After several weeks spent in forced psychiatric detention, Pyotr Pavlensky is back in pre-trial detention. The performance artist faces charges of vandalism after setting the door to the FSB’s Moscow headquarters alight in November 2015. A public challenge to Russia’s security services, this action, which Pavlensky titled “Threat”, soon went viral, and raised questions about the regulation of society and the limits of political art — what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
Over the past two months, I’ve exchanged several letters with Pavlensky — on life in prison and political art.
“Threat” is by no means Pavlensky’s first piece of performance art. In previous stunts, Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut in support of Pussy Riot, nailed his scrotum to the cobbles of Red Square to protest against public political apathy and cut off an earlobe in response to the state’s use of forced psychiatric treatment against dissidents.
As Pavlensky stated: “By reintroducing the use of psychiatry for political ends, [Russia’s] police system is restoring its power to set the boundary between reason and madness.” At least five opposition activists and journalists have experienced psychiatric detention in recent years, including in response to the Bolotnaya Square protests.
“By reintroducing the use of psychiatry for political ends, [Russia’s] police system is restoring its power to set the boundary between reason and madness”
Indeed, Pavlensky’s internment in Moscow’s notorious Serbsky Institute, where dissidents were detained in the 1960s and 1970s, left a vacuum of information in the first weeks of February. “We don’t know whether he is being injected with drugs or forced to take tablets,” wrote Oksana Shalygina, Pavlensky’s partner, on social media in early February. “There is a kind of ‘quarantine’ in force and no one is allowed to visit him. Pyotr, as well as his friends and his defence team, are being subjected to obvious moral coercion.”
November 2015: Pavlensky at Tagansky court, Moscow. (c) Anton Denisov / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.This “quarantine” has also meant that not even Shalygina has seen Pavlensky since his arrest. Though Shalygina has been visiting the Serbsky Center two or three times a week to bring her partner fruit and chocolates, she hasn’t been allowed any contact with him. “I’m not allowed to bring him books, only letters. If I get a reply, I know that he’s OK — security regulations are taken to the extreme.”
To my question about quarantine, the Center’s press office replied that “we know nothing about a quarantine and so can’t comment. And in any case the law does not allow us to comment on such things. All queries must be directed to our director in writing.” A staff member of the in-patient psychiatric assessment department, who refused to give their name, also said that information of any kind could only be released after an official request.
Purification by fire
The FSB action isn’t the first time that Pavlensky has played with fire, either. On 23 February 2014, during an action called “Freedom”, Pavlensky and a dozen or so anarchists set fire to 50 car tyres in the centre of St Petersburg in an attempt to reconstruct the Kyiv Maidan days after Ukraine.
This was an action of solidarity: “We are fighting for our freedom and yours. On this day, when our government calls on us to celebrate Defender of the Fatherland Day, we are calling for you to celebrate the Maidan and the defence of our freedom. We have burned our bridges and there is no way back.”
Both actions were compared with the final performance of the radical political performance art group Voina, who set fire to a police van on 31 December 2011 in honour of political prisoners past and present.
31 December 2011: Voina set fire to paddy wagon in St Petersburg in honour of political prisoners past and present. Image from plucer.livejournal.com. Pavlensky sees the use of fire as the only thing these stunts had in common. “My action was more of a gesture. It would be ludicrous to imagine that I could burn even half of the building,” Pyotr writes to me. “I remember the idea that there is a terrorist threat hanging over us, and I saw my action as a new type of solitary picket. My petrol can is important as the fire it caused: this is what I suggested people take [to protests] instead of their greasy placards.”
“My petrol can is important as the fire it caused: this is what I suggested people take [to protests] instead of their greasy placards”
Pavlensky does not agree with those people who see his stunts in the tradition of the holy fool. “They were about asceticism and a way of life closely linked to the old Russian Orthodox Church, whereas my actions are about the assertion of boundaries and forms of political art. Comparing my stunts with the holy fool tradition is like finding the roots of monastic obedience in military discipline, or seeing a hermit’s cell in a barracks.”
An untraditional family
“We make a political art that engages with the instruments of power. This includes the Investigative Committee, the police and the media. Accordingly, this implies a certain degree of interaction with them,” says Oksana Shalygina.
“But if you’re interested only in your own comfort, you needn’t get out of bed in the morning. So the question doesn’t really arise. We have certain principles that define everything for us: both our actions and our thoughts — everything depends on the meaning of your life. Do you conform or do you work to free yourself from the kind of existence that the authorities are trying to impose on you? It’s all a question of analysing yourself and your environment.”
2014: Pavlensky's action "Separation". CC BY-SA 4.0 Missoksana / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.Oksana and Pyotr have two children together — two girls named Alisa and Liliya. They call their parents by their first names, and their parents refer to each other as comrades. (The terms “husband” and “wife” are unnatural constructs.) And Oksana doesn’t actually think of herself as an artist. She publishes an online journal called Political Propaganda, which is crowdfunded through social media.
