The Russian performance artist Petr Pavlensky, who set fire to the entrance of the infamous FSB building in Lubyanka Square in Moscow, was found guilty and convicted to a half million ruble fine ($7,600) by a Moscow court this past week. Pavlensky had spent seven months under arrest after he burned the door of the building which has long been the symbol of Stalin’s repressions and Soviet totalitarian violence.
The artist described his performance, titled “Threat”:
The Lubyanka’s burning door is the glove that society throws in the face of the threat of terror. The FSB has been constantly utilizing terror to rule over 146 million Russian people. Fear turns free people into a sticky mass of alienated bodies. The threat of inevitable reprisal is looming over everyone.
Pavlensky was arrested immediately after his performance—he didn’t try to escape or resist detention. The performance lasted 30 seconds, and Pavlensky was waiting for the police in front of the burning door. The artist was initially charged with “vandalism for ideological reasons”, but asked the court to charge him with terrorism instead. (Pavlensky’s performance was dedicated to the Ukrainian film maker Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested in Crimea after the peninsula’s annexation by Russia and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Sentsov was also charged with terrorism.) The prosecutors instead opted to charge Pavlensky with “destruction of a cultural heritage site”. Explaining the logic of their decision, one of the prosecutors said that “many outstanding workers in culture and science were imprisoned” behind that door.
The Lubyanka was the original headquarters of the NKVD, and then later the KGB, from 1919 until 1991. It has served as the head office for the FSB since its inception. The phrase “Lubyanka’s basements” is colloquially used as shorthand for Stalin’s tortures and executions. The basements were actually used mostly for interrogations.
Many famous artists were indeed put in Lubyanka’s cells. The famous theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested in 1939 and accused of anti-Soviet activities. He was brought to the KGB headquarters and was severely beaten for three weeks until he signed a confession. A month later, the 65-year-old Meyerhold was executed. Osip Mandelstam, a well-known poet and essayist, who was tortured in Lubyanka twice, in 1934 and 1939. And of course Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was interrogated behind Lubyanka’s doors.
While Pavlensky’s case was being tried in Moscow, another criminal trial against him was taking place in St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg, the artist was accused of vandalism for his performance titled “Freedom”, in which he burned tires imitating the Maidan protests in Kyiv. Pavlensky brought three prostitutes as witnesses to one of his hearings in St. Petersburg, who confirmed the prosecution’s accusations. He was sentenced to 16 months in prison, but was released due to statutes of limitations kicking in.
For the “Threat” performance, Pavlensky was also sued by the FSB for civil damages; the suit, for a total of $7150, was satisfied by the court’s decision.
Petr Pavlensky’s seemingly lenient sentences are not evidence that the Kremlin has softened its stance towards political protests. Pavlensky’s lawyer explained to Russian media that his client could not have been imprisoned for technical reasons.
Pavlensky’s first big performance took place in 2012 when he sewed his mouth shut in protest in support of members of the band Pussy Riot, who were on trial at the time. In 2013, on Russia’s “Police Day”, a naked Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square, just outside the Kremlin. He explained his action as a metaphor for apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of modern Russian society.