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Pavlensky: 'The Artist Resists Through The Existence He Chooses'

Pytor Pavlensky
Pytor Pavlensky

On June 8, controversial Russian political artist Pyotr Pavlensky was convicted of damaging a cultural monument and fined almost $8,000 for setting the door to the Federal Security Service (FSB) on fire in November 2015.

The artist, who has gained notoriety through such performances as cutting off part of his ear to protest the punitive use of psychiatry and nailing his scrotum to protest the apathy of Russian society, spoke with RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Dmitry Volchek about his seven months in custody, his artistic approach to political issues, and his plans for the future.

RFE/RL: You have described life outside of prison as just being "a more spacious prison..."

Pytor Pavlensky: Let me clarify that. I don't mean that life everywhere is all pointlessness and gloom. It is possible to become free, but that depends to some extent on other circumstance. In my case, we also have to consider the conditions of my release. It is conditional. Of course, there is more space, but all the same it is the prison of the everyday.

RFE/RL: What did you learn over your seven months in prison about the Federal Security Service (FSB), the organization whose door you set on fire?

I saw the machine from the inside, the enormous police clot. I saw in concentrated form the surveillance service, all the mechanisms for breaking the personality, the mechanisms of compulsion, the bureaucratic rituals. I saw the cult of the bureaucracy and the religion that has grown up around that cult. The ritual that begins with a signature and ends with a former human completely destroyed. He is controlled.

Every day I clashed with police surveillance. It is a permanent conflict. It isn't diffused, but rather is concentrated and one must be on the lookout all the time for this machine from the inside. Peep holes. Cameras. Microphones. Constant searches -- all of this is a constant effort to seek out and find one's vulnerable spot. And prison is a laboratory. Later you can see the same thing in so-called life at liberty. The same mechanisms, the same methods of control and compulsion that have proven effective in prison are used on the masses.

As far as the FSB is concerned, in my view the most significant thing is this organization has been methodically destroying our culture for nearly 100 years now, while at the same time having the gall to publicly declare itself a cultural monument.

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RFE/RL: And yet you somehow managed to find the weak spot of the system. Although you didn't break it, you at least forced it to react in an unusual way. Your verdict, according to many, is little short of a miracle. How did you manage it?

Well, what really happened? The court just converted the measure of guilt and punishment into a financial amount. If you remember, for instance, the case of [19th-century French artist and revolutionary] Gustave Courbet, the government also tortured him by means of money. And in his case, this turned out to be just as effective as the guillotine.

Why did they choose this punishment? It is a bid to sway public opinion. They are trying on the mask of hypocritical humanism. In fact, the very same mask that I have called on the system to take off for the last six months. If the government had granted my request and recharged me with terrorism, then its true face would have been exposed and it would have stood in the light of truth. But it could have choked on this, so the apparatus shamefully continues to hide behind the mask.

It is interesting that I was tried in the Meshchansky District Court. "Meshchanin" means "a resident" or "a city dweller." This is connected with specific forms of a person's existence in the city. It is connected with definite cultural models. I think that the political confrontation today is not between labels like anarchist, liberal, communist, or fascist. Rather, it is between actual positions of living based on fear and consumption. In addition to surveillance, the authorities used my seven months in prison to manage human needs.

Needs are a political instrument even more significant and more effective in terms of controlling people than fear. Prison is a training of one's needs. The authorities use need to manipulate, manage, and, in principle, destroy human personality.

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RFE/RL: You mean basic needs like food and sleep?

No, it isn't a matter of basic needs. At least not in Moscow prisons. Television, fresh air, the opportunity not to get up at 6 a.m., a bed that isn't folded up against the wall all day, the chance to borrow a pair of scissors for a moment to clip one's fingernails. The opportunity to be released a little bit before the end of one's term. None of these are basic needs, so a person can choose whether he agrees with the conditions attached to them or not. If the authorities see that a prisoner is under their thumb, then the surveillance used this to provoke conflicts among the prisoners. This is manipulation.

RFE/RL: Do you think this machine is invulnerable or can it be destroyed or resisted the way the Primorskiye Partizany -- to whom you recently gave a cash prize that you received -- did?

Pavlensky: No, it can't be destroyed. But it can be influenced, if we all try to influence it at once. That depends on the personal responsibility of each one of us. What the Primorskiye Partizany did was an act of desperation. They openly designated the police as public enemies and declared war on them. They started acting as if they were on the front line -- with an armed enemy on one side and themselves on the other. They were defending the people, and this means that the police were fighting against the people whom they should be protecting.

Naturally, several partisans were killed and several were taken prisoner for life. Later, the term of being held prisoner was reduced to 25 years, but that is still a one-way ticket. That is why there is a ban, why the media are barred from even using the formulation "Primorskiye Partizany."

RFE/RL: What can the artist offer to people who are controlled entirely by their needs?

The artist can resist primarily through the form of existence he chooses, through his life and his choices. Every decision is a choice and the artist resists entirely as a decision, as a form of existence. It is uncompromising adherence to a choice that has been made.

RFE/RL: What were you reading while you were in prison?

[Italian philosopher] Giorgio Agamben, [French philosopher and critic Michel] Foucault, [French philosopher and critic] Roland Barthes, [Czech playwright, dissident, and politician] Vaclav Havel, and the memoirs of [Ukrainian anarcho-communist] Nestor Makhno.

RFE/RL: Some of your supporters are saying they hope your next piece of political art will be something grandiose -- not burning down a door, but rather burning down the whole world. Are you planning something like that?

I don't have any plans, honestly. I don't know what will happen next week or in two weeks or in a month. So I can't say. The process of determining the limits and the forms of political art is still going on. Even in prison, that did not stop.

Translated by Robert Coalson

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