“Prison is a part of the social distribution system, with a stream of people constantly flowing through it — the same stream of people that flows through schools, universities, hospitals, factories and supermarkets”
The journal’s introduction states that “we see politics not as a subject, but as a strategy and the existence of a conscious position in art.” The last issue of 2015 was devoted to feminism: “Day by day, state institutions and our rulers’ yes-men are establishing the diktat of a monolithic and unshakable order. Despondency and fatigue ensure acquiescence and obedience on the part of the population. Men who are tired of fighting for their ideals go off to war to kill other political phantoms in the interests of the state. And women who are tired of trying to assert themselves disappear into the victim assembly line.”
Pavlensky’s “Threat” outside FSB headquarters was bound to bring punishment in its wake: he is accused of “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred.” Pending trial, he has been held in the notorious Butyrka, Moscow’s oldest prison. “The children know that Pyotr’s in jail. They’re calm about it, they know why this happened and what he was trying to do,” Oksana tells me.
“You’re surrounded here by the same kind of people as you can meet every day anywhere in Russia,” says Pavlensky when I ask him about the Butyrka.
“Prison is a part of the social distribution system, with a stream of people constantly flowing through it — the same stream of people that flows through schools, universities, hospitals, factories and supermarkets. There are plenty of interesting people among the remand prisoners; they are a lot more sensible and fearless than your average law-abiding city dweller. They appreciate risk and know they won’t always come out on top.
“But there are also some poor bastards who have been caught by the justice system and are now gradually being broken by it, forced to show signs of remorse and submission — in other words, to endorse the paradigm of the Criminal Code. But the more the Code is endorsed, the less sustainable it becomes. The Criminal Code is expanding in all directions, and requires ever more food to survive. And everyone has to decide for themselves whether to offer themselves as food for this monster or not.”
Pavlensky’s daily routine consists of being searched, breaking ridiculous rules, reprimands from judges and sessions with psychiatrists
Pavlensky’s daily routine consists of being searched, breaking ridiculous rules, reprimands from judges and sessions with psychiatrists. The random “fire drills” are the most annoying: they are the same as the usual searches, but usually take place after the prisoners have tidied up their cells. During these meticulous searches for forbidden articles, all the prisoners’ belongings are piled into a heap.
Pavlensky doesn’t complain about a lack of free time: he has 13 books that he’s long wanted to read and a wide circle of comrades ready to discuss any subject under the sun. The most common topic of conversation is, however, numbers — the inmates speculate on how long their sentences will be. Only about one percent of defendants in Russian trials are acquitted, and most of them are members of the police and security forces.
As an new inmate of the Butyrka tells me: “For some people, the future is totally unclear — they might get one year or three. For others, the reckoning starts at 10 years and ends at 20, so they guess at 15.” In the past, he worked with Russia’s State Museum of Political History, taken classes on monumental painting at the Saint Petersburg Art and Industry Academy and even won several awards for contemporary art. “But there’s no logic to the sentencing: it bears no relation to the crime — people who get 15-20 years are pure victims of statistics; you can never tell who will get what stretch.”
Pyotr shares some more of his impressions of prison with me. “There are CCTV cameras watching you night and day, eating and sleeping. Although they haven’t got round to installing them in the toilets yet. There’s a 2x1.5m stand with a list of regulations in the most prominent place, and you’re told about irritating new rules during the daily searches. But of course it’s the same thing everywhere, in or out of prison — the same CCTV cameras, the same rules, the same expectation of a search. It’s just that in here the control is carried to extremes so it’s more obvious.”
“You start by submitting in small ways, and then the habit of submission becomes automatic. This is why there is such a fuss about people refusing to obey petty, but stupid rules”
But the prison officers are also tasked with developing an automatic submission reflex in their charges, Pavlensky adds. In prison, submission has to be completely mechanical and internalised, with no need for external prompting from prison staff.
The process is reinforced by things such as regular repetition of your name and the number of the article under which you were charged, while standing with your arms behind your head and your eyes on the floor. The regulations state that the prison’s three thousand inmates must do this every morning. “The guards’ task is to stop you thinking,” says Pavlensky.
“You start by submitting in small ways, and then the habit of submission becomes automatic. This is why there is such a fuss about people refusing to obey petty, but stupid, rules. If you refuse, they start the threats. There are no beatings: you have to lose your confidence and submit of your own accord, and then the machine has won!”
The machine is still winning, in all sorts of ways — both in and out of prison. In 2013 a poll of art specialists by Artgid magazine declared Pavlensky the most important artist of the year. This year, he could have won the Innovation prize, one of Russia’s major contemporary art prizes, after the judging committee voted for “Threat” to be shortlisted in the Visual Art section.
But as the director of the National Centre for Contemporary Art (NCCA) announced recently, “Threat” had been withdrawn from the competition. Several members of the judging committee resigned in protest as a result, and no Innovation award for visual art will be made this year.
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