It's an icy January morning in Paris and Pussy Riot members Nadezhda "Nadja" Tolokonnikova, and Maria "Masha" Alyokhina are doing push-ups on the concrete terrace of the monolithic Novotel, Tour Eiffel (which, geographically speaking, is three kilometres from the actual Tour Eiffel). A biting wind blows off the river Seine but the girls seem unperturbed, pausing only to push their hair back off their faces.
Although she's in a dress, tights and combat boots, Nadja appears to be the more capable of the two - though, technique-wise, it looks as though neither have had much practise. Push-ups finished, the girls start to punch the air with their arms, their cheeks blowing in and out in unison, and launch into an energetic kicking routine- reminiscent of the dance moves from their performances in Red Square and the now-infamous, Punk Prayer.
It is unclear whether this performance is for my benefit, the benefit of the other diners in the stark and corporate breakfast hall, or if the girls are just riling themselves up for the day ahead. But it strikes me as both bizarre and charming. And Nadja's husband Petya Verzilov, who is sitting next to me, appears to find it completely normal. He has piled the table with plates of food- rice, eggs, pancakes, hashbrowns and fruit- and barely glances at the girls before tucking in.
It's been one month since Nadja and Masha were released from prison, three months ahead of their scheduled release. Officially, the girls were granted amnesty by the government to mark the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution, but they put their early release down to a PR stunt by President Putin to promote the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.
When I mention the upcoming games, Nadja makes a gaging gesture with two fingers. "Everyone is very clear that this is part of a huge corruption scheme. The main question is: why aren't people protesting like they are about the world cup in Brazil?" She takes a sip of black tea and looks out the window, before returning her gaze. "We also have the example of the Ukraine, where people reacted very strongly when the government (under President Viktor Yanukovych) tried to incite anti-western rhetoric and limit human rights. Russians should look to the Ukraine as an example."
The two young women have emerged from prison more determined than ever in their campaign against Putin's regime, and they appear much more considered in their approach. Gone are the students with a DIY punk ethos and in place are two hardened activists, ready to take the world stage.
While the western world had Pussy Riot initially cast as a fashionable feminist punk band, and Russia had them labelled as militant feminist, the current iteration is open to even further interpretation."If people want to use a label we should let them, but obviously it's important to do what Pussy Riot did in many incarnations," says Masha. "When we were jailed we saw support from so many people in many different ways - activism, music and of course the balaclavas." She's referring to Madonna- who donned a balaclava and spoke out against Putin at her Moscow concert in August 2012- as well as Peaches and Yoko Ono who have expressed their support. There's also the feminist group Femen, who cut down a giant wooden cross in Kiev to protest Pussy Riot's sentence. Later that week, still in Paris, I speak with Femen's founder, Inna Shevchenko, the woman who wielded the chainsaw and had to flee the Ukraine as a result. "We expressed active support not just for Pussy Riot, but their actions", she says. "I was followed by the secret security for 24 hours, so I left. Later there was an official press conference held by the Ukraine president in which he condemned the action and demanded punishement...in this current regime with this president, I could be jailed."
Femen was established in 2008, pre-Pussy Riot, and although the groups' methods differ, they clearly share ideologies and support one another. Inna says she exchanged several emails with anonymous members of Pussy Riot during the trial, as well as Petya who would send her updates. Nadja also contacted Inna after her release to thank her for her support, however Inna was not aware of Nadja and Masha's recent visit to Paris.
Fighting their cause with new focus, Nadja and Masha are currently travelling around Western Europe (and later to the US) with a very specific agenda."Right now we have an NGO starting up which is called the Zone of Justice, a prisoner's rights organisation", says Masha, explaining how they hope to bring about reforms. We have been interviewing women who've been in prison and have been monitoring the various abuses and wrongdoings that have happened inside the penal camps."
The process, she says, has not been without challenges. "We went to the last prison camp I was at and met with women there. We were planning to meet with seven but we only met two - they had blocked off the visitor's entrance and made it very difficult to gain access."
When talking about their own experiences in the penal colonies Masha and Nadja tend to generalise, preferring to bring attention to the more severe examples rather than their personal plights. Like everyone else, though, they had to do manual labour like sewing (often official uniforms) and other menial tasks- another issue they hope to address. "It doesn't take into account one of the main tasks of the penitentiary system, which is gaining skills for the re-entry into society", says Masha.
