And to everyone, who shares my views, I would say that we need to rethink our conception of the animal instinct of fear. Through this instinct, the power apparatus controls us and takes away our lives.
Thus wrote Petr Pavlensky, the so-called "mind, balls and conscience" of Putin's Russia in his December 15, 2015 letter from Butyrskaya Prison to a Radio Svoboda journalist. Pavlensky was detained after his November 9, 2015 aktsiya, titled "Threat," which consisted of lighting the doors of Moscow's Federal Security Bureau (FSB), housed in the historic Lubyanka, on fire. At the time of the letter, the St. Petersburg-based political artist was facing up to three years in prison. He served seven months, while awaiting the court's final verdict on the case. During his time in prison, he was found guilty for his 2015 aktsiya "Freedom," where he lit tires on fire on a St. Petersburg bridge, also an architectural landmark. His sentence for this aktsiya was commuted to time-served due to delays in the "Threat" trial.
On June 8, 2016, in a courtroom packed with journalists and activists, the judge of Moscow's Meshanskiy District Court declared Pavlensky guilty of vandalizing a memorial of cultural heritage and ordered him to pay a fine of 500,000 rubles ($7,650). As with previous trials, Pavlensky, clad in black and seated handcuffed in a small cage, was withered but intractable; he had vowed to remain silent and refused to stand while the verdict was read.
His only demand, consistent throughout the unfolding of the case, was to be charged with terrorism.
"Freedom," 2014. Sourced from Oksana Shalygina's Facebook page.
In recent years, the coded space of the Russian courthouse has become the stage for a particular kind of Socratic performance , sparked by the escalated repression of practitioners of contemporary art and culture since 2000. Famously, Pussy Riot made eulogies to freedom from within the rectangular metal cage. Pavlensky, however, conducts—silently, he lets the system play itself, and we see the system get entangled in its own rhetoric. Pavlensky’s aktsiya largely unravel in debates over terminology, as the nature of the offence is fitted for Articles of the Federal Law Code: historical landmark or door? Terrorism or hooliganism? Schizophrenic or artist?
Pavlensky appeared to have succeeded in exhausting the system. It was an ambiguous victory; while gaining the artist physical liberty, as demanded by many of his international supporters, it remains unclear whether or not the methods caused lasting damage to the system of justice itself. After the final verdict was read by the judge, and he was ordered to be set free. However, the border between physical prison and the prison that is reality does not seem to exist for him. "Restriction of space is substituted by abundance of time. Outside prison, it is simply the inverse," he said in a statement.
In the end, the system let him go rather than reveal itself.
Upon exiting the courthouse to applause, Pavlensky addressed the group of his supporters gathered outside, mostly activists and the media. "Thank you for not being scared," he said. His aktsiya, which came to reveal the apparatus of power through the procession of the court, was now complete. His intent had been to "throw a glove"—challenge to a duel—to the system of power, and through this act, he aimed to destroy the facade that is protected by bureaucracy. In the end, the system let him go rather than reveal itself, choosing to don the mask of humanism. "I do not intend to pay the fine," he said, " because that would alter the meaning of the aktsiya."
"Fixation," 2013. Image courtesy of official artist webpage.
Internationally, Pavlensky is known as the "Russian scrotum artist," a nickname that derives from his infamous nailing of his testicles to Red Square in 2013 during the aktsiya, "Fixation," to commemorate the Day of Police. "Threat" marks Pavlensky’s sixth public aktsiya and first prison term.
In 2012, Pavlensky came into prominence in Russian activist and art communities during the trials of Pussy Riot, a group whose arrest was the cherry on top of the Bolotnaya Square protests—Russia's "Occupy"—and the climax of the ongoing culture wars over the spaces of art and religion in society. In his first public aktsiya, Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut and stood in front of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg with a sign that read "Action of Pussy Riot was a replica of the famous action of Jesus Christ (Matthew 21:12–13)." The Biblical passage references Jesus' chasing of the money changers out of the Temple in Jerusalem. The artist's statement commented on the public's accusation of the Pussy Riot "punk prayer" as an act of blasphemy, and served as a reminder that Christ himself was accused of blasphemy. An interest in terminology, which became pronounced in the court hearings of "Threat," was evident already in 2012 through Pavlensky's play on the fine line between conceptions of blasphemy and holy revelation.
