The Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been sent to the notorious Serbsky Institute of psychiatry, and his family and lawyers are worried about him. [Update, 23 February. Pavlensky has been returned from the institute to prison, Novaya Gazeta is reporting (Russian only).]
On 9 November Pavlensky poured petrol over the doors of the infamous federal security services (FSB) building at Lubyanka square in central Moscow and set fire to them. He named the action Threat [Ugroza]: friends photographed and filmed him as the flames took hold. (Damage was done, but no-one was hurt.) Pavlensky was arrested soon afterwards.
The FSB’s building was inherited directly from the Soviet KGB. Thousands of the regime’s political opponents were tortured and killed behind its austere façade.
Pavlensky has been charged with “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred”, whatever that means, and appeared at the Tagansky district court several times. At his first appearance he compared his case to those of Crimean activists jailed on false “terrorism” charges – including Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov – and said he would not address the court further.
Oleksei Chirniy, who was charged along with Kolchenko and Sentsov, was also detained at the Serbsky institute prior to his trial. His supporters alleged he had been mistreated with psychotropic drugs.
Pavlensky is also awaiting trial for charges arising from an earlier performance, “Freedom” (“Svoboda”). In February 2014, days after the removal of Ukrainian president Viktor
Yanukovich, he went with collaborators he went to Malyi Koniushennyi bridge in St Petersburg, setting light to car tyres and banging dustbin lids, to recreate the atmosphere of the Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv.
Pavlensky was sent to the Serbsky State Scientific Centre for Social and Forensic Psychiatry last month (27 January) to be observed by doctors. The centre was then closed due to an outbreak of a strong flu-like virus, and Pavlensky’s lawyers have been denied access to their client.
Human rights campaigners are focusing on Pavlensky’s case and Amnesty International have expressed concern about it.
On 3 February, in Pavlensky’s absence, the Tagansky court extended his detention to 5 March. His wife expressed fears for his health in a facebook post: “We do not know if they are injecting him with drugs, trying to give him pills. We don’t know.”
Meanwhile artists are protesting about a decision by the National Centre for Contemporary Art to throw Pavlensky’s performance out of the contest for this year’s “Innovation” prize.
His action at the Lubyanka was included after an on-line vote by critics. But on 15 February, the organisers of the prize struck it off, on the grounds that it had involved an illegal act. Members of the expert committee that advised the organisers were angry; art critic Anna Tolstova quit the committee, saying: “I don’t consider myself obliged to agree with censorship and become part of the repressive machinery of the state.”.
Clearly, the organisers have taken a step back. In 2010 the prize was won by the Voina group for painting a large phallus on a bridge near the security services headquarters in St Petersburg.
Punishment psychiatry has been on the rise in Russia again since the 2011 demonstrations against government ballot-rigging.
In October 2013, Mikhail Kosenko, one of the defendants brought to trial after those demonstrations, was sentenced to indefinite psychiatric treatment after the Serbsky centre declared him insane. Psychiatric treatment was also used in the recent case of Crimean activists, three of whom are serving long jail sentences in Russia and are widely regarded as political prisoners.
Pavlensky has protested against punishment psychiatry: in October 2014, he sat on the wall of the Serbsky Institute and cut off his earlobe to make his point. Then, he wrote: “Armed with psychiatric diagnoses, the bureaucrat in a white lab coat cuts off from society those pieces that prevent him from establishing a monolithic dictate of a single, mandatory norm for everyone.”
But punishment psychiatry goes back much further. It was used in the Soviet Union from (at least) the 1940s, to deal with those who defied its tyrannical, misnamed “socialism”, and became widespread in the 1960s. It was the Serbsky centre that developed the diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia”, which was widely applied to political dissidents.
Not only were internationally-known oppositionists, such as the independent trade union organiser Vladimir Klebanov and the second world war general Pyotr Grigorenko, confined to psychiatric institutions, but psychiatry was used against large numbers of less-well-known Soviet citizens. (Indeed two western writers who studied the phenomenon in Soviet times concluded that the abuse of psychiatry against prominent dissidents was “probably only the tip of an iceberg”. It had a wide-ranging function in dealing with “social deviants”: “suppressing individuality […] so that the state can maintain a stifling social as well as political control”. Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway, Russia’s Political Hospitals, Gollancz 1977, pp. 278-279.)
An early – and typical – case was that of Revolt Pimenov, a maths student who resigned from the Communist Party’s youth league, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and consigned
to a psychiatric hospital – the sentence being lifted when he agreed to rejoin the league! His story is recorded in the marvellous archive of the Chronicle of Current Events, a dissident journal. (Thanks to J who drew that to my attention!)
Finally, a thought about Pavlensky’s art. I am pretty conservative in my artistic tastes, but it works wonders for me. What is an artist supposed to do when his government becomes increasingly repressive and supports military mayhem in a neighbouring state? Paint landscapes?
In my view, setting fire to the doors of the Lubyanka was a cry of sanity in an insane world. I’m not blind to the limitations of individual protest – but this protest tried seriously to deal with the state machine’s monstrous corrosion of humanity.
If you are a western leftie thinking “well, this is hardly the worst example of state repression”, give me some credit. I know. I, too, see the sickening irony in the denunciation of Putin for ordering Syrian children’s deaths to gain diplomatic advantage – by people who had little to say about Tony Blair and George Bush ordering Iraqi children’s deaths on a vastly greater scale. Well, you know what … it’s not a competition! Putin’s violence is part of the same process as Tony Blair’s, not some sort of answer to it.
For me, this is about the reality with which my friends – activists in social and labour movements in Russia and Ukraine – have to deal.
If you’re a psychiatrist, please get on to your professional association about that institute. If you’re an artist, please get on to that art centre about that competition. If you’re a letter-writer, please follow Amnesty’s advice on protesting to the Russian prosecutor … and if you’re fighting for some other cause, big or small, please keep doing what you’re doing. How else can we deal with the inherent madness of the system under which we live? GL, 17 February 2016.
Note (21 February): I have corrected this article to make clear that it was the organisers of the Innovation Prize, and not the expert committee that advises them, who were responsible for disqualifying Pavlensky’s entry.
■ Meaningful art: the Lubyanka ablaze – on People & Nature, November 2015
■ The latest on the Crimean political prisoners – the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group
■ The body politic: how Pavel Pavlensky’s performance art is breaking the mould – the Calvert Journal, November 2014
■ The Russian Reader – best in English for information on social and labour movements in Russia. Now featuring truck drivers’ preparations for a nationwide strike.