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Pussy Riot activists raise voices and issue call to action

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Barely three months after their release from Russian prison, Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova sit outside a Santa Monica hotel, smoking cigarettes, insisting that their group Pussy Riot is not a band.

"People sometimes think we are a musical group and think we can do a performance," Tolokonnikova, 24, says with a smile, leaning forward. Alekhina, 25, nods between drags, and adds, "But it's not true. We're another thing."

Still, the noise from a notorious one-song performance of "A Punk Prayer" inside Moscow's Orthodox Christian cathedral in 2012 was potent and outrageous enough to land the pair a nearly two-year prison stay in the Gulag for what prosecutors called "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."

The defendants insisted it was an act of protest against the mingling of church and state, and the case drew international outrage from artists and human rights activists.

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Pussy Riot is a performance art collective, its seven songs of protest distributed freely online as a vibrant raging soundtrack to videos of political action. There is no album for sale, no concert dates. "Our songs are connected with an action," says Tolokonnikova. "It's impossible to show Pussy Riot without action."

The two young women were on their first visit to Southern California this week, spending their days mingling with human rights activists and movie stars, prison reformers and street artists.

Sharing a bench outside, Alekhina snaps open a Zippo with a logo reading "punk rock" to light a cigarette, a peace sign button on her chest. Tolokonnikova wears black, and like Alekhina smiles easily, equally serious and amused by the activity that has swirled around them since their trial.

Translating for them is Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, 24, a Russian and Pussy Riot member who grew up partly in Toronto and holds a Canadian passport. But both women understand English well and in an interview Thursday often chose to answer questions directly in English.

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"In political demonstrations, it's not right to take a vacation," Alekhina says with a wry smile. Even the real threat of arrest or worse is no deterrent, despite their new visibility. "If they want to put us in jail again, they will find an option for how to do it. This is not a reason to do nothing."

Days earlier they were in New York, where they met with Hillary Rodham Clinton and sat for interviews on-camera with Charlie Rose and Stephen Colbert. In Los Angeles for the first time this week, there was the screening of a new Pussy Riot documentary and a panel discussion on prison reform and the collision of art and action with street artist Shepard Fairey and rocker Wayne Kramer, among others.

Their trip was extended by two days in order to appear on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" before a flight back to Moscow, their families and another inevitable round of colorful protest. Those plans remain a secret. "As usual," nods Alekhina.

They noted that the brightly colored balaclava they wear at home are used only in political protests, not in their daily lives, though they brought them along on this trip West. "You never know," says Tolokonnikova.

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It was a heavy schedule, with many introductions and a hundred more requests to be feted and interviewed, most of them politely turned down. For the Pussy Riot activists, all the attention and interest was an extension of the vocal support from the West they heard during their trial and two-year imprisonment, arriving from artists that include Yoko Ono and Madonna.

"The support was incredibly important," says Tolokonnikova. "It helps you live through prison and get through it."

The musical side of the Pussy Riot movement was partly inspired by a long tradition of protest in popular music, from Woody Guthrie to Rage Against the Machine, and more directly by the example of the '90s riot grrrl movement epitomized by Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill. Riot grrrl music was typically abrasive, pointed feminist punk rock.

"Music is one of the best ways to transfer your feelings and political emotions," says Tolokonnikova. "At that time, when Pussy Riot was formed, we were filled with these notions inside ourselves. Music was a good medium to get all that out."

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In Russia, greater public awareness of their activities has meant more support, but also more active opposition and physical risks. After their release, Alekhina and Tolokonnikova participated in a mid-February Pussy Riot demonstration beneath a sign promoting the Olympics Games in Sochi, Russia, and were beaten by 10 uniformed Cossacks, an officially sanctioned vigilante force carrying whips to enforce Slavic conservatism endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The government is against us, and they hire some people to fight against us, to beat us — people who are extremely connected with the political administration," says Tolokonnikova. "It was really interesting and funny to investigate how our government deals with us. Our first three days in Sochi they detained us and they understood that the police there were not effective, so they found Cossacks.

"When we were gone from the police station, we immediately did an action. Inside the police station too."

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Last month the Pussy Riot members established Zona Prava, a prison reform group fueled by the harsh conditions they faced during their sentence. It was a central subject of their appearances in Los Angeles, including a Q&A session at the Harmony Theater on Sunset Boulevard. They arrived directly from the airport in time for a screening of "Pussy vs. Putin," which lingered on the astonished reactions of Russian commuters confronted by scenes of young women in balaclava masks ripping through songs of political and feminist rage, standing atop buses and inside subway stations.

At the screening, the questions began with a man angrily lecturing the Pussy Riot members on the conditions and demographics of American prisons, challenging them to investigate. Tolokonnikova calmly responded in Russian that they had just visited Rikers Island jail in New York, and a halfway house in Brooklyn.

The next night was considered the main public event of their trip: a panel discussion at Mack Sennett Studios hosted by the Voice Project that included guitarist Kramer, formerly of the radical protopunk group the MC5, who now leads the Jail Guitar Doors program for prisoners in the U.S.

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In the room was a palpable sense of awe for the two women from several hundred who attended. Many sat on the floor after the seats were filled. Among the crowd was longtime activist Zoe Nicholson, 64, who was almost overcome with emotion as she asked the final question of the evening, fretting for the Pussy riot members' personal safety.

"They are quintessential courageous activists," Nicholson said later.

The trip wasn't entirely focused on the grim experience of prison and the oppression of the Putin regime in Russia. There were also moments of escape. Back in Moscow this week, the weather hovered at about 38 degrees, sunny and clear.

Yosi Sergant, a Los Angeles activist in art and social issues who helped organize the Monday panel noted: "Let's just say they looked like they had spent some time at the beach."

steve.appleford@latimes.com

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