Russian political performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who set fire to the doors of the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters this week, has asked a judge to treat him the same way as political prisoners from Crimea.
On Monday Pavlensky poured petrol on the doors of the notorious building on Lubyanka square – used since the 1940s as the offices and detention centre of the KGB, the Stalinist security police – and set light to them. Supporters
filmed the action. Pavlensky was arrested and charged with “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred” – to which he responded: “It would be strange to have any other attitude to the Lubyanka.”
In the Taganka district court on Wednesday, Pavlensky said that “the so-called ‘Crimean terrorists’” were charged with terrorism offences for setting fire to doors, in cases fabricated by the FSB. “I demand that I be suspected of terrorism. I consider this to be the logic of your system. Until this demand is met, I refuse to participate in all your juridical rituals.” He then declined to answer further questions.
The Crimean prisoners to which Pavlensky referred are anti-fascist activist Aleksandr Kolchenko and film director Oleg Sentsov, political prisoners jailed for their part in protests against the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Kolchenko and Sentsov were in August sentenced to ten and twenty years respectively by a court in Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, on fabricated terrorism charges. A third frame-up victim, Gennady Afanasiev, gave evidence under torture that was used to secure convictions, and is serving a seven-year sentence. Human rights organisations denounced the trial as a parody of justice and demanded the defendants’ release.
The connection made by Pavlensky was to Kolchenko’s admission that he had been involved in causing a fire at a building used by pro-Russian forces in Crimea, in which no-one was hurt and only minor damage done to property. His lawyer argued that a hooliganism charge would have been appropriate. (For detailed information on the Crimea case see the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group site.)
Pavlensky, 32, has been remanded in custody for a month. The court rejected his lawyer’s request for release on 1 million rubles (about £10,000) bail, and/or being placed under house arrest while caring for his children, who are seven and four years old.
Pavlensky named his performance “Threat. The Lubyanka’s burning doors”. In a statement published on line, he said:
The burning door of Lubyanka is a glove thrown by society in the face of the terrorist threat. The Federal Security Service [FSB] operates through continuous terror and holds sway over 146,000,000 people. Fear has turned free people into a sticky mass of isolated bodies. The threat of imminent reprisal hangs over anyone within reach of surveillance and eavesdropping devices and passport checks. Military courts are eliminating the last vestiges of free will. But terrorism can exist only due to the animal instinct of fear. An unconditional defensive reflex makes the individual oppose this instinct. This is the reflex to fight for one’s own life. And life is worth fighting for.
Pavlensky’s previous performances have included lying in St Isaac’s Square in St Petersburg, wrapped in barbed wire, and sewing up his lips in protest at attacks on freedom of speech. He considers himself an actionist, in the tradition of the artistic
school of that name established in Vienna in the 1960s. Earlier this year he organised a group of people to burn automobile tyres and bang metal sheets with sticks in the centre of St Petersburg, to echo the atmosphere of the Maidan demonstrations in Kiev that brought down the government of Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014.
Some Russian socialists have argued that Pavlensky’s action was motivated by middle-class individualism. I sympathise with the response by Ivan Ovsyannikov, a socialist and trade union activist:
Yes, I understand all that about “middle-class/ decadent/ individualist rebellion” that “lacks class consciousness”. I’ll even allow that the FSB’s doors are a valuable artistic monument. But I spit on those doors and on pseudo-left phrases. Right now they are cynical, wretched, inappropriate. Pavlensky isn’t a political strategist. But he is a brave person who can serve as an example (no, not in respect of his particular way of doing things, but with his unbending non-conformism at a time when total cynicism prevails). I do not know how good an artist he is, but in any case I know that those who are judging him “wouldn’t do art like that themselves”. Of course, there is no need to imitate Pavlensky, but there’s nothing to despise him for, either. At the end of the day, the Marxists of the early 20th century disagreed with the methods of the People’s Will and Socialist Revolutionaries – but that didn’t stop them from acknowledging their heroism. And of course this is a different case. But from a moral point of view, I repeat, Pavlensky is right. And we need to defend him. And “to defend” does not mean to say “oh, bless him, he didn’t mean anything nasty, just give him 15 days”. No, the main point must be this: [government] power, which has spit on morals, rights and justice, that power, which has surpassed all the limits of good and evil, has no right to judge the artist Pavlensky, even if he burned the whole FSB to a cinder.
For readers who doubt the rationale of Pavlensky’s action, I would add two points of my own.
First, it is almost impossible either rationally or emotionally to get our minds round the cruelty of the sentences on Kolchenko and Sentsov, and the absurdity of the fabricated case against them. Pavlensky’s courageous action helps.
Russian social and labour movements face a state that is not yet a dictatorship … but under which even small acts of political defiance potentially carry the price of devastating, disproportionate repression. Pavlensky didn’t answer the question “what to do?”, but he focused on the inevitably inadequate nature of our responses to the Crimea case. Of course, inadequate: Kolchenko and Sentsov are in jail and may remain there for years.
Second, the site of Pavlensky’s performance was well chosen. From the 1930s the Lubyanka epitomised Stalinist terror. It crushed and destroyed people – socialists, activists, and innocent bystanders alike – on site. Its continued use in the post-Soviet period as the security police headquarters is a pretty eloquent expression of the continuity between past and present regimes. Resistance continues too. GL, 12 November 2015.
■ Information about the campaign to support the Crimean prisoners on the Kharkiv Human Rights Protect Group site, the Free Alexander Kolchenko facebook page, and on the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign site. A statement by Amnesty International on the trial is here.
■ On Pavlensky’s art, read The Body Politic: how Pyotr Pavlensky’s performance art is breaking the mould – Calvert Journal, 13 November 2014. Information on the Vienna actionists here.
■ Articles on People & Nature about Ukraine including an update on workers’ organisations in eastern Ukraine and War as a means of social control by Gabriel Levy (October 2014)