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Monday, December 5, 2016

By Steve Appleford, Los Angeles Times

SANTA MONICA, CA — 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.

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 last 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 often chose to answer questions directly in English.

“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 last 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.