January 9, 2014 7:00 AM EST

If the government of Vladimir Putin was counting on a spell behind bars to change Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, it could hardly have anticipated the manner of their transformation. Most Russian political prisoners are never heard from again, but the jailing of the two members of the punk-protest group Pussy Riot had the opposite effect: it made them internationally famous — Paul McCartney and Madonna sent messages of solidarity, German Chancellor Angela Merkel name-checked them in a conversation with the Russian President — and vastly amplified their anti-Putin message. That fame ensured that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released by Putin as part of a prisoner amnesty in late December, a naked attempt to clean up the image of his regime ahead of February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.

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Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

What to do with that fame now? The two women say their first priority is to draw attention to Russia’s Kafkaesque prison system and especially to the fate of their fellow zechki, Russian slang for female convicts. One way to do that is to turn their dark green prison jackets into a fashion statement of protest, just as their brightly colored balaclavas had been before their trial.

But they’re also trying to catch up with the life they lost during 20 months in jail. TIME photographer Yuri Kozyrev hung out with Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina during their first days of freedom, capturing their excitement over things most Muscovites take for granted, like the remodeled Gorky Park and new-generation smartphones. They seemed anxious in the city’s posh new department stores. “You just can’t go that long inside a prison cell without feeling uneasy with life on the outside,” Kozyrev says.

Fame comes with press conferences, requests for interviews from all over the world and, in Tolokonnikova’s case, a fashion shoot on the roof of an art gallery. But not all the attention was flattering. As they walked in a central Moscow department store, some passersby stopped to berate the women for the offense that got them in jail: a February 2012 performance in a Moscow cathedral in which they “prayed” to the mother of God to “chase Putin away.” Polls show many Russians agree with Putin’s view that the women got the punishment they deserved.

Nor has the government got over the slight: days after Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were freed, Putin’s culture czar ordered a Moscow theater to cancel the premiere of a documentary on Pussy Riot. In a letter, government officials argued that the role of art is “not to inflame the public with scandalous stories that have no cultural merit.” The women of Pussy Riot may have changed during their time in prison, but Russia has stayed pretty much as they left it.


Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was named the 2011 Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.

Simon Shuster is TIME’s Moscow correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @shustry.


Contact us at letters@time.com.

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