MOSCOW — Russia’s bravest performance artist, best known for nailing his scrotum to Red Square and setting fire to the door of the secret police headquarters, says he thinks Russians are “terrorized by the monstrous phantom of the security services, by arrests, and by prison terms.”
His “acts of art,” as Petr Pavlensky calls them, clearly are acts of defiance, and he expects to pay a price for them, he told The Daily Beast after his release from seven months behind bars.
On the November night last year when the 32-year-old artist poured gasoline onto the door of the FSB security service headquarters on Lubyanka Square, a place Russians feared for generations as the dread home of the KGB, he knew perfectly well that the punishment could be anything from 15 days to several years behind bars in a penitentiary system where prisoners often are beaten and tortured, and sometimes die unaccountable deaths.
Pavlensky said his work of conceptual art, which he called “Threat,” focused specifically on interrogators, on punishments and those punished, and every element of his experience, from hi arrest to the day of his release, became part of the intellectual construct.
Police grabbed Pavlensky while the Lubyanka door was still on fire. For seven months he traveled through multiple corridors, cells, police vehicles, court rooms and psychiatric wards, where he talked with prisoners, young drug users, murderers, businessmen, and former officials.
“Most prisoners supported me and my actions, because people today realize that the system is ultimately wrong,” Pavlensky said. “As far as I see it, the FSB is in power in Russia, as the KGB or NKVD were in power decades ago; these thugs send people to jail for many years for a gram of hashish or for one post on social media or for expressing their opinion, and they do that with only one goal: to make the masses obey, to break people’s spirit and will.”
The experience of incarceration, Pavlensky said, reminded him of the Soviet school he attended, all part of a system: “an enormous center for taming Russian citizens.”
While Pavlensky was in jail, human rights defenders reported multiple violations in the federal penitentiary service: four detainees died from brain injuries or other signs of violence in Moscow SIZO # 4 in one month.
“Of course I was afraid, I am human like anybody else, but I am convinced that it is even scarier to live in a country where authorities liquidate unwanted individuals, take over businesses, where FSB rule the state and terrorize citizens,” Pavlensky said. “The fire over the door was symbolic; I illuminated the darkness of repressive power,” he said.
Things are not getting better. On Tuesday the State Duma, the lower house of the legislature, discussed a bill to make criminally liable anyone who shows disrespect for Russia and the authorities of the country. As its last move before summer vacation, the State Duma also voted for a package of counter-terrorist amendments that activists say can be used against anyone.
The repressive chill of Soviet-era laws is coming back. Beginning this year Russians will go to prison for failing to report a crime, and Russians as young as 14 can be prosecuted as adults.
Pavlensky began to disobey rules many years ago. In 2004 as a student in his last year at Saint Petersburg Art and Industry Academy he had a conflict with one of his professors. “He pretended to be one of us free thinkers, but actually he rejected any rebellious ideas,” the artist recalled. “The methods are always the same: officials reject, punish and humiliate people.”
So he painted a 2.5-meter-long vagina for his art exam. His work was not accepted, and Pavlensky never received his diploma. But he quickly became known for his provocative stunts—including nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square, stitching his lips together to protest the imprisonment of Pussy Riot members, and slicing off his earlobe in a Van Gogh-like act atop the Serbsky psychiatric clinic, where the Soviets used to lock up their dissidents.
In prison this year, the artist said, up to 60 percent of the inmates he saw were teenagers. “Men in uniforms command thousands of young prisoners what to do, so the individuals would stop thinking,” Pavlensky said. There is also violence. The artist’s shoulder and knee still hurt, he said, after the beatings he experienced in jail.
“Before my hearing at Moscow City Court, eight guards beat me up,” he says. “They kicked me; some hit me around the liver, so I could not breath for a long time. Beatings are normal before Moscow City Court hearings.”
On June 8, the Moscow court set the rebellious artist free, but fined him $7,700 for the cost of repairing the damaged FSB door—a huge amount of money for a struggling artist. If Pavlensky fails to pay the fine, authorities could ban him from traveling abroad: “See, they just moved our relations to a different field of financial pressure,” he said.
While still free to travel, Pavlensky flew abroad. For his first trip he chose the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where he was received as a national hero.
Here, Pavlensky met with another former Russian prisoner, Nadia Savchenko, a military pilot. And although Pavlensky normally opposes the military with its orders and its wars, he found his conversation with Savchenko about her almost two years in Russian prisons important.
Nataliya Gemenyuk, the editor-in-chief of the Hromadske International television channel, invited the artist to read a lecture at Kiev’s Center of Visual Arts. “Our audience received Pavlensky with flowers and ovations, because he is seen as the symbol of a free Russian,” Gumenyuk told The Daily Beast. “Maybe he is the only one, but in our hearts we hope there will be more Russians like him.”