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— Two founding members of a Russian punk provocateur band who were imprisoned for publicly protesting the government told an Ann Arbor audience Thursday they remain committed to change in their homeland.

Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina shared their experiences with University of Michigan students and alumni during an appearance at the Michigan Theater. A near-capacity crowd in the 1,700-seat venue roared as the pair came on stage.

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Two years ago, the members of Pussy Riot grabbed international headlines when Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and a third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, were imprisoned after conducting an anti-government stunt in Moscow's main cathedral. Their protest targeted the Orthodox Church for its support of President Vladimir Putin.

"We really want change (in Russia)," said Tolokonnikova through an interpreter. "And we hope that happens in a peaceful manner, but it doesn't look like Putin wants that."

Alekhina said neither she nor Tolokonnikova plans to enter politics to bring change to their homeland.

"We can't do that because Russian law forbids convicted felons from being in public office," she said. "We'll just have to dream a little bit."

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina's lecture was part of the Penny W. Stamps Speaker Series hosted by the University of Michigan's Stamps School of Art & Design.

They spoke about their arrests and incarceration, their prisoners' rights project and their effort to launch a media outlet in Russia.

Afterward, Kerryann Fingerle, 20, a UM junior majoring in English, German and creative writing, said she attended the lecture because she had heard the women's story and wanted to see them in person.

"Their reputations definitely precede them," she said. "Most people are impassive protesters who use social media. I thought it was important to hear from people who are more active."

During a February 2012 performance at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, the women shouted a "punk prayer" petitioning the Virgin Mary to deliver Russia from Putin. The trio was arrested and charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

Six months later, each of the women, ages 22, 24, and 30 at the time, were sentenced to two years in prison. However, Samutsevich was later released and placed on probation.

Celebrities such as singers Madonna and Bjork and human rights groups including Amnesty International called on Russia and Putin to free the two other women.

Russia's parliament passed an amnesty bill in December 2013 that released the punk group members — a move many said was Putin's attempt to temper critics before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

After their release, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina started an organization called Zona Prava, or Zone of Rights, that campaigns for prisoners' rights and provides legal representation, safety monitoring and oversight.

cramirez@detroitnews.com

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