Pussy Riot's Next Fight

Russia's most famous political prisoners are free. Here's what they are planning next

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alyokhina, 25, walk in downtown Moscow after serving more than 21 months of a two-year prison term for performing a profanity-laced "punk prayer" protest against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow's main Russian Orthodox cathedral.

If the government of vladimir Putin was counting on a spell behind bars to change Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, it could hardly have anticipated the manner of their transformation. Most Russian political prisoners are never heard from again, but the jailing of the two members of the punk-protest group Pussy Riot had the opposite effect. It made them internationally famous--Paul McCartney and Madonna sent messages of solidarity, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel name-checked them in a conversation with the Russian President--and vastly amplified their anti-Putin message. That fame ensured Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina's release by Putin as part of a prisoner amnesty in late December, whether as a naked attempt to clean up the image of his regime ahead of February's Winter Olympics in Sochi or as evidence that he no longer views them as a threat.

Either way, they can now put their fame to use. The two women say their first priority is to draw attention to Russia's Kafkaesque prison system and especially to the fate of their fellow zechki, Russian slang for female convicts. One way to do that is to turn their dark green prison jackets into a fashion statement of protest, just as their brightly colored balaclavas had been before their trial.

But they're also trying to catch up with the life they put on hold for the 21 months they spent in jail. TIME photographer Yuri Kozyrev hung out with Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina during their first days of freedom, capturing their excitement over things most Muscovites take for granted, like the remodeled Gorky Park and new-generation smartphones. They seemed anxious in the city's posh new department stores. "You just can't go that long inside a prison cell without feeling uneasy with life on the outside," Kozyrev says.

Fame comes with press conferences, requests for interviews from all over the world and, in Tolokonnikova's case, a fashion shoot on the roof of an art gallery. But not all the attention was flattering. As they walked in a central Moscow department store, some passersby stopped to berate the women for the offense that got them in jail: a February 2012 performance in a Moscow cathedral in which they "prayed" to the Virgin Mary to "chase Putin away." Polls show that many Russians agree with Putin's view that the women got the punishment they deserved.

Nor has the government gotten over the slight: days after Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were freed, Moscow's culture czar ordered one of the city's leading theaters to cancel the premiere of a documentary on Pussy Riot. In a letter, government officials argued that the role of art is "not to inflame the public with scandalous stories that have no cultural merit." The women of Pussy Riot may have changed during their time in prison, but Russia has stayed pretty much as they left it.