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Detained Anti-Kremlin Artist's Partner Says Russians Weary Of 'Total Control'

  • Vadim Kondakov
  • Claire Bigg

MOSCOW -- The partner of a Russian artist who torched the door of the Federal Security Service's (FSB) iconic headquarters in Moscow this week says the action illustrates growing public resentment toward the "total control" enforced by President Vladimir Putin.

Oksana Shalygina also insists that radical performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky's latest stunt is especially relevant, given the recent crash of a Russian airliner en route from Egypt in what U.S. and British officials say was most likely a terrorist attack.

"A supposed terrorist threat against Russia is now looming," says Shalygina, a journalist who is raising two children with Pavlensky. "In reality, as Pyotr pointed out in his statement, the FSB security service is the real threat."

Pavlensky, known for his anti-Kremlin performances, set fire to the wooden doors of the imposing former KGB building in downtown Moscow in the early hours of November 9.

A video of the nighttime action that shows Pavlensky standing motionless in front of the blaze holding a jerry can has gone viral. "The Federal Security Service is using the method of continuous terror and holding power over 146,000,000 people," Pavlensky said in a message released with the video.

The clip has sparked dismay, outrage, but also a barrage of enthusiastic comments. "A lot of people are writing that Pyotr did what many people, deep inside, would also love to do," says Shalygina. "He expressed this desire."

WATCH: Oksana Shalygina visits the scene of Pavlensky's act of "political art" with RFE/RL's Current Time TV.

Shock Value

Pavlensky has consistently courted controversy since exploding onto the scene in 2012, when he sutured his lips shut to support punk performance group Pussy Riot over their jailing for an anti-Putin protest.

The 31-year-old St. Petersburg native gained worldwide fame in November 2013 when he nailed his scrotum to cobblestones on Moscow's Red Square to protest against police controls. Other shocking performances have included wrapping himself naked in barbed wire and cutting off part of his ear.

Shalygina tells RFE/RL that she believes pickets have proven ineffective as a form of protest against the dwindling freedoms and police crackdowns that have marked Putin's rule.

Pavlensky's performances, which she describes as political art, call for a new, more active form of struggle against authorities, she says. "People are tired of control, total control," Shalygina says, adding of former KGB officer Putin and Russian authorities: "The police are everywhere. A KGB man is in power. He is like a spider, he has crushed everything."

Pavlensky had already been charged with vandalism -- and could face prison time -- for an earlier action in St. Petersburg last year in which he and other activists set fire to tires and waved a Ukrainian flag. That performance aimed at simulating the pro-democracy protests in Kyiv that led to the 2014 ouster of Russia-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

But this week's protest is likely to have struck a particular nerve with Putin, who briefly headed the FSB in 1998-99 and has since appointed ex-colleagues to key posts in government.

Pavlensky's target is also a symbol of the repressions Russians have endured in the past: the FSB building was once used by the agency's Soviet-era forerunner, the infamous KGB, to interrogate, imprison, and execute opponents.

Reaction Is Key To 'Political Art'

While Pavlensky walked free after previous performances, he has now been denied bail and is currently in pretrial detention. He faces charges of vandalism and could be jailed for up to three years if found guilty.

Shalygina first heard about his arrest on the morning news. Asked whether she was surprised, the young woman grins. "No," she says. "I know what kind of person I spend my time and work with." The response to Pavlensky's performances is an inherent part of his art, she adds.

Pavlensky himself has explained in previous interviews that his goal was to make the authorities involuntary participants in his art. In an apparent attempt to amplify the official reaction to this "burning door" performance, he asked the court this week to upgrade the charges to terrorism.

"The performances are just a trigger, a catalyst," Shalygina says. "What happens afterward, this is political art."

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​