In November, artist Petr Pavlensky—now famous for nailing his scrotum to the ground in the Red Square—set fire to the wooden doors of Moscow’s Federal Security Service headquarters. He stood there quietly with the gasoline canister for about 30 seconds until he was arrested. He was charged with “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred.” This week, psychiatric experts declared Pavlensky sane and fit to stand trial for his actions, RIA Novosti reports.
It’s a big bad building with history. It’s the former headquarters of the “Cheka,” Soviet’s first secret police who boiled the Bolsheviks’ enemies alive. During the Great Purge in the 1930s, a busy time when up to 1.2 million people were executed, the offices became so overcrowded that the building had to be expanded. (Here’s a Soviet joke: “Lubyanka” is the tallest building in Moscow... because you can see Siberia from the basement!) The KGB headquarters moved in in the 1950s. Now it’s home to the FSB and the Border Guard Service of Russia.
In statements posted online later, Pavlesnky condemned the FSB for rekindling Soviet-style oppression, “terrorizing” the people and “annihilating” their free will in fear of retaliation “within the range of security cameras, phone-tapping and passport controlled borders” of their Big Russian Brother. In the art world, the action seemed to go over well. It was even (briefly) nominated for a state art prize.
The court itself delivered a twisted sort of artistic validation. After months of arrest (and ten days in solitary confinement for “breaking light bulbs”), Pavlesnky’s vandalism charge just got upgraded to “damaging a cultural heritage site.” According to Grani.ru, Pavlensky says the court told him that’s because many notable people were killed in this building. He half-smiles as he talks about this. Journalists laugh nervously. “Absurd,” they say. “Kafka.”
Pavlensky was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation in January. Poetically, he was sent to another historical building, the Serbsky Center where masses of Soviet dissidents used to get diagnosed with “sluggish schizophrenia.”
He’s been there before, in 2015, naked on a wall with big knife. He sliced off his right earlobe, then quietly sat there bleeding until the cops took him down.
He spent several days in a psychiatric ward, successfully convincing people that he is sane. The performance, he said, condemned the government for reviving the practice of using psychiatric institutions to silence and isolate “crazy” dissenters and nonconformists.
Like “Lubyanka,” the Serbsky Center continues to be notorious. In 2014, anti-Putin protester Mikhail Kosenko was declared insane here and sentenced to indefinite psychiatric treatment. The captured Ukrainian air force pilot Nadya Savchenko was also evaluated at Serbsky, before she was charged with the murder of two Russian journalists last week under iffy legal circumstances.
In 2013, Pavlesnky appeared naked and wrapped in a cocoon of barbed wire in front of the main entrance to the Legislative Assembly in St. Petersburg, remaining passive until cops clipped him out. He said it was a metaphor for an oppressed society, i.e. the “gutless and securely guarded cattle, which can only consume, work and reproduce.” That same year, he nailed his scrotum to the ground in Red Square on Russian Police Day. He said it was a metaphor for the Russian society and its “apathy, political indifference and fatalism.”
I can only guess what symbolic building he’s going to be headed to after his trial if convicted.