Pussy Riot released from prison

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

By Alexandra Zakreski

CJFE celebrates the release of two members of the Russian punk activist band Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. The pair was imprisoned for more than 21 months after performing a punk prayer protest titled “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away,” on the altar of Moscow’s most significant Russian Orthodox cathedral. A third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich was released on a suspended sentence on October 10, 2012. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released on December 23 under a recent Kremlin amnesty bill pardoning first-time offenders, minors and women with small children. This same amnesty resulted in the release of the majority of the Arctic 30, a group of Greenpeace activists who had staged a protest at the Prirazlomnaya oil rig in Arctic waters, and included two Canadians – Alexandre Paul and Paul Ruzycki.

Despite her recent release however, Pussy Riot’s Tolokonnikova was quick to dispel any notions that her freedom was a gesture of goodwill by the Russian authorities. “With the Olympics approaching, [Putin] does not want his favourite project ruined,” she said, emphasizing that the country’s President is primarily concerned with presenting an appearance of democracy and respect for human rights as Russia gears up for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, which will begin on February 7.

The lead-up to Sochi has been marred by negative publicity stemming from grievous human rights violations in Russia, most notably a draconian law adopted in 2013 that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” The all-encompassing ban covers any dissemination of information aimed at minors that “may cause a distorted understanding that gay and heterosexual relations are socially equivalent,” and has elicited widespread outrage as potential punishments range from sizable fines for Russians to 15 days in prison for foreign citizens.

Both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have pledged to continue campaigning for human rights in Russia, particularly for reform of the penal system which they say centers on an endemic culture of exploitation and abuse of inmates. They have also reaffirmed their commitment to driving Putin out of office, although they have yet to release any details.

Reflecting on the state of free expression in Russia upon her release, Tolokonnikova stated, “the scariest thing about Putin’s Russia is the impossibility to speak and be heard.” As we approach Sochi 2014, CJFE will be closely monitoring the climate for free expression in Russia.


Alexandra Zakreski is CJFE's International Programs Assistant