploration.

They had been on trial in St. Petersburg, facing up to seven years for "hooliganism" under the same Russian criminal law article used to imprison the Pussy Riot pair, until they too were amnestied last week.

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