Image courtesy of Pyotr Pavlensky.Russian performance artist and political activist Pyotr Pavlensky is spending his fourth month in Paris’ Fleury-Mérogis prison. In January 2017, Pavlensky and his associate Oksana Shalygina left Russia after law enforcement questioned him over a rape allegation. But after performing an action at a branch of the Banque de France on Paris’ Place de la Bastille in October 2017, Pavlensky was arrested and sent to an isolation unit. Here, he is denied the opportunity to interact with other prisoners, and letters reach him only after considerable delay. All correspondence is checked by the court authorities, and translating Russian letters into French takes time.
“The Bastille was destroyed by a people in revolution; the people destroyed its symbol of despotism and power. The Banque de France has taken the place of the Bastille, and bankers have taken the place of monarchs” - this was how Pavlensky explained rationale behind the action.
The dangerous property damage case against Pavlensky is being heard in camera, prompting Pavlensky to stage a dry hunger strike (refusing both food and water) last autumn. Nevertheless, Pavlensky’s close friend Oksana Shalygina, who helped Pavlensky organise the stunt and who has also been charged with arson, was released on 5 January. Shalygina remains under investigation and cannot leave France. She and Pavlensky both face up to ten years in prison.
I visited Shalygina for her first post-release interview.
Why were you released?
When I was detained, one of the reasons for my detention was that I had neither an address nor a phone number. I didn’t give them our address because telling them where we lived was undesirable. But how would the police search for me in that case? They were afraid we’d do a runner. Then my friends found me an apartment so as to obviate the formal grounds for my detention. A major exhibition was held at the Saatchi Gallery around the same time. Our lawyer brought back some exhibition materials to show the judge, who examined the list of exhibition participants and eventually ruled that I had to be released. This came as a surprise, even the lawyer had no idea it would happen.
Why hadn’t an apartment been rented for you earlier?
There was no opportunity. Some Russian friends who live here helped us out. They decided the best help they could offer would be to try and secure my release, because I have children and I’d be of more use on the outside. The arrest itself was terrible — we were both of us arrested and separated from our children and each other. Throughout the first month we could communicate only with our lawyer. I needed to get out. The person who was looking after our children throughout that whole period ended up completely overwhelmed. He works, he’s got children of his own. It was a great feat on his part to take care of our kids during those three months. I’m very grateful to him.
Why wasn’t Pyotr released for the same reason?
The application documents were filed for me only. Pyotr doesn’t want to compromise with the judicial system in any way, shape or form — and therefore found the release conditions unacceptable.
Will an application be filed for him as well?
That’ll depend on him. It’s possible that he’ll remain in prison while the investigation is ongoing. Very soon, in mid-February, there’ll be a hearing to decide whether to extend Pyotr’s detention or release him. We’re going to insist on a public hearing.
But in terms of what happens to you, he’s ok with these kind of compromises?
Yes, he is. I only agreed to this course of action because, number one, we have children, and number two, it doesn’t conflict with his views or mine in this particular instance.
You weren’t planning on being detained?
I was involved in the technical preparation for the action and physically didn’t have time to make myself scarce. I didn’t want to appear in shot because I don’t like publicity. But we were clean out of luck because the police materialised literally 20 seconds or so after we started — they were driving across the square and stopped by the bank. The French journos ended up behaving in extremely unscrupulous and unprofessional manner, they violated our agreement regarding the format of the video that was set to be appear online. Ditto the copyright of the photos. Everything should be freely available, with no names on the photos.
If journalists can’t call me Pyotr’s friend, it’s better to be known as his “associate” than as his “wife” or “common-law wife”
Furthermore, they spilled the beans to the police, threw in the towel straight away. But that’s very much the French spirit — the French in general live with fear permanently etched in their eyes.
So that means only Pyotr should have been visible in shot?
Yes. But I was also captured in CCTV footage and stills. That said, I was difficult to recognise as I was wearing a wig and glasses. I was paying homage to Jacques Mesrine, a French criminal and legend who had his own way of dealing with banks — he robbed them. He resisted his whole life long, refusing to live the life of a slave. He was called a man with a thousand faces, he constantly altered his appearance. By the way, he too was incarcerated in the Fleury-Mérogis prison, where Pyotr is now.
