Russia may have a reputation for being one of the most hostile countries in the world towards homosexuals, but that apparently doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of people there who think it’s cool when “chicks make out.”

Despite the fact that the duo officially disbanded in 2011, and their most recent release was a reissue of their 2002 debut, t.A.T.u. was enlisted to perform at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi — an ironic counterpoint to the country’s laws since they’re best known worldwide for pretending to be lesbians.

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Simultaneously, the band’s musical and political counterpart, Pussy Riot, finds itself mired in internal strife following the incarceration of two of its members, whose imprisonment highlighted the sort of rampant human rights violations that t.A.T.u.’s behavior perhaps inadvertently concealed from the rest of the world.

When t.A.T.u. became an international sensation with the hit single “All the Things She Said,” the band attracted as much attention from the faux-lesbian relationship between singers Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova as its actual music. Despite, or perhaps because of courting controversy as international gay icons, Russia’s decade-long support failed to translate into greater acceptance of homosexuality or LGBT rights.

Pussy Riot, on the other hand, first formed in 2011, more or less as t.A.T.u. was formally breaking up. Decidedly less outwardly commercial than their predecessors, the band’s ever-shifting membership seemed to focus less on marketing and more on what they had to say – or felt needed to be said.

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Indeed, the band formed as a direct result of government policies its members found oppressive and discriminatory. One of the members who was eventually arrested, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, explained that their music and their messages were interchangeable.

“Pussy Riot’s performances can either be called dissident art or political action that engages art forms,” Tolokonnikova said in a closing statement at her trial. “Either way, our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties.”

Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were released from prison on December 23, 2013, not because of a change of heart or the revelation of some legal precedent, but because president Vladimir Putin wanted their amnesty to mark the 20th anniversary of Russia’s post-Soviet constitution. But six months earlier, Putin signed a bill imposing jail terms and fines for “insulting people’s religious feelings,” which is essentially the reason that the two band members were put in jail.

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Whether or not Putin chose to release them as a pre-emptive public relations move in advance of the Sochi Olympics, there’s a rich irony in the subsequent decision to have t.A.T.u. represent the country culturally during the opening ceremonies. While pre-fab pop music is certainly nothing new, it’s dumbfounding – or maybe just painfully misguided – for Russian officials to believe that the duo represents the country in a positive light, given their openly facetious, commercial-minded demonstration of sexual freedom.

But no matter if you see them as politically-minded artists or activists expressing themselves through art, a choice like this one at the Sochi Olympics virtually obligates Pussy Riot to play counterpoint to the glossy, superficial face that Russia is putting on its pop culture, not to mention its political values. At the same time, it probably also gives them a lot of fodder for future songs. Let’s hope they get heard.

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