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Russian Protest Artist Stripped Of Havel Prize Over Support For 'Partisans'

  • Tom Balmforth

Pyotr Pavlensky

Pyotr Pavlensky

MOSCOW -- Russian protest artist Pyotr Pavlensky has accused the organizers of the Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent of essentially "acknowledging their support for police terror" by withdrawing the award after he pledged to devote the $42,000 in prize money to the legal defense of convicted police killers in Russia's Far East.

"They have signed their support of state terror over society," the 32-year-old critic of Russia's political establishment told RFE/RL on July 8, after confirming that the New York-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF) had informed him it was rescinding his prize.

"In actual fact, with this gesture, the organization which awarded me the Vaclav Havel prize has signed their support for police terror," he said.

Pavlensky was awarded the prize on May 25 for a performance in November that he called Threat, in which he set fire to the door of the notorious Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in Moscow at night and posed for images that were quickly spread via the Internet.

Pavlensky said he was protesting the security service's use of "terror" to rule Russia.

Pavlensky told RFE/RL on July 8 that HRF President Thor Halvorssen had informed him of the formal decision to revoke his prize in an e-mailed letter, bringing an end to over a month of deliberations within the awarding committee.

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The letter, which has been seen by RFE/RL, states that HRF regrets the decision as "unfortunate and unprecedented" but says the prize's selection criteria disqualify those who have "advocated the use of violence as a valid method to fight government oppression."

Speaking to RFE/RL on July 8, Halvorssen confirmed that the organization had revoked Pavlensky's prize but said HRF had nothing to add beyond the text of the letter sent to the artist.

Support For Partisans

The letter drew attention to a post on Facebook on May 25 made by Pavlensky’s partner, Oksana Shalygina, in support of the so-called Primorsky Partisans, a group of then-teenagers jailed in 2010 in the Russian Far East for a series of attacks on police officers. The group of six declared a guerrilla war on law-enforcement officers to protest corruption and lawlessness and were given lengthy prison sentences for the murder of three officers, robbery, and theft.

Shalygina acted as Pavlensky's representative at the Havel award ceremony on May 25 because the artist had been jailed pending sentencing for the Threat performance. He was subsequently found guilty of damaging a cultural site but released on June 8 in a surprising act of leniency.

The HRF letter quotes Shalygina as writing on May 25: "We decided to give the award to the Primorsky Partisans because we think they deserve it."

Pavlensky himself was videotaped on May 27 saying the same thing.

According to the letter, Pavlensky later said that his plan was actually to give the prize money to the legal defense team of the Primorsky Partisans -- not to the group itself. This reportedly prompted the awarding committee to waver, but their resolve was said to have been strengthened after Pavlensky published an article on July 4 in which he redoubled his public support of the Primorsky Partisans.

In the article, he called the prize committee "totalitarian" and effectively supporting "terror."

Pavlensky wrote that it would have been perceived as a "reasonable and common sense" thing to bestow the prize money to the FSB, an organization which he called "terrorist."

"The people who have risen up to fight against police terror are the Primorsky Partisans," he added.

Pavlensky first came to public attention when he sewed his mouth shut to protest the jailing in 2012 of three activists from the Pussy Riot punk protest collective.

Since then, he has wrapped himself naked in a coil of barbed wire, sliced off part of his ear while perched on the wall outside a psychiatric hospital, and acted out scenes from the 2014 Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine on a bridge in St. Petersburg.

Perhaps most famously, he nailed his scrotum to the cobbles of Red Square and sat naked in an unsettling image he called "a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of modern Russian society."

The 2016 Havel Prize was also awarded to Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani and Uzbek photojournalist Umida Akhmedova.

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at