Within the domain of the media, if not elsewhere, you identify as an “associate” of Pyotr’s, and not as an independent artist. Why?
The whole “Pyotr’s associate” label emerged to prevent people from calling me his wife. This isn’t some kind of life stance or role. If journalists can’t call me his partner, it’s better to be known as his “associate” than as his “wife” or “common-law wife”. As for Pyotr himself, he calls me his closest friend. I’m in the business of political propaganda and identify as the head of the Political Propaganda publishing house. I’m not an artist or a performance artist. I’m involved in Pyotr’s stunts in the same way as he’s involved in the publication of the magazine.
How’s your magazine evolving now?
It’s changed massively since launching online in 2012. We’re now bringing out titles by interesting authors via our publishing house. There’s been one constant throughout this period: the magazine has remained absolutely non-buyable and non-saleable. It’s extremely important for us to contribute to the development of the gift economy, so the magazine is free. I had a new book ready for release last autumn, and my arrest came at an extremely inopportune time. That was the last publication we had in the works before we left Russia, and we needed to see it through to the end. It’s intended for a Russian audience. Now we have to resume the publication process, find money to print it, relaunch the site (which stopped working while I was in custody), and arrange a presentation in Russia.
The local bodies prosecuting you both aren’t making any distinctions between you. As far the public sphere is concerned, however, this was Pyotr’s action rather than a joint endeavour. Does this not irk you?
That’s the way it should be — it doesn’t violate our arrangements in any way. If I’d stood beside him during the action and he alone ended up being talked about, that’d be another matter. But I’d no intention of playing a visible role in the stunt. I help Pyotr as far as I’m able to, and that’s as far as it goes. This isn’t an act of self-actualisation for me, I’m not an artist. Pyotr is an artist who’s making political art.
What’s your current status, and what restrictions are you under?
I’m under investigation, Pyotr and I have been charged under the same article. I cannot leave French territory, nor can I set foot in the 11th and 4th arrondissements (where the action took place), although my children go to school in the 11th. The inconsistency and stupidity of the system made itself felt in this respect as well. I need to check in with the police twice a week. There are no other restrictions.
Your arrest wasn’t captured on video. How did it did take place and what happened afterwards?
I wasn’t allowed to be filmed, and I’m glad that in this respect our arrangements were respected. I was handcuffed, bundled into a car and driven to a police station on the Place de la Bastille. The following day I was taken to another station in the 19th. They drew up some documents, took my fingerprints, took some photographs. The way they arrested Pyotr was more brutal. We were driven to the station in separate cars. They put us in the same corridor but in separate cells. The grime was horrific, I hadn’t seen anything like it for a long time. Conditions in the cell were fairly harsh — you couldn’t stretch your legs, the bed was two foot long. You go to the toilet and there’s a cop standing over you. Takes getting used to.
What form did the interrogations take?
They took place in the presence of my lawyer, but they’ve got a slightly different system here: in contrast to the way it normally happens in Russia, you can’t consult your lawyer during the course of the interrogation — he can only advise you beforehand. The investigators quickly ascertained who Pyotr was — and, as it seems to me, treated us differently as a result. If he wasn’t an artist, I think he’d have been slapped with terrorism charges. But they didn’t go to that extreme.
I don’t go around asking them why they’re so fat yet work for the police. I for one don’t think this is acceptable
During the interrogations I was asked about why we had no permanent official address, work, or telephone numbers. To add to that, an interview that came out two weeks prior to our arrest featured Pyotr talking about our life in Paris, about how we got our food, where we were living, why we weren’t paying for anything. I refused to answer such questions — after all, I don’t go around asking them why they’re so fat yet work for the police. I for one don’t think this is acceptable.
What does the courtroom look like?
It’s a small space. You’ve got the judge, prosecutor and clerk, with a cop standing behind along with the individual under investigation and their lawyer. It’s reminiscent of Stalinist times: the trial takes place behind closed doors. When I came to court in November and demanded a public trial, the judge said she would under no circumstances provide me with a platform for my political pronouncements.
