When was the last time a rock band changed the world? The Russian punk collective known as Pussy Riot captured global attention this year after three of the group's members were sentenced to jail for the "punk prayer" they staged at a Moscow cathedral, earning the support of everyone from Madonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to British Prime Minister David Cameron and the U.S. State Department, and becoming the unlikely international symbols of Russia's re-energized opposition to an increasingly autocratic Vladimir Putin.
But the three members of the band arrested for the stunt -- Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who were sent to remote prison camps for two-year sentences, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was released -- are more than just slam-dancing "hooligans," as the authorities describe them. Just read the powerful closing statements at their closely watched trial -- a ringing manifesto that puts them squarely in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and Vaclav Havel.
In a sense, the band argued, it had already won its case by drawing an almost comical overreaction to an act that would have been treated as a minor infraction almost anywhere else. By using its own trial as a platform to indict the system as a whole, Pussy Riot did something more profound, exposing Putin's "sovereign democracy" as "an organism sick to the core." As Alyokhina put it, "The sickness explodes out into the open when you rub up against its inflamed abscesses."
Tolokonnikova concluded with a speech citing Dostoyevsky, Socrates, and the Bible, laying out a mission statement for the project. "People can sense the truth. Truth really does have some kind of ontological, existential superiority over lies," she said. "It is not three singers from Pussy Riot who are on trial here," she declared. "It is the entire state system of the Russian Federation."
Tolokonnikova then quoted a line from one of the band's songs -- "Open all the doors, tear off your epaulets/Come, taste freedom with us" -- just before being led off to jail. What could be more punk than that?