RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene in New York City, where last night Madonna came onto a stage in Brooklyn. She was at a concert for Amnesty International introducing two heroes of the protest movement in Russia.
MADONNA: It is my privilege and my honor, ladies and gentlemen, to introduce Masha and Nadya from Pussy Riot. Ladies, please come to the stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
GREENE: Two women came up, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, members of the punk group Pussy Riot. They are just out of prison, in the United States raising awareness of human rights abuses, and calling on people to boycott - or at least protest the Winter Olympics in their home country. They had a busy day in New York City and in between a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the concert, Nadya and Masha came by our studios. We'll hear form them in just a moment.
But first, NPR's Elizabeth Blair, remind us who Pussy Riot is.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The images on TV were startling.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Locked in a bullet-proof cage in Moscow courthouse...
BLAIR: With three young women inside.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They're charged with hooliganism...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We now know they will be punished with two years in prison...
BLAIR: The images of what got the women in trouble are also pretty provocative. Two years ago, they entered a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow. With masks covering their faces, wearing dresses and colored tights, the women sing or scream and make frenetic movements on the altar.
Their stunt didn't last long, less than a minute, before they were whisked away and eventually arrested. The women later said they were protesting, among other things, President Vladimir Putin and his regime's close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Pussy Riot first began to organize after it was announced that Putin would run for a third term as president. Maxim Pozdorovkin is co-director of the documentary "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer."
MAXIM POZDOROVKIN: They're against the Putin government. They're against the treatment of gays in Russia. They're against the oppression of women and the general patriarchal values.
BLAIR: Pozdorovkin says it's important to note that the three women who were arrested are not Pussy Riot's only members.
POZDOROVKIN: It's an anonymous collective that tries to provoke society into a critical reflection.
BLAIR: The three women's arrest, trial and sentence - to two years in a penal colony - caused a huge outcry. Amnesty International got involved. Celebrities like Madonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers called for their release.
In Russia the response was somewhat different, says Masha Gessen, the author of "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot."
MASHA GESSEN: For a majority of Russians who watch state television and don't have access - or don't want access - to independent media, they are women who went into church and committed blasphemy. For a smaller number of Russians, they're political protesters. For that smaller group the verdict was shocking.
BLAIR: After serving less than a year, one of the Pussy Riot members, Katia Samutsevich, was released when her lawyer argued that she never performed because a security guard removed her before she had a chance. Last December, Nadya and Masha were released under an amnesty law. The move is widely viewed as an attempt by Putin to improve Russia's image before the Sochi Olympics.
Since their release, Nadya and Masha continue to be plenty outspoken against the Russian government. They've spoken out about what they say are inhumane conditions in Russia's prisons.
Maxim Pozdorovkin says people are listening.
POZDOROVKIN: Since they've gone to jail and raised awareness about the treatment of inmates in Russian jails, I think that they've gained some sort of moral authority, even amongst Russians.
BLAIR: Nadya and Masha say they're starting a human rights organization devoted to prison reform.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.