Pussy Riot’s punishment was Putin’s warning — to them, and to Russia’s entire new-found protest culture. Pussy Riot have always been radical in their art practice, but prison made Pussy Riot stronger, more politically precise and completely fearless. This is the face of resistance — in the spotlight — balaklava not required.

Against her will, Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina was released from prison three days ago under the Russian president’s new “amnesty” laws, before serving out her two-year sentence following a brief anti-Putin protest performance inside a Moscow cathedral. Nadia Toloknnikova was also released. Right now, the first of the detained Greenpeace Arctic 30 is getting ready to leave Russia. With the upcoming heavily-criticized Winter Olympics in Sochi, the timing of Putin’s recent spree of PR moves is transparent — an attempt at rebranding his government as tolerant and benevolent, or at the very least, all powerful and forgiving.

But unlike the recently pardoned former political Putin opponent Khodorkovsky (who exiled himself to Germany, officially quit politics, and quietly resumed his oligarch life after serving 10 years in Siberia), Pussy Riot’s Masha and Nadia are not leaving Russia and they’re not thanking Putin for the “disgusting” and “cynical” “publicity stunt” of granting them amnesty.

Instead of being crushed into passivity, they’ve made the inhumane conditions of the penitentiary colonies public from the inside and now, they plan to join forces with human rights activists and lawyers to form a prison reform coalition.

From the minute she was released, Masha acted strategically. Still in her prison uniform, she went straight to a meeting with the Committee Against Torture and then back to the gates of the penitentiary colony that released her, to launch illegal fireworks in tribute to her fellow prisoners on live tv. Then, she travelled to Krasnoyarsk, Siberia where Nadia was being released from a prison hospital. She did not prioritize rushing to her five-year-old son’s side. When told by the Russian press outlet Lenta that that’s strange, Masha said:

Yes, I’m sure that many thought this is strange. So what, do I have to explain this? It’s very simple: I feel my responsibilities, and act accordingly.

Over the last year, international Pussy Riot coverage slowly faded. As it became evident that their jail sentence wasn’t an exceptional act of artist persecution but one small symptom of systemized oppression of dissent, that Madonna’s stage prancing and Peaches’ music videos wouldn’t “free” Pussy Riot, art and music press dropped off. Except when they periodically went missing or were hospitalized during hunger strikes, Masha and Nadia became mere mentions in a regular round-up of Russia’s political clusterfuck de jour. They were… prisoners. But Masha and Nadia were not passive inmates — they were active observers of prison abuse. They recorded all violations.

They’ve swapped the church altar for the prison bench for the couch in front of a CNN correspondent. Free, they used their new spotlight to describe the mildewed, furry lard fed to them as “meat,” the torturous “cold cages,” the crushing labor regimes.

To Lenta, Masha was able to illustrate the issue deeper, describing the core assault on the human character:

Nothing is left of human principles: We cannot talk about categories of ethics, morality and amorality because a prisoner’s thought process no longer recognizes these categories.

Pussy Riot’s mission hasn’t changed, but perhaps their medium has. Nadia has only briefly addressed their artistic practice to AIF, qualifying all Pussy Riot actions as emotional reactions to the subjugation of Russian people and vaguely citing lineage:

The contemporary artist is a person who asks questions, provokes society, divides it. This was started by the avant-garde and was developed by the Dadaists, who spoke directly about art being a bomb that needs to explode.

Her past provocateur actions have and always will be used against her, as State Duma member Mihail Starshinov of United Russia majority party demonstrated  just today in attempting to discredit the activists, telling Interfax:

These people fornicated in a museum, put it all out there for the public to see, did scandalous things in a Cathedral of Christ the Saviour — for which they were sentenced to jail — and now they are aspiring to fight for human rights? We have, without questions, a lot to fight against. But when people with records like this are signing up as human right activists, it’s strange and sad.

Starshinov, like all the prudish propagandists spinning controversy at Pussy Riot’s tyrannical circus of a trial in 2012, is referring to a 2008 anti-Putin extreme performance action, a faux-orgy at a museum that Nadia and her husband participated as members of Voina. It’s deliberately scandalous. And it’s old news.

But of course, it’s not “strange and sad” that Nadia and Masha were jailed over 40 “scandalous” seconds of dancing near an altar of a church. It’s “strange and sad” that the women with the experience and means necessarily to advocate reform of the perpetually-Soviet-era prison system, have announced plans to overturn it, despite their “records” as radical artists.

In the past few years, we’ve witnessed a key moment the medium of Russian performance art — a revival of the historically exciting medium that has been castrated by laws, sterilized by public apathy and sugar-coated by paid press monkeys of the oligarchs and government thugs. We saw the conceptual memefication of dissent: First in Voina, then Pussy Riot, then Petr Pavlensky — the anarchist who nailed his balls to Kremlin. There’s a new wave of internet-enabled actionism.

When, after several attempts, a Pussy Riot intervention finally went viral, the game changed. Under the guise of being punk rock band, they attracted mainstream press and provided an accessible catalogue of their feminist messages as subversive slogans in the form of song lyrics: “Riot calls for the System’s Abortion,” “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist, put Putin away!” They had the chance to modify and expand these messages in court. In fact, their closing statements — especially Yekaterina Samutsevich’s — provided a unique opportunity for artistic discourse, as Pussy Riot’s artist missions were read from a courtroom cell and broadcasted on national television:

In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia.

No matter what Putin does, he radicalizes the actions of his enemies. By imprisoning Masha and Nadia, Putin vetted their reputations as political prisoners and enabled a first-hand investigation into a whole new dimension of corruption. By releasing them, Putin the Pussy Riot interactive again — ideals turned into idols, the hardened and fearless celebrities, hijacking the spotlight of his pardon for their reform activism.

They’re contemporary artists. Their medium is the media.

(Photo: Cheparukhin/Twitter)