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Those who’ve been following the news out of Russia know that three members of feminist punk collective Pussy Riot are currently on trial for rushing the altar and playing an anti-Putin song in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The women called their song, which is titled “Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Out” and includes a lot of cursing, a “punk prayer.” Authorities arrested Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova after their February performance and charged them with hooliganism and inciting religious hatred. They then spent months in detention until the trial finally began at the end of July.

The trial has drawn major attention from all around the globe, most of it critical, since the case, in addition to being a horrific crackdown on the basic rights of free speech, is baseless and absurd. A reporter for the Christian Science Monitor called it “a cross between a circus and a medieval religious tribunal”; another for the Guardian wrote that Russia’s courts today are “a Soviet anachronism.” Inside Russia, the reaction seems harder to judge, with protests for and against Pussy Riot happening almost daily outside the courtroom.

The charges carry up to seven years in prison, although the prosecutor closed last week by asking for three-year jail terms, after Putin told the press, while visiting the Olympics, that he hoped the women wouldn’t be “punished too harshly.” No matter what their final sentence, the women have allegedly already endured food and sleep deprivation.

Despite all of this — or maybe because of it — Tolokonnikova managed to offer some incredibly moving closing words on Pussy Riot’s behalf. Locked inexplicably in a glass and wood box, as if there was some danger that she might spring out and hurt someone, Tolokonnikova spoke passionately for 15 minutes about the deeply authoritarian nature of contemporary Russian society that the case has exposed:

Essentially, it is not three singers from Pussy Riot who are on trial here. If that were the case, what’s happening would be totally insignificant. It is the entire state system of the Russian Federation which is on trial and which, unfortunately for itself, thoroughly enjoys quoting its cruelty towards human beings, its indifference to their honour and dignity, the very worst that has happened in Russian history to date.

She went on to invoke a long line of protestors, resistors and critics of power, from Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Socrates, and even Jesus. In fact, the speech has strongly religious overtones, but they feel far less like a last-ditch effort to convince the judge that the women don’t “hate” Christianity and more like an honest attempt to appeal to the Russian majority in its own language, on its own terms.

The speech is, ultimately, a manifesto:

We called for contact and dialogue rather than conflict and opposition. We reached out a hand to those who, for some reason, assume we are their enemies. In response they laughed at us and spat in our outstretched hands. “You’re disingenuous,” they told us. But they needn’t have bothered. Don’t judge others by your own standards. We were always sincere in what we said, saying exactly what we thought, out of childish naïvety, sure, but we don’t regret anything we said, even on that day. We are reviled but we do not intend to speak evil in return. We are in desperate straits but do not despair. We are persecuted but not forsaken. It’s easy to humiliate and crush people who are open, but when I am weak, then I am strong.

In its eloquence and calls for understanding and transcendence, it brings to mind countless statements by people wrongly persecuted throughout history. But the jarring part comes when you remember that this isn’t the past; it’s 21st-century Russia, where three women are on trial for singing a punk song.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...