Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Artist arrested for setting fire to Russian secret service HQ

A performance artist managed to strike at the heart of Russia's security establishment this week. Petr Pavlensky set fire to the doors of Russia’s secret service headquarters (the FSB) and even had time to pose for a photo with a petrol canister before he was arrested on Sunday night. Our Observer says the artist was trying to denounce the FSB's increasing encroachment on Russian society.

The Loubianka is the historic headquarters of the Russian secret service. Once known as the KGB, it was renamed the FSB after the fall of the Soviet Union. According to Pavlensky, the infamous spy service is responsible for depriving Russians of their freedom: "The threat of immediate reprisals hovers over citizens who know that they risk being spied on, having their phone calls recorded, or even being eavesdropped on." The commentary accompanies a video showing Pavlensky's latest exploit, uploaded to a Vimeo account in his name created barely hours before he set fire to the door. The account appears to have been taken offline since then. The artist accuses the Russian secret service of using "unending terror" to "hold power over 146 million people."

Pavlensky was arrested moments after setting fire to the door, as well as two journalists who were filhming and taking photos of him. The two journalists were released on Monday morning. Pavlensky is accused of vandalism and could face up to five years in prison if convicted.

Andrei Erofeev is an arts curator who collects contemporary works of art. He was arrested and convicted back in 2010 for organising an exhibition of artwork that had been refused by other museums for fear of angering Russia's Orthodox Church. Erofeev, who knows Pavlensky personally, explains the motives behind his latest stunt.

"Nowadays, he's the only person left who dares to carry out these types of extravagant stunts"
What Petr Pavlensky was trying to criticise is the disproportionate role that the FSB plays in Russian politics. Putin - who once served in the KGB - is surrounded by former members of the FSB. Many ministers, advisors, and members of the nouveau riche were once part of the secret service. Pavlensky's gesture is a declaration of war against the secret service and what the establishment stands for.

He forms part of Russia's contemporary movement of radical performance artists, like the punk group Pussy Riot. But nowadays, he's almost the only person left who dares to carry out these types of extravagant stunts. It has become very dangerous to protest against the regime, especially in any way that's deemed artistic and provocative. For example, in 2014, members of Pussy Riot were beaten up during a protest during the Olympic Games in Sotchi. 

Pavlensky stands out from most other artists in the sense that he never tries to flee after one of his performances. Instead, he waits until he's arrested. That's what happened on Sunday. Once he'd set fire to the door, he waited outside the FSB's headquarters until the police arrived to arrest him. That's a key part of the performance: for him, what's important isn't so much the action itself, but the reaction it provokes from the authorities and society at large. In this instance, his gesture was calculated to denounce what he views as the secret service's ubiquitous power and reach. But he also sparked another debate on social media. People are asking how such an important building could have been so poorly protected, given the ease with which he set fire to it.

This stunt is only the latest in a catalogue of incidents aimed at defying Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. In 2013, Pavlensky attracted international attention when he nailed his scrotum to Red Square in central Moscow to protest against police misconduct. He's also sewn his lips together in support of Pussy Riot, whose members were arrested and sent to forced labour camps for having played an anti-Putin punk rock song in Moscow’s cathedral. In another cringe-inducing stunt, Pavlensky cut off part of his ear lobe to protest the use of forced psychiatry on Russian dissidents. He could also face up to three years in jail for another performance held in Saint Petersburg last year. During that stunt, he and his friends burned tyres and waved Ukrainian flags to simulate the Maidan protests in Kiev that led to the overthrow of the Ukraine’s president.