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Russian Protest Artist Sets Fire To Door Of Security Services HQ

  • Tom Balmforth

Shock performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky stands in front of the burning door of Moscow's FSB building.

Shock performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky stands in front of the burning door of Moscow's FSB building.

MOSCOW -- Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been arrested after setting fire to the front door of the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters overnight in what he called a protest against the security agency's campaign of "terror."

A video titled Lubyanka Door Burning shows Pavlensky standing eerily motionless, wearing a hood and holding a fuel canister, facing the street in the dead of night as meters-high flames lick up behind him in a portal of the imposing and iconic Lubyanka building in central Moscow:

Around 30 seconds into the clip, a lone police officer jogs over to Pavlensky and detains him without resistance.

The 31-year-old performance artist has carried out a raft of headline-grabbing stunts in the past, including nailing his scrotum to the street outside the Kremlin, severing his earlobe while atop the wall of a psychiatric facility, sewing his lips shut to support punk protesters, and reenacting Ukrainian street unrest in the streets of St. Petersburg to highlight Kyiv's Euromaidan protests.

Moscow police told Interfax news agency they have opened an investigation into suspected vandalism -- a criminal offense that carries a jail sentence of up to three years -- in connection with the FSB blaze.

"The burning door of Lubyanka -- a gauntlet thrown down by society in the face of the terrorist threat," Pavlensky wrote, casting the FSB, the successor to the notorious Soviet-era KGB, as the source of terror. "The Federal Security Service is using the method of continuous terror and holding power over 146,000,000 people."

He goes on: "Fear turns free people into a matted mass of isolated bodies. The threat of inevitable reprisal hangs over every person within the reach of surveillance, the tapping of conversations and the borders of passport control."

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Vladimir Romensky, a reporter invited to witness the action for the independent Dozhd TV, said Pavlensky walked right up to the door of the hulking building, doused it in fuel, and lit it with a lighter.

Romensky and another journalist were also detained at the scene. They reportedly gave statements to the police and are currently listed in the case as witnesses. They were released early on November 9.

Pavlensky dubbed his protest action Threat, according to popular blogger Ilya Varlamov, who was also invited to witness the incident.

Explaining the concept of the performance in the blurb of the video he circulated online, Pavlensky wrote: "Military courts liquidate any manifestation of free will. Terrorism can only exist due to the animal instinct of fear. An unconditional defensive reflex forces a person to go against this instinct. This is the reflex of fighting for your own life. And life is worth fighting for."

Pavlensky currently faces criminal charges for a performance last year in St. Petersburg, where he set tires alight and banged on sheets of metal to reenact a chaotic scene from the Euromaidan protests that toppled Ukraine's pro-Russian president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych. He is also being prosecuted for "vandalism" in that case, but he has maintained a vow of silence in court and refused to stand for the judge. During the trial, the chief investigator in the case quit his job and offered to be Pavlensky's lawyer.

In October 2014, Pavlensky clambered onto the roof of the Serbsky psychiatric hospital -- a notorious institution where Soviet dissidents once underwent obligatory psychiatric treatment -- and then sat silently, nude, after cutting off his earlobe with a knife.

In November 2013, a naked Pavlensky drove a nail through his scrotum and into a cobblestone on Moscow's iconic Red Square in an action he called Fixation to serve as "a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of modern Russian society."

In 2012, he sewed his lips shut and appeared at a St. Petersburg church in support of Pussy Riot, the punk performance collective whose members were jailed for a video protest, performed in a church, that targeted the Orthodox Church's leadership and Vladimir Putin.

Several of Pussy Riot's members praised Pavlensky's door-torching protest. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who spent two years in jail over the Pussy Riot video, called him "wonderful Pyotr and his performance" on Facebook. Maria Alekhina tweeted an image from Pavlensky's video, with Pavlensky standing in front of the burning FSB. “It's burning nicely."

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    Tom Balmforth

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