"It differs according to which region you serve your time in, each head of the regional department chooses to run it differently", elaborates Nadja on the labour in the camps. "For example, in my region of Mordovia the usual practice is to make women work 16 hours." When asked if this was true in her case, Petya clarifies, " no, she didn't work 16 hours...in my opinion they were protected because of their celebrity." But she goes on to explain that Nadja went on a hunger after her request for a reduction of working hours of some other women was refused. She fasted for nine days, until she was hospitalised due to health complications. She shrugs this off saying, "Some people go on strike for 30-40 days."
Masha too went on a hunger strike but she had quite a different experience. "I was quite quickly moved to another region because I started a war with the administration", she says, explaining that she regularly filed complaints about the violations made by the administration. "If you go down this path of constantly making appeals and fighting the system you can never let your guard down, you have to keep it up constantly," she says gravely.
Punishment, in both of their colonies, was not perpetrated by the administration but by the prisoners who were close to the top. However, both women say they felt more unsettled than fearful. "You don't know what will happen from one day to the next", says Nadja. "Anything can happen at any moment, because the administration doesn't feel it is restricted by the law."
Their individual backgrounds differ, and in many ways informed their experiences inside. Nadja was born in the northern industrial city of Norilisk, situated above the Arctic Circle. Her "provincial" upbringing meant that she was isolated from culture, but she had a father who was passionately liberal and ecouraged her to develop a love for literature, politics, and conceptual art. An avid reader- she mentions Nobel Prize winners Mikhail Aleksandrovick Sholokhov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn during our chat - she was a top student at school but says she feels a sense of "panic about the gaps in her education" as a result of the Russian curriculum.
At 16 she moved to Moscow where she says she quickly caught up on film and music, though she says, "I was always quite far from popular culture, when people talked about Destin's Child or Victoria Beckham I was always quite critical". She paints a picture of herself as a serious student, who developed an appreciation for contemporary art, in particular Emilia Kabakob who she admires for his "total installation" approach of using the entirety of an exhibition space. All or nothing.
Nadja met Petya at university, and together they joined the performance art collective Boina. It was here that they also met Yekaterina "Katya" Samutsevitch ( the third member of Pussy Riot who was also jailed but released early). The group performed stunts like "kissing a cop" - a search on YouTube will show Nadja as a young student with long hair, pouncing on policemen and women in public and passionately kissing them on the mouth. More contreversial was the video featuring an eight-month pregnant Nadja participating in an orgy (with Petya) in a biology museum. The project ( which was used to discredit Nadja by the prosecution during the Pussy Riot trial) was to protest against the election of then President Dimitry Medvedev.
Nadja's political agenda and taste for provocation was cast early on, and as a result her fearlessness was unwavering throughout the trial.Since her release she has taken on the role as the spokeswoman for the group; or at least that is how the media have cast her. There have also been bizarre comparisons drawn between Nadja and Angeline Jolie and Beyonce ( in a baffling suggestion that Pussy Riot are Russia's answer to Destiny's Child).
In the HBO documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Nadja looks self-assured throughout the trial, confidently smiling when she hears people calling out her name (the loudest cheers are actually when Nadja exits the hearing). In one scene, when she is behind bars in the courtroom, Petya says to her, " You look good," to which she replies dryly, "I always look good."
This fixation on her appearance is an irony for the feminist cause, says Inna. "This is a question for society in general and the media- it is not on her or Pussy Riot... Today it still seen as better to be beautiful."
Masha, on the other hand, seems shy. When she speaks she takes long pauses and her voice falters a little. When I ask the women about their backgrounds, she excuses herself to take a cigarette break, but in the documentary her mother says that she liked the Spice Girls growing up, particularly Victoria Beckham, and that she was a passionate environmentalist from a young age.
Masha studied journalism ( she is yet to complete her degree) and appears to be the more socio-politically astute of the two. " People in Russia don't rise up because they feel separated from power and they don't feel they can influence the events that are happening the country", she says of the challenges they face. "The level of corruption is huge... they simply feel that there needs to be an example of a strong alternative leader and there isn't one" Pussy Riot hope to discourage this ideal though. "We oppose the idea of one person being the savior of the country, we support the development of a more civic society", she says. "In order to create civic responsbility in people you need time and a lot of resources..."