His next action, "Flesh," in which he rolled naked in a cocoon of barbed wire (image at top), was a statement against the repression of free speech. The aforementioned "Freedom," in 2014, involved the burning of tires in solidarity with the "Maidan" in Ukraine. Also in 2014, while seated naked on the wall of the Serbsky State Institute for Psychiatry, Pavlensky cut off a slice of his earlobe with a knife; "Separation" was a metaphor for the constructed separation of the "sane" from the "insane" in society and the continual diagnosing of dissidents as schizophrenic and the state’s continued use of the label “insane” as a means of discrediting people ideologically opposed to the regime.
"Separation," 2014. Sourced from Oksana Shalygina's Facebook page.
Looking at these six actions, one sees a continuity of literalizing metaphor, minimal use of color, and a certain hyperrealist aesthetic. The sensational aspect of his work has silenced significant discussion on such aesthetic terms. The focus is on his politics. International news headlines on Russian activism tend to evoke outdated, Cold War-inspired notions of repression, and unfortunately miss the subtlety of terms that make up Pavlensky's conceptual methodology and the specificity of his notions of freedom. "Protest isn't safe in Putin's Russia," reads the subtitle to the otherwise excellent article on Petr Pavlensky in the latest The Economist. This way of framing Pavlensky suggests his innocence in an evil machine, and yet most of his actions—public nudity, desecration of cultural landmarks, as well as setting ablaze the doors of the State's internal security agency—would be prosecuted in the finest specimens of the First World's judiciary institutions, as is his intent to show.
Pavlensky might represent the protest movement, but the protest movement does not represent Russia. Demanding that he be freed from prison seems to miss the point.
Pavlensky, a close reader of Michel Foucault, provokes the institution of power to engage the legal consequences which then become part of the work itself. The neoliberal way of seeing the Russian protest movement assumes that Russia is not a democratic government, or at least, is somehow less democratic than the United States. The citizens of the Russian Federation overwhelmingly vote for Vladimir Putin—his approval rating is in the 86th percentile—and largely perceive themselves as the front runners of democracy in the world. To understand the populism present in Russian Democracy, one must invert the terms used in the United States: Putin supporters are the American "99 percent," and the protest movement is a tiny fraction, a small club where everyone knows each other and is indeed fringe. The United States is slowly learning about the close-knit relationship between democracy and populism in the current election cycle; a century ago, Europe learned this the hard way with the rise of popular fascism through its emotional appeal to the greatness of the marginal. Pavlensky might be the new poster child for the protest movement in Russia, but the protest movement does not represent Pavlensky or his aktisya.
Demanding that he be freed from prison seems to miss the point.
How can Pavlensky, who deconstructs the particulars of Russian law, history, and space, and who has never made work abroad, be represented and supported in an international context? There is an affinity between Pavlensky's methods and other practitioners of institutional critique such as Tania Bruguera and Santiago Sierra. Tania Bruguera, a Cuban artist based in New York, held a gun to her temple in a 2009 lecture-performance on political art in the Venice Biennale. She paused the reading, loaded the gun and pulled the trigger. Bruguera, like Pavlensky, inserts herself physically into the politics of her work and she mimics the violence of the state on her flesh.
Santiago Sierra, a problematic figure in the global art scene, had on numerous occasions paid lower class individuals small fees to exhibit their bodies in elite contemporary art settings. In 2000, Sierra had a 160-centimeter line tattooed on the back of four prostitutes, who were addicted to heroin. The artist paid each woman the price of a shot of heroin for his art. Sierra's and Bruguera's works are relational: they realize themselves through the reaction of the audience. In Sierra's case, the disgust at the artist's apparent lack of ethics is meant to mirror the exploitative system of the cultural institution itself.
These political artists share a desire to expose the reality behind the mask of the State. For Pavlensky, who only performs in the public sphere, and who does not otherwise show or sell his work, the institution that he is critiquing is power itself. In commenting on his choice of the Lubyanka for the aktsiya, the artist stated that, "This is the center of power [for] over 146 million people. This power is held by a method of constant terror." Pavlensky offers a simple antidote as noted in the opening quote: doing away with fear.
