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The punk-rock spirit of Pussy Riot comes to America

Around 10:30PM on Wednesday night, the sweaty, median-age-40 crowd at Barclay's Center — arguably the swankiest sports venue in the country — stood up from their folding chairs, raised their fists, and for a moment they felt a little punk rock. On stage were Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alyokhina, 25, former members of the Russian punk feminist collective Pussy Riot dressed in matching black-and-gray dresses. They looked healthy, fearless, and angry as they led the audience in a chant. "Russia will be free! Russia will be free! Russia will be free!"

No doubt much of the audience at the $65 show was there to see Lauryn Hill or Imagine Dragons, two of the artists who participated in the star-studded benefit concert put on by Amnesty International. Susan Sarandon, Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, Tegan and Sara, and Bob Geldof, the musician and star of Pink Floyd's The Wall, also made an appearance.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were the headliners, however. Two years ago, they took part in a typical Pussy Riot demonstration. Five members of the group wearing balaclavas and bright dresses jumped around and fist-pumped in between services at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior as they sang a punk song about Putin, feminism, and gay rights. The entire performance lasted fewer than two minutes. The women were escorted out by security, a video was posted on YouTube, and they thought that would be it.

Pussy Riot is not well-liked in Russia, but Americans seem to love them

The Russian government retaliated, however, and Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina became scapegoats. They suffered through a trial in a kangaroo court and were sentenced to two years in Russian prison, a grim fate that includes sewing police uniforms for 16 hours a day and being subjected to humiliation by guards during the one day a week set aside for bathing. An amnesty bill prompted by the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi triggered their release in December, a whole three months early. Now, they're touring the world to speak out about political prisoners and gay rights in Russia, and to encourage a boycott of the Sochi games.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are not well-liked by the Russian public, but to an American sensibility they present as intelligent, poised, and funny. Their message is especially compelling now that horror stories about gay discrimination in Russia have begun to make their way back to the West.

The US is at a point where Occupy Wall Street has come and gone, Miley Cyrus' antics pass for controversy, and states are legalizing gay marriage and marijuana. "It seems to me that there is a hold of complacency, really," Geldof said during a press conference before the show. "It's easy to stand up in America." Pussy Riot represents the punk-rock antiestablishment ethos that hasn't been felt in the US in a long time.

But already the punker-than-thou debate has started up. Other members of Pussy Riot, which reportedly had around 11 members during the cathedral stunt, published a letter that says Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are no longer members of the group. They took particular exception to the concert because of its expensive tickets, use of a man in a balaclava on the poster, and furthering of the "cult of personality."

"The mixing of the rebel feminist punk image with the image of institutionalized defenders of prisoners' rights, is harmful for us as a collective," they wrote.

The punker-than-thou debate has already started up

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina may not be punk rock enough for their former associates, but the US hasn't seen anything like them in a while. They're also bringing negative attention on Putin at a very sensitive time. The world is looking to Russia right now as the Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, and the initial impressions are not good. As if journalists tweeting about stray dogs in their decrepit, half-built hotels wasn't enough to embarrass perennial President Vladimir Putin, the leader now has to contend with Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina goading him to leave from across the globe. When asked to speak rhetorically to Putin, Alyokhina smiled. "Aren't you sick of it all?" she said.

The concert peaked with the entrance of Madonna, who experienced Russia's institutional discrimination against gays firsthand. Eighty-seven members of her audience were arrested at a show in St. Petersburg for "displaying gay behavior," and she herself was sued for $1 million for "promoting homosexuality."

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were not there to perform. After embracing Madonna, they read the defiant statements of Russian prisoners who are slated to be sentenced this month for being present at a protest in May of 2012. "The truth will always win, even if it dies in battle," Tolokonnikova said via a translator. Then the women thanked the crowd and exited the stage so Imagine Dragons could play.

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