Pussy Riot formed in October 2011 when Putin announced he would be returning to run for presidency again the following year. Over the following six months they executed several protests - including the one in Red Square, which called for a "Revolt in Russia"- and their members (including crew) grew to almost 30. (Now they say anyone can put on a balaclava and take up their cause.) They were on a fierce campaign for feminism but they also became a symbol of the discontented Russian Youth.
"They served as a great example, an inspiration to feminist groups in Eastern Europe- a place where feminism is not welcome", says Inna, adding that, "loud feminist groups in Eastern Europe - a place where feminism is not welcome,"says Inna, adding that, "loud feminist groups have become more politically active in the last two years (thanks to their publicity)."
The climatic event Punk prayer took place in March 2012, the same month Putin's re-election was announced. Though the Russian government is supposed to be secular, the link between the church and state had grown stronger and Putin even attended the highly publicised Easter Services at The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Which is precisely why Pussy Riot chose this location to perform their next protest, calling on Mother Mary to adopt feminism and expel Putin.
A week after the performance, Nadja and Masha were arrested and unmasked. Katia joined them not long after. The rest of the group went into hiding. The girls knew this performance would have an impact (Punk Prayer had almost three million views on YouTube) but it had far greater consequences than even they had anticipated.
In the documentary, filmmakers Maxim Pozdorobkin and Mike Lerner show some of the orthodox congregation actively campaigning for the girls to be punished. One protester angrily comments: "They walked into the heart of Russia and took a shit." Another says: "In the 16th Century they would have been witches who would have been hung... there have always been witches who wouldn't repent." The performance was labelled a hate crime and the women's families recieved many death threats. It seemed the wrath of the church was inevitably going to sway the decision.
"When they set out to do the prank, it wasn't a criminal deed, so the sentence certainly wasn't expected," says Petya on the shock of their conviction. "In Russia if you are a political activist you are in a risk zone, but no one expected this."
Naja and Masha both make it clear that they had repented and admitted guilt, they would have been let off- "From the start the prosecutor told us two to four years if we didn't - but they chose to stay their course."
Much of the trial footage is featured in the documentary and in the footage Masha calls the process 'horrific theatre'. Indeed they all seem like players on a stage. The three women make the most of the captive audience and use the courtroom to argue their case. They appear calm and stoic at all times, and even their disapproving parents express pride at the moral authority the women portray.
Their lawyers, on the otherhand, deliver Hollywood Lines, appearing more focused on dramatically condemning the system than building a workable defence. As such, it's worth noting that Katia employed new representation not long after being convicted and they were able to negotiate an early release for her on the basis that she didn't technically take part in the protest- she was tackled by a security guard before she reached the church alter. Nadja and Masa also changed lawyers while they were serving their sentences.
Perhaps the most lasting impression I have from our interview is how determined and serious these women are. They might have been embraced by the arts- from musical icons, art circles, and hip feminists- but they have no desire to be fashionable or famous, unless their fame can be used as a mouthpiece for their cause.
Though various art circles in Moscow have shown support, they certainly don't feel part of a scene. Politics are foremost on their agenda. "We're thankful to them (the art community), but I wouldn't say we are any closer to them than say, the automobile society", says Nadja (half) jokingly. When I discuss the image of art patron ( and former POP editor) Dasha Zhukova sat on a 'black slave chair' that has been causing such controversy for the previous week, the pair are unmoved. They've never met Zhukova and have no wish to. All further suggestions are cooly shrugged off.
These women mean business and neither gossip nor irrelevant diversion is on the agenda. You suspect that it's not just those months in jail that shaped this approach. At their specific behest, photographer Juergen Teller took them to the 'suburbs', far away from any kitsch Parisian sightseeing spots. Nadja and Masha wanted flea markets and suburban streets, not Paris' trademark glit and grandeur.
As they are both also mothers, though, I ask if they would consider leaving Russia to offer their children a better future? But they shake their heads and say they would prefer to stay and fight. "We still hope to change Russia, that's our plan." And, as for Putin, do they fear his wrath now they are free and openly campaigning against him? "The opposite", says Nadja flashing a smile, "Putin should be more afraid of us."
POP has made a donation to Zone of justice, the prisoner's rights organisation established by Pussy Riot in support of Masha and Nadja's current activities. Full details for Zone of Justice financial contributions at thepop.com.