His dissemination ends short of socially engaged practice. With his "closest friend," Oksana Shalygina (with whom he also has two children), he co-founded the newspaper Political Propaganda (2012) and he lectures at the School of "involved art" in St. Petersburg (funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Fund). But what truly distinguishes Pavlensky from other artists, and what places him firmly into the legacy of the Russian Avant-Garde and Moscow Actionism, is that his relational work is not aimed at an art audience at all. His work successfully exits the art circle and feeds on the opinions of the symbolic "86 percent" of the population, many of whom have been patriotically mobilized and have come to express their opinion about "what art is" in the violent public debate on Russian culture today.
Pavlensky's witnesses Dana, Elena and Irina being interviewed by journalists, 27 April, 2016. Screenshot. "Павленский вызвал в суд проституток. Продолжение акции «Свобода»."Павленский вызвал в суд проституток. Продолжение акции «Свобода». N.p., 27 Apr. 2016. Web. 13 June 2016.
The space of the court, which uses a citizen jury, is a perfect extension of Pavlensky's interest in public platforms. In the April 2016 hearings, the artist had managed to invite prostitutes and pay them to give witness testimony on his case. According to the statement, these women—Elena, Dana, and Irina—were approached in a cafe and asked to view the video of the aktsiya "Freedom." They were then asked by the judge and prosecuting attorneys at trial about Pavlensky, his art and the charge against him. All three women had a negative reaction to the aktsiya and Pavlensky’s other work, and when asked, did not acknowledge him as an artist.
"How can you call this art, it is not art. He doesn't paint any paintings, doesn't draw any chamomiles on any walls. In other words, I don't think this is art," said Dana, a 33-year-old woman with dark skin and orange nails. Irina, a tall, 37-year-old woman with blond hair, said that she was truly shocked by the action: "I am sorry, but I personally think that he is a mentally ill person." When questioned about the motivation behind the action, Irina expressed a popular public opinion.
Pavlensky's lawyer: Do you think that by organizing the action "Freedom" in central St. Petersburg, Pavlensky defiled the bridge and the cultural appearance of the city?
Irina: Well, it's the cultural face of the city. Simply that.
Pavlensky's lawyer: As represented by the bridge?
Irina: Of course.
Pavlensky's lawyer: Have you been to the historical center of St. Petersburg, where the so-called aktsiya was being held?
Irina: Unfortunately I have not. But I have been nearby.
Pavlensky's lawyer: But you are familiar with the general architectural ensemble?
Irina: Yes, of course.
Pavlensky's lawyer: Do you think that the actions undertaken by the prosecuted, do they disturb the public sense of morals?
Irina: Of course. Who would like that, that in the city center such things are being done.
Pavlensky's lawyer: Tell me please, do you think this action by Pavlensky has defiled such a structure as a bridge?
Irina: I think that, yes.
Why would Pavlensky invite women who deride his work to testify against him? If ordinary people—citizens—are offended by a performance, should the individual not be found guilty of the public offence?
Pavlensky is both interested and disinterested in public opinion. He is invested in uncovering a reality, and this reality has a relationship to truth of a different order. Pavlensky can be said to appropriate the behavioral paradigm of the yurodivy (юродивый), an Orthodox tradition of the holy fool that comes from a close imitation of Christ. The tradition of holy foolery is marked by feigned madness and a mocking disdain for all forms of institutional authority. Historically, holy fools exhibited aggressive or profane behavior to reveal the hypocrisy of the world, and as such, they were despised and judged by the public. Like Jesus chased the money-changers out of the temple, St. Symeon Salos gloated on sausages during lent, St. Basil (at right) threw rocks at icons. The higher meaning of the profane actions is revealed through the judgment of society, thus pointing to a higher truth behind a mask of systemic hypocrisy. Incidentally, holy foolery was suppressed by the Orthodox Church and the behavioral paradigm of holy foolery was characterized as schizophrenia in the USSR. The judgment of Petr Pavlensky by the prostitutes is a distinctly Biblical allusion.
Petr Pavlensky exiting the Meshanskiy District Court on June 8, 2016. Screenshot. Volchek, Smitri. "Мещане и партизаны." Радио Свобода. N.p., 13 June.
During the court process of "Threat," the judge had declared that the Lubyanka, the doors of which the artist had "defiled," was "part of a cultural heritage of NKVD-KGB, where important practitioners of culture have been detained." Among the individuals detained in the Lubyanka during and after Stalin's repressions were Osip Mandelshtam, Raoul Wallenberg, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many others. The irony of this proclamation lies in the fact that Lubyanka is still used for such purposes, as the house of the FSB. This overt hypocrisy contained in the judge's statement makes "Threat" a great success as far as secular "revelation" goes.
