“We’re not here to define or decide for Pussy Riot. We are just two people that spent time in jail for participating in a Pussy Riot action,” Nadya Tolokonnikova told the Barclays pressroom, flanked enthusiastically by Amnesty International reps and their celebrity spokespeople du jour, hours before the big show.

We didn’t know it yet, but we were at Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s official graduation night. It was the end of what we think we know as #PussyRiot. The scrappy viral radical artists turned high-profile political prisoners were about to be christened as human rights activists with professional representation.

Every time Nadya and Masha leaned into each other to whisper or smile, the firing squads of photojournalists would ricochet with clicks. The questions were predictable and there was nothing new in the soundbites Nadya and Masha served to the fifty mounted cameras, all fixated on their close-ups.

Here’s a summary of those soundbites: No, we don’t regret anything. Yes, we’re fighting for prisoners’ rights because of our inhumane experiences at separate penal colonies. Don’t buy what Putin is selling. Boycott Sochi in some way, in your way, in any way or, as interpolated by their Amnesty International translator, “don’t cover the Olympics.” Put on a mask and protest your own country’s regime as Pussy Riot if you want, because Pussy Riot is not a band now, it’s an international movement. Shout out Ukrainian revolutionaries!

Masha and Nadya have said all this before, but on the same day, six anonymous Pussy Riot members posted an open letter on their official LiveJournal page. They were disowning Nadya and Masha by confirming their voluntary idealogical separation from the group.

“Kot,” “Garadga,” “Fara,” “Shaiba,” “Serafima” and “Shumaher” sympathized with Nadya and Masha’s suffering in jail. They praised their commitment to activism. They mourned them as lost friends, wished them luck and said goodbye.

They said that Nadya and Masha do not represent the group anymore because they betrayed Pussy Riot’s code of anonymity, feminism and radicalism, succumbing to their own cult of personality. The “real” Pussy Riot would never perform at a legal concert, charge admission, or align with brands, even humanitarian ones.

“Human rights activism is not compatible with radical political speech and provocateur art-making that addresses conflicting themes in contemporary society,” they wrote, as to clip off Nadya and Masha’s artist cred. They echoed Katya Samutsevich, the third arrested participant of the Punk Prayer protest who was freed early and is currently suing her former lawyers for slander. “Just like gender conformity is not compatible with radical feminism.”

Aside from being problematic and conflicting in such strict binary definition of feminism, there was something ironic in this offensive. Didn’t these women just serve two years in modern-day gulags, convicted by a corrupt court as inciters of religious hatred and disorder for participating in the Pussy Riot action of dancing to a protest song in a church? The “real” Pussy Riot response felt like an inspiring political manifesto, but it read like a mission statement reclaiming the name and the particular aesthetic-philosophical-political brand of “Pussy Riot.” Or maybe that’s just in my head, right next to the burned-in image of colorful balaclavas on the jumbotron below the neon Barclays logo.

Hours after the conference, Madonna was introducing Pussy Riot to wild cheers of the audience.

This was half-way through the concert. There were also three-song sets from an indigestible salad of bands — the Fray, Lauryn Hill, Imagine Dragons, the Flaming Lips, Blondie (still got it), some country person in orange hot pants. There were supercuts of the world’s injustices on jumbotron. Susan Sarandon talked, repeating, like a mantra, that if it wasn’t for Amnesty International, Pussy Riot would not be here tonight. Another actress accidentally woo!!!-ed in the middle of a sentence she was reading from the teleprompter, introducing a blogger who was “woo!!! arrested… beaten” in Iran.

There were also inspiring speakers who survived through the hells of the US’s own thoroughly fucked legal system and escaped death row. It was reinforced that the organization is extremely important, active and highly functional in fighting for human rights worldwide. In the words of the Fray’s long-winded bald frontman earlier at the press conference, Amnesty International is “legit,” as if that was unclear at any point.

Lucidity was brilliantly restored when Nadya and Masha finally took the stage. Hours ago, in a Moscow courtroom, a very specific, high-profile set of political prisoners – protestors arrested at an anti-Putin rally and facing years in prison for trumped up charges — testified about the abuses in the hands of authority aimed at crushing the spirit of opposition and vowed to never give up fighting for what’s right and good. Nadya and Masha took the stage with their translator and read actual quotes from these testimonies to the audience. “People had to protect themselves in an engorged crowd of fascists in police uniforms,” they recited, louder and louder.

The audience expected the Pussy Riot band to dance around in signature ski masks to pre-recorded foreign protest songs. Instead, they got a spoken word performance at the world’s largest town hall meeting. It was real though. Very real. And strange.

I want to ask if Masha and Nadya thought that their trial and amnesty were just big distractions from Kremlin’s larger machine of systematized, cemented oppression, clogging every facet of the Russia’s infrastructure. I want to know whether there was anything knowingly sacrificial in going from Pussy Riot™ to Masha and Nadya™ and playing under a banner of a male silhouette waving what looked like a comically erect, guitar-neck-shaped penis over the Brooklyn Bridge.

But that’s not relevant. Masha and Nadya did not choose to take off their balaclavas. When not aflame mid-eloquent, impassioned, politicized speech, there was a graceful sort of resignation in their faces. There’s no going back to performance art and radical theory, not now with the responsibility of opportunity heavy on their shoulders. Not when the closest political issue directly related to Masha and Nadya is at an apex of publicly-ousted corruption.

“I want to live in a country where human rights are observed,” they shouted, reciting the words from that Moscow courtroom. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Masha and Nadya. The alumni of Putin’s regime. Class of 2014. But school’s not out. Not even close.

(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)