Did you and Pyotr manage to talk prior to being imprisoned?
We talked when we were sitting in a prison truck, and I knew that he’d gone on hunger strike. He told the judge that he was outraged that the principle of transparency had been violated and demanded a public trial. The judge just laughed in response. As a result, he kept up his hunger strike for thirteen days. And then he was put in a restraint bed. He yanked out his IVs and bled everywhere. He was then forcibly fed through IVs for two days. It was clear that they’d broken his hunger strike and that there was no point trying to keep it up any longer. He started eating and drinking again.
Is there a possibility that you’ll go back to Russia?
There isn’t, no. We can’t be deported. The maximum sentence we face is 10 years’ imprisonment.
This is your first experience of prison. What did you go through when you wound up in a French jail?
Initially it was difficult — I spent the first month alone in a two-person cell and was allowed no visitors whatsoever. I couldn’t even communicate with my kids. The authorities wanted to turn up the heat on us, which is why we were kept in isolation. And Pyotr is still in a solitary-confinement cell today. When they tried to make him eat, he retaliated. He was initially put into a disciplinary cell and then into solitary.
What conditions were you kept in?
What prevailed initially was a day-to-day vacuum: no books, nothing to do. There was just a TV in the cell, and you were given two envelopes and a couples of sheets of paper. It was up to the inmate to order more paper, and it’d never arrive quickly. There was no shampoo or deodorant either, which made life a challenge on a run-of-the-mill kind of level — you were issued only with a toothbrush and toothpaste (both unfit for purpose) plus shower gel. Which was all meant to make you feel that even everyday trivialities were beyond your control.
The maximum sentence we face is 10 years’ imprisonment
There’s no cash in French prisons, everyone’s got an account. The money I had on me was transferred into my account, but it didn’t go through immediately, which meant problems with food. Overall, the food on offer was fine. You could order food from the shop — you’d get a list of items you could choose from. But if you had no money for the shop, you could get by well on enough on prison food as well.
Did you interact with anyone?
I interacted with everyone I happened to encounter — there’s a real dearth of basic human communication in prison. This normally happens during assemblies, when you’re awaiting yet another bureaucratic procedure, at the medical station, or when you’re on your way to court.
These conversations can be pivotal. For example, you can find out what the deal is with the mobile situation. Smuggling an ordinary mobile into prison costs 200 euros, while smuggling in a smartphone costs 800.
Pyotr Pavlensky and Oksana Shalygina in Paris. Image courtesy of Pyotr Pavlensky.These subtleties, which you’re initially unfamiliar with and which can only be grasped by way of face-to-face contact, are many and various.
Were you asked about your crime?
Not so much about my crime as about what I was there for. When I began to explain that banks are the new prisons, people immediately understood and agreed. Some only managed to grasp the second time around what political art was and what purpose it actually served.
What about time in the open air?
I didn’t go out that often as I didn’t find it particularly stimulating. When you’re confined in a small space for a long time, you hardly move about at all. And when you emerge in the open air you start feeling dizzy and tired. There was stuff to do inside — you could read books and learn French and English. I devoted a lot of time in prison to studying French. There was a library, but I only got access to it a month in. Literature-wise things weren’t great. There were only five books in Russian — a couple of God-awful novels and some poetry: Mandelstam, Babel. I devoured it all straight away.
Did you interact with the warders?
When I first arrived, I was received by five people — they noticed that I was missing a finger, which never catches anyone’s attention. I reckon they must’ve known what happened, and they received me very hospitably, if you can speak about prison in such terms. They don’t interact with arrestees, though, but only with long-term inmates who do tasks such as cleaning the premises and handing round food. Prisoners who do this sort of thing are known in Russia as kozly [literally “goats”, slang for inmates who collaborate with the prison authorities].
What’s the makeup of the prison population?
The inmates were almost all foreign: people of colour, Arabs, Romanians, Serbians, Italians, Brazilians. Many had been arrested on terrorism charges. There was a Serbian girl named Esmeralda Medovic who’d served 17 stints in Fleury-Mérogis. There was a woman who knifed her friend because he raped her kid — and she was happy she’d done it, happy she’d dealt with the problem herself. Two Russian speakers were brought in just before I was released. Generally, you’re laughing and joking around a lot with your fellow inmates, and if you’re looking down someone will always ask what happened and try and cheer you up. It’s a sisterhood of sorts. During yard time you’re often all singing or even dancing. Makes your heart melt.