Released from prison, Pavlensky has successfully inscribed himself into a lineage of prisoners of conscience, and there is an anticipation of his next aktsiya. Pavlensky does not want to be identified as a prophet, hero, or martyr; he sees these as theatrical terms that characterize a certain dependency. "In Greek mythology, the hero is the sacrifice that society brings to the authority of power," he stated. He prefers "terrorist." His interest in the term "terrorism" comes from the Russian justice system and specifically the persecution of Oleg Sentsov, a Ukranian filmmaker. In 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for terrorism for his activism in Crimea.
This year, Petr Pavlensky's was recognized by the Human Rights Foundation’s Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. Václav Havel, who died in 2011, was a Czech philosopher, dissident, and writer. He spent years in prison for his political views and after the Velvet Revolution, which toppled communism, he served as the first president of the Czech Republic. Pavlensky was in jail during the award ceremony held in Oslo. Although he is not the first recipient awarded the prize while incarcerated, he is the first self-proclaimed terrorist to receive this award. Pavlensky donated the financial part of his award to the "police huntsmen," a group of individuals who in 2010 have committed guerilla-style crimes against the police in provincial Russia.
While Havel became the first president of a new democracy, what is Pavlensky's vision of freedom in Russia? What sort of political affinities are created by an individual who is shunned by society and who is in support of guerrila warfare? Pavlensky points less in the direction of democracy and more towards revolution. And he is ready to start with himself:
This is to point to the absurd violation of the legal-punitive logic. And the fault is with two parties. On one end is the system of power and its irrational incoherence—and on the other end, the society, and its readiness to be satisfied by false half-measures. One should start with oneself. And that's precisely why I should either be accused of terrorism, or with nothing at all, and to see the action as a tool of political art.
 Longer extract from letter, as published by Radio Svoboda: "And to everyone, who shares my views, I would say that we need to rethink our conception of the animal instinct of fear. Through this instinct, the power apparatus controls us and takes away our lives. Takes away, and forces us waste away in the imposed system of workday-weekend. It takes away a form of existence that we would have chosen had we the freedom to choose. The animal instinct of fear poses a greater threat to society and to distinct individuals than all "Lubyankas" and imperialist states combined." Lubyanka references the historic home of the KGB in Moscow and current headquarters of the FSB. Volchek, Dmitri. "Между Россией и тюрьмой разницы нет." Радио Свобода. N.p., December 15, 2015. Web. Accessed June 13, 2016.
 The Russian word aktsiya translates as "action." However, the word aktsiya is not colloquially used to refer to general actions in Russian. There is a power in naming Pavlensky's works as aktsiya in Russian, placing the action into lineages of Russian Actionism.
 The Trial of Socrates in 399 BCE, for which he was found guilty of "corruption of the youth" and "impiety" in Athens, is often seen as a cautionary tale for Democratic societies in that a majority of citizens can be persuaded easily through emotions and therefore trump the rational. The philosopher was sentenced to death. Plato's Apology of Socrates is based on the event. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, in her 2012 court statements, references Socrates explicitly.
 http://www.svoboda.org/content/article/27625565.html According to a Levada Center, the rating of Vladimir Putin in 2014 was 86%. Most people attributed this popularity to the mass approval of Putin's actions in the annexation of Crimea. The 2015 rating of Vladimir Putin, based on a survey done after his actions in Syria, is the record 89.9%. The public does not fear death from voicing dissent, instead, people fear being different and judged, shunned, socially banished. When Pavlensky speaks of fear in his letter from prison, it is a fear of a psychological order, the kind that relates more to herd mentality and conformism, and less to the physical fear of dissent and incarceration.
 The action "Threat" was widely referred to as "Gates of Hell" and "Holy Fire" in the media. "Holy Fire" specifically references the Orthodox pre-Easter tradition, which holds that a miraculous fire starts to emanate from the tomb of Christ, and forming a column, it lights the candles of the worshipers during mass. To the local supporters of Pavlensky, the Christian symbolism is important and by some, his actions can be experienced as prophetic. Other than the overt sacrificial component of each aktiya, of particular resonance has been the allusion to Christ as a figure of violence and rupture in a world of hypocrisy. Pavlensky has himself referenced Christ as the embodiment of institutional critique, and public commentary of Pavlensky being a contemporary Christ-like figure and Orthodox holy fool are prolific.