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Maria Alyokhina, left, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have become celebrities – and political darlings – in Russia. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Maria Alyokhina, left, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have become celebrities – and political darlings – in Russia. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Pussy Riot, the Solzhenitsyns of a new Russia? Add to ...

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova isn’t a woman who is easily rattled. The 24-year-old has smacked heads with Russia’s two most powerful institutions – the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church – and come away still smiling her crooked grin.

She left jail in December after a 16-month sentence emphatically unbowed by the experience, chanting “Russia without Putin!” for the assembled television cameras as she stepped through the prison gates, arms raised triumphantly.

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But after an interview with The Globe and Mail this week, a worried look crosses Ms. Tolokonnikova’s face. She’s realized that she dropped the F-bomb, in English, during our recorded conversation. The subject following the verb was Russian President Vladimir Putin, and she’s worried I will use the quote in the newspaper.

“Please tell me you won’t use that word,” she pleads in Russian. “I know it’s a very unpleasant thing to say in English.”

It’s a surprising request from a woman who is the face of a punk group called Pussy Riot, and who was sent to jail – along with bandmate Maria Alyokhina – for performing an expletive-laced “punk prayer” on the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, during which the women prayed for the Virgin Mary to help rid Russia of Mr. Putin.

But the cleaned-up language matches Ms. Tolokonnikova’s new appearance – and a new seriousness about trying to change Russia, as a political dissident in the Solzhenitsyn line rather than a shock artist.

Gone, for now, are the balaclavas and sleeveless dresses from Ms. Tolokonnikova’s Pussy Riot performances. Instead, she meets journalists at a Moscow art gallery wearing a demure white blouse and long black skirt, her dark hair pinned up in a neat bun.

The 26-year-old Ms. Alyokhina, meanwhile, dresses like the university student she still is (she’s a year from completing a journalism and creative writing course), wearing a blue button-down shirt over blue jeans, her curly red hair tumbling past her shoulders.

Asked what’s next for Pussy Riot, the two women say nothing about making music. Instead, they launch into passionate speeches about their plans to raise awareness about the prison system that swallowed them, and the need to mobilize Russians against Mr. Putin’s rule. Plans that involve civil society, rather than revolution.

“We have to respect small deeds. Small deeds like searching for the human rights defender within ourselves, searching for the citizen, the artist, the philosopher, in each of us,” says Ms. Alyokhina. “If we could find these people within ourselves this would change the country.”

She sounds very much like someone campaigning for elected office. She’s certainly used to the games that professional politicians play.

She and Ms. Tolokonnikova call their early release – they were to serve two years for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” – a public gimmick ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, one meant to soften Mr. Putin’s international image.

And on Feb. 7, when much of the world will be watching the opening ceremonies at Sochi, the women are planning to be in faraway Mordovia, the central Russian republic where Ms. Tolokonnikova spent much of her time behind bars. They’re planning to file legal challenges on behalf of those political prisoners still jailed in what Ms. Tolokonnikova calls Mordovia’s “little gulag archipelago.”

The tactic is simple: to use Pussy Riot’s fame to distract from Mr. Putin’s party in Sochi – which they believe will be followed by a fresh crackdown on dissent soon after the Games are over and the world’s media moves on.

Ms. Alyokhina invites me to skip the Olympics and come along. “This is more important for society,” she says.

Russia’s Beyoncé

Even many liberal Russians found it difficult to support Pussy Riot’s profanity-filled concert in Moscow’s main cathedral. But thanks in large part to Ms. Tolokonnikova’s diarizing of her time in jail – descriptions of 16-hour workdays and harsh punishments– she and Ms. Alyokhina have emerged as two of the most powerful voices speaking out against the Kremlin.

Together, they are filling a vacuum in Russia’s political opposition. Mr. Putin, who was rattled by protests against his rule in 2011 and 2012, has since recovered his footing and seems as in control as any time during his 15-year reign as either Russia’s president or prime minister. Anti-corruption lawyer and protest leader Alexey Navalny has gone silent since losing a bid last fall to be elected mayor of Moscow.

Tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was released as part of the same December amnesty for political prisoners as the Pussy Riot members, headed to Germany immediately after being freed following a decade in jail. He’s said he’s not interested in playing an active role in Russian politics for the time being.

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