Who were your cellmates?
My first one had had a mental breakdown. She refused to talk to me and would do nothing but eat, sleep, relieve herself and lie on her bed. Co-existing with her in a cell that measured three metres by four was a challenge. You need to be exchanging words here and there throughout the day, otherwise you’re inviting tension. If I asked her a question she wouldn’t reply — but if she wanted to tell me something she’d frequently scream. That really got to me. I spent a week getting the measure of her — and then solved the problem: breaking a mop against her did the trick.
We don’t need any help from the state. The state is power, and we want nothing to do with that power
Then they paired me up with a decent Romanian girl. We communicated in a mixture of English and French and got on like a house on fire.
Was there anything to do other than watch TV?
You could sign up to do work, to play sport, and there was a bunch of clubs to join as well. I went for sport — there was a huge hall where you could do tennis, yoga, boxing, karate. It made a nice change from the dullness of everyday prison existence. But I only went for a week. I was released after that.
Which country has the easier prison conditions, Russia or France?
France, of course. By Russian standards this is a veritable holiday retreat. Yes, you’re a prisoner, you’re limited in what you can do, but you’re still a human being. The warders are polite and keep their distance.
You got political asylum here, and many people began to use this fact as the main plank in their criticism: France isn’t Russia, you’ve analogised structurally different entities, and at any rate, it’s uncalled-for to bite the hand that feeds you.
First of all, we refused everything France wanted to give us. In fact, all we actually accepted from France were our identity cards. We refused all social security benefits, refused their offers of financial assistance and accommodation. We don’t need any help from the state. The state is power, and we want nothing to do with that power.
Image courtesy of Pyotr Pavlensky.The action also came in for criticism from erstwhile supporters of yours. Many thought it strange that you decided to attack a bank in a country that isn’t the principal stronghold of capitalism.
We made a lot of enemies on leaving Russia and now seem to have even more. But I’ve heard many words of support from those who understand us — and this is more important for me than the mass of people who are just lazily chewing this over. If you’re a worthy human being, I can hear out your opinion. I don’t think there’s any principal stronghold. People wanted to heroise Pyotr but didn’t succeed in doing so. I can’t speak for Pyotr, there’s a text accompanying the action where he explains everything in detail. In my view, though, it was a truly leftist stunt against the backdrop of the advancing right-wing narrative that is taking over the world.
When you were leaving Russia, you said you didn’t want to put your children at risk — if you were to be prosecuted, they could be sent away to an orphanage. When you wound up behind bars here in France, your children were left all alone. Do you not think this puts them in jeopardy?
If we thought this way, we’d never have achieved anything whatsoever in our lives. We don’t regard our children as something through which we can be manipulated. If we did, they’d cease to be our beloved children and become levers of control. We cannot be manipulated. And it wasn’t for the sake of our kids that we left Russia — we left because we didn’t want to serve time for a crime we didn’t commit. Now the situation is fundamentally different: we’re not about to take off anywhere.
The children are attending school here purely so they can learn French. When they’ve mastered the language, they may well stop attending – that’ll depend on what they decide. But if do they decide to stop going to school, we’ll only support them in their decision. In my opinion, their minds are atrophying there — the school doesn’t offer them any depth of knowledge. Pyotr and I got them studying serious disciplines: drawing, literature, poetry, chess, boxing.
Do you have any desire to return to Russia?
When we left for Europe, we weren’t labouring under any illusions. We knew we weren’t swapping hell for heaven. Our life hasn’t changed in any way, and it’s all the same to us where we’re based. We’ve got a baseline of life, a set of principles we live by: never work for anyone, use your precious time usefully, carry on the work begun in 2012. We might well want to return, but we can’t, so we won’t. And so we entertain no emotions in this regard. It is what it is. It makes no difference what country we’re in.
Translated by Leo Shtutin.