Freed Pussy Riot member: ‘This is not an amnesty. This is a hoax and a PR move.’

December 23, 2013

Maria Alekhina speaks to reporters after being released from prison in Nizhny Novgorod. (Anastasiya Makarycheva/AFP/Getty Images)

Maria Alekhina, a member of the Russian performance art group Pussy Riot, was freed from prison Monday as part of a sweeping amnesty law. She was released along with fellow group member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, meaning that all members who'd been imprisoned for their March 2012 protest against President Vladimir Putin are now free. But Alekhina insisted that, if she'd had the choice, she would have remained in prison in protest.

“If I had a chance to turn it down, I would have done it, no doubt about that,” she told Russia's Dozhd TV of the amnesty law that freed her. “This is not an amnesty. This is a hoax and a PR move.”

It's not surprising that Alekhina would see the amnesty this way; she landed in prison in the first place for protesting a government that her group opposes as fundamentally corrupt and authoritarian. (Tolokonnikova, on her release, called Putin's Russia "totalitarian" and compared it to the penal colony she'd just left.) But her pessimism about the motivation behind the amnesty law is perhaps not misplaced. So why release those prisoners? Is it a "hoax and a PR move"?

Most observers tend to believe that Putin's amnesty releasing thousands of prisoners – as well as his decision to pardon jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky – is all about the upcoming Winter Olympics, to be held in the Russian city of Sochi. As I wrote earlier, Western criticism of Russian human and political rights was becoming a big international issue. President Obama will not attend the Olympic Games, sending instead a lower-level official as the U.S. representative. Obama's also sending two prominent and openly gay American athletes, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow, presumably to implicitly criticize Russia's recent anti-gay laws. By making this high-profile concession to Western human-rights demands, Putin may well be hoping to undercut the planned diplomatic and commercial boycotts of Sochi.

There are other plausible explanations, though. These largely symbolic gestures may actually make it easier for Putin to avoid making more substantive changes. International rights groups have spent a lot of energy drawing the world's attention to Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot both because their cases were important in themselves but also because their cases were symbolic of Russia's larger issues. Now rights groups can't really point to those cases anymore. By removing these sources of criticism, and by diverting attention from Russia's political imprisonments to its political pardons, Putin may actually make it easier for the Russian government practices that created these prisoners in the first place to continue.

Or maybe it's much simpler than all that. Maybe it's just about Putin. The New Republic's Julia Ioffe suggested as much, writing, "He did the least expected thing at the most unexpected time, to show that he is the decider, and that he decides not under pressure, and not when someone asks him, but whenever he damn well pleases. ... Now Putin can add the mercy he showed to Khodorkovsky, specifically mentioning his dying mother, to his string of coups in 2013: Snowden, Syria, Ukraine."

Here's what you'll notice all of these theories have in common: They assume that the amnesty law is motivated by cynical self-interest, not about forgiving convicts or loosening Russian political rights. Agree with her or disagree, you can understand why Alekhina might not see her release as the same thing as freedom.

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