On Sunday night, a fragile, skinny and pale man, with a hood cloaking his head, stood at the entrance to the headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB)—the inheritor to the KGB—and methodically poured gasoline onto the front door. Then he lit the wooden entrance on fire with his lighter, and waited calmly, with his back to the flames, holding the gas can in his hands as the authorities descended.
It was a scene straight out of an action movie and the arsonist was, in fact, a performance artist—although the fire was very real.
The artist, 31-year-old Petr Pavlensky is well known inside Russia for his outré 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-ian act atop the Serbsky psychiatric clinic, where the Soviets infamously locked up their dissidents.
But Pavlensky’s Sunday night performance was his bravest—and perhaps his most insane—yet. During Stalin’s years of terror and at the KGB’s height of power, Lubyanka Square was a place of fear, where secret police tortured countless citizens. It is now the site of a yearly protest against Russia’s crimes under Stalin and, of course, still houses the FSB.
Before setting the security headquarters on fire, Pavlensky wrote a statement about his act: “The burning of Lubyanka’s door is a glove that our society throws into the terrorist threat introduced by the FSB, which is using its methods of endless terror to keep power over 146 million people.” In previous interviews with The Daily Beast, Pavlensky characterized his art as being addressed to Russia’s politicians, law-enforcement agencies, and its “terrorized citizens,” whose human and constitutional rights were often abused.
Risking his own freedom and damaging his own body are central to Pavlensky’s idea of performance art. He aims to shock, to shake up, and wake up his audience—even if they react with fear or disgust. Most of Pavlensky’s street theater involves causing himself intense physical pain, and his performances are usually followed by hours of detention and humiliating interrogations by the authorities. Up to this point, though, Pavlensky has escaped prison: “It would look ridiculous, I think they understand that,” he told The Daily Beast in August. “By locking me up, they would just add an element to the picture I put together in my metaphors.”
Shortly after that interview, Pavlensky stood trial for alleged vandalism in a February incident in which he and his friends burned car tires and waved the national flag of Ukraine on the Malo-Konyushennyi Bridge in St. Petersburg, to demonstrate their support for the Maidan revolutionaries and protest Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. (The trial is ongoing and has been postponed multiple times.)
A few months prior, in November 2013, Pavlensky had nailed his privates to Red Square, home to mass executions in the Middle Ages and modern-day military parades. At the time, Pavlensky said he was protesting the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of Russian society. “As the government turns the country into one big prison, stealing from the people and using the money to grow and enrich the police apparatus and other repressive structures, society is allowing this, and forgetting its numerical advantage [and] is bringing the triumph of the police state closer by its inaction,” he said in a statement that year.
And this past October, Pavlensky sat for hours atop the Serbsky psychiatric center, bleeding and shivering, holding his own earlobe in his hand. After police arrested and interrogated him—which, he admits, he is afraid of, but which he thinks adds to the power of the performance—he later wrapped himself in a long sausage of barbed wire to indicate the spiraling script of his investigator’s signature.
Meanwhile, the most recent survey by the Levada center found that only 37 percent of Russians say they are interested in politics, with 77 percent of population not expecting mass street protests in reaction to the declining economy. Most state officials ignore Pavlensky’s performances, with the exception of the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, who once commented that the only place Pavlensky belongs is in a museum on the history of psychiatric illness.
But Pavlensky is not giving up his efforts to make a difference—and among his fellow artists, he’s generally held in high regard. Cultural critics have compared him to Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose narratives put readers face-to-face with their own conscience. And art expert Marat Gelman told The Daily Beast, “All Pavlensky’s actions are specifically conducted so that as soon as the authorities take repressive measures against him, they immediately act along the lines of his own script.”
Pavlensky has even become friends with one of his former interrogators, Pavel Yasman, who told The Village, an online Russian publication, that “My attitude towards him is normal and human, without antipathy, for sure.”
But this time, after setting fire to FSB headquarters, prison looks more likely for Pavlensky. On Monday, investigators asked Pavlensky if he meant to harm anybody with his actions on Lubyanka square. The artist explained that at 4:30 am, when he poured gasoline on the entrance, he was the only one around. Meanwhile, his statement was released, along with the video of the fire. In it, Pavlensky declares, “terrorism can exist only when fed by animal instinctive fear…but life is worth fighting for.”