Moscow, Russia - After spending almost two years in jail for performing their "punk prayer" against Russian President Vladimir Putin at Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral in 2012, two young women from the feminist protest band Pussy Riot chose not to go on a world tour or settle somewhere in the West to escape further persecution.

It was a surprising move, considering the international outcry and support from Western leaders and pop icons such as Paul McCartney and Madonna that followed the band members' arrest and conviction. Their trial and a hysterical media campaign in government-controlled media that branded them "blasphemers" were widely seen as orchestrated by the Kremlin and Russia's powerful Orthodox Church.
 
But jail changes people - especially in Russia, where figures such as communist dictator Joseph Stalin and novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn found their true vocation only after doing hard time behind bars. Russia's current penitentiary system is a successor of the Gulag Archipelago, created by Stalin, and described by Solzhenitsyn as the place where abuses such as torture, rape and suicide are part of daily life.
 
So, after getting out of jail just days before last year's Christmas, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova decided to use their international fame to improve Russia's penal system, an unwanted home to some 700,000 men and women, the world's largest per capita prison population after the US.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot, listens from behind bars to court proceedings [AP]

Lawless prisons
 
They established a human rights group Zona Prava (zone of rights), and Media Zona (zone of media), an online publication that covers the uneasy life of average inmates and the lawlessness of some law-enforcement officers and prison officials.
 
"You see how people are punished for nothing, how they work at full stretch for 14 hours a day without a chance to wash themselves, to get medical help if they get sick, without a chance to eat normal food," Alyokhina, a 26-year-old blonde with purple locks in her hair, told Al Jazeera.

"And you see every day and every night how people die and the causes of their deaths are concealed."
 
Up to 5,000 inmates die behind bars annually amid a tuberculosis and AIDS epidemic in Russian jails. Some get killed by other inmates, some die of abuses at the hands of the prison administration, some commit suicide, usually by cutting their wrists or hanging themselves, according to international and Russian human rights reports.
 
But the causes or their deaths are often described as "acute respiratory disease" or a "heat condition", the reports claim. Only a handful of such cases become known to the public.
 
Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing Russian lawyer who uncovered a multimillion dollar tax fraud by government officials, died in a pre-trial detention centre in Moscow in 2009 after being beaten and denied medical assistance for days.
 
Dangerous activism

Before forming Pussy Riot, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were part of War, a provocative art group that staged obscene and controversial performances that mocked Russia's security agencies, endemic anti-Semitism, and growing xeno and homophobia. Several group members fled Russia recently fearing persecution for their performances.
 
And then there was Pussy Riot - a collective of about a dozen young women who hid their faces and identities behind their trademark balaclavas, organised spontaneous, unsanctioned performances in public places such as Moscow's Red Square or Christ the Savior Cathedral, and posted videos with their songs online.

There are attacks on us, thugs come up to us and say, 'Get out of here for good, or else we'll beat you up.' And then they do, because we don't get out.

- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Pussy Riot

 
A switch from protest art to human rights activism seemed strange to many - because rights activists are often seen in Russia as impractical, penniless leftists who risk their lives fighting a Moloch.
 
But Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova seem determined to fight the stereotype.
 
"In Russia, human rights are not a common cause, not a trend, not a fashion, it's opposition," Alyokhina said sitting at a table in a Moscow cafe. "And we would like to make human rights issues just as usual as the coffee I'm drinking."
 
Being a human rights activist in Russia is, however, just as dangerous as provocative art.
 
In early December, the office of a Russian human rights group was burned down in the restive southern province of Chechnya. Just days earlier, the group, the Committee Against Torture, reported how masked men set fire to the houses of relatives of Islamist fighters who recently attacked the Chechen capital, Grozny.
 
In 2009, Natalya Estemirova, a human rights advocate who reported numerous cases of torture, abductions and extrajudicial killings in Chechnya, was kidnapped and gunned down. Several more human rights activists have been assaulted, detained and fined in Russia in recent years.
 
Resistance to helping inmates
 
Despite the danger and official resistance - the projects have been denied registration three times - the former punksters now employ some 15 staffers and a team of lawyers. Based in a cramped office in eastern Moscow, they respond to pleas from behind bars, run a hot-line for inmates, facilitate the release of terminally ill inmates, and file complaints about the inmates' meagre food supply, medical and heating problems.
 
But, perhaps the most important thing their projects achieve is to keep the public informed about individual cases, even if they involve inmates with chequered pasts and long criminal records. Russia's best-known political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, knows about the necessity of such public awareness.
 
"If an inmate is forgotten, anything can happen to him," the former oil tycoon said in October while addressing Norwegian rights activists, according to a video posted on his website.
 
Authorities respond to Pussy Riot's projects the way they banned and stopped the band's unsanctioned and politicised performances.
 
"They don't let us into prisons, our lawyers are literally kicked out of there," Tolokonnikova, the Bambi-eyed 25-year-old told Al Jazeera. "There are attacks on us, thugs come up to us and say, 'Get out of here for good, or else we'll beat you up.' And then they do, because we don't get out."
A Cossack militiaman attacks Nadezhda Tolokonnikova at a protest in Sochi, Russia, last February [AP]
 
In March, a group of young men assaulted Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, pelting them with stones and dousing them with paint and chemicals. They were hospitalised - Tolokonnikova's eye was burned by the chemicals, and Alyokhina suffered a concussion.
 
Although the attackers were identified and videos of the asssault posted online, authorities dropped a criminal case against them in mid-December.
 
In July, their website survived a massive cyber-attack. Western officials and cyber-security agencies have often accused the Kremlin of organising cyber attacks on the websites of government critics, rights groups and independent media.
 
"They don't want us to exist in this country," Tolokonnikova said. "We are absolutely persona non grata."
 
Music not forgotten
 
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova frequently go to Western countries to collect donations for their project, meet with dignitaries, discuss the human rights situation and persecution of government critics in Russia. They are also expected to appear in the third season of the House of Cards, a political television series.
 
And they meet and record with some of their idols.
 
They shook hands with McCartney and Madonna. They recorded several songs with Richard Hell - a British punk rock pioneer. They are in touch with Le Tigre, a band founded by iconoclastic feminist punk rocker Kathleen Hanna, whose career and views once inspired Pussy Riot.
 
And yet, they come back to Russia to keep trying to change it from within.
 
"I am excited and inspired only by Russia," Tolokonnikova said over a smoothie at a restaurant near her office. "That's why I can use everything else only as a tool for achieving goals that are simple and understandable - changes and a different Russia."

Source: Al Jazeera