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Russian Prosecutors Find Novel Justification For FSB Building's 'Cultural Value' 

  • Robert Coalson

Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky stands in front of the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in central Moscow shortly after he had set fire to one of the building's doors.

Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky stands in front of the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in central Moscow shortly after he had set fire to one of the building's doors.

What makes the Soviet KGB headquarters a cultural monument? According to Russian prosecutors, it's the fact that leading cultural figures were held there during Josef Stalin's Great Terror.

That's the explanation laid out in a criminal charge against performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who set fire to a door of the notorious building on Moscow's Lubyanka Square last year.

On the night of November 9, Pavlensky poured a can of gasoline on the door of the imposing structure, which now houses the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), and set it alight.

In a written explanation issued at the time, Pavlensky called the gesture "a gauntlet thrown down by society in the face of the terrorist threat. The Federal Security Service is using the method of continuous terror and holding power over 146 million people."

Now Pavlensky is on trial over the incident -- and was convicted and given a suspended sentence on May 19 for another protest performance -- facing charges of "damaging a cultural monument."

According to the indictment, the building -- which housed the Soviet secret police from 1918 on -- is a cultural monument because "leading cultural figures were held under arrest there in the 1930s."

A Soviet-era quip claimed that it was the tallest building in the world because you could see Siberia from its basement. Of course, many of the thousands who were held in the feared basement prison were not so lucky to make it to Gulag camps in Siberia. Many were summarily shot after brief tribunal hearing.

Former Soviet dissident Aleksandr Podrabinek wrote on May 19 that "no one in their right mind" could have come up with the explanation in the indictment. "Following that logic, we would have to acknowledge the cultural value of the Cheka pistol with which cultural figures were shot, and the bullets as well," he wrote. "We'd have to acknowledge the cultural value of the truck that ran over [Soviet Jewish leader] Solomon Mikhoels and the black van that took the arrested [poet] Osip Mandelshtam to prison."

Journalist Arkady Dubnov wrote that the prosecution's logic was worthy of "the great absurdists" from Jonathan Swift to persecuted Soviet writer Daniil Kharms.

Pavlensky's defense team points out that the door the artist actually destroyed was only installed in 2008 and had no particular cultural value. The building itself was originally built in 1898, but was massively rebuilt in 1940-47 because of the enormous expansion of the secret police during Stalin's Great Terror.

WATCH: Pyotr Pavlensky Sets Fire To An FSB Door

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, a massive statue of secret police founder Feliks Dzerzhinsky stood in the middle of the square in front of the building. Since then, activists have lobbied unsuccessfully to build a full-fledged monument to the millions of victims of Soviet political repression on the site. There is a small memorial stone there where each year activists gather and read the names of the roughly 30,000 Muscovites who were executed during the Terror in 1937-38.

Next to the FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square is a huge toy store that has been there since Soviet times. When that complex reopened after renovations in March 2015, the management shocked many with an advertisement in which children threaten to torture their parents unless they "take them to Lubyanka." Those ads were quickly pulled because of public outrage.

WATCH: Love Your Kids? Take Them to Lubyanka!

The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin – himself a KGB veteran and former FSB chief – has been accused of refurbishing Stalin's image and downplaying Soviet-era crimes. Speaking to police officials in March, Putin said: "Even when Interior Ministry employees use…repressive measures against those who break the law, people see that this is done in society's interests and it will have the support of the people."

Theater critic John Freedman, an American who has lived in Moscow since 1988, wrote that, compared to the Pavlensky prosecution's defense of Lubyanka's cultural significance, writer George Orwell was "a babe in the woods."

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