When the artist Pavel Pavlensky stripped naked on Red Square last month, then sat down on the cold cobblestones and nailed his scrotum to the ground, many people were not so much shocked as hoping to scrub the cringing image from their eyes. He didn’t quite gain the hipster world-wide popularity and saturation media coverage of the all-girl punk rock band Pussy Riot which had burst into a Russian Orthodox cathedral also on Red Square and screamed for “the Blessed Virgin to take away Putin.” The New York Times and the Washington Post stuck Pavlensky’s “nailed it” story in the style sections; BuzzFeed covered the story once, although Gawker didn’t disappoint, even finding the videotape.
Then the incident was forgotten, except by a few Russian papers. Pavlensky wasn’t taken to a psychiatric hospital, even with the revival of the abuse of psychiatry nowadays. First, he was given medical treatment then hauled off to the police station, where he was charged, like Pussy Riot, the Bolotnaya Square demonstrators, the Arctic 30 from Greenpeace, and other protesters with the catch-all offense of “hooliganism.” In Pavlensky’s case, the “social group hatred” he had allegedly incited didn’t involve religious believers as with Pussy Riot but possibly some vague art-adverse “public” or even the state, as some Russian bloggers speculated. Interestingly, to his lawyer’s surprise, he was released on his own recognizance and is awaiting trial.
“Ouch,” I wrote on my Facebook. “Couldn’t he have just unfurled a banner saying ‘For Our Freedom and Yours?’” I was referencing the famous 1968 demonstration, when eight brave Soviet citizens went out on to Red Square with protest posters and were promptly arrested and sent into exile.
One of them, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, was pushing a carriage with her newborn son inside and was spared a trial, but was later declared “insane” for her dissidence and sentenced to forced psychiatric confinement before ultimately going into exile in Paris. Sadly, she died last week at the age of 77; only this past August, on the 45th anniversary of their famous demonstration, she had returned to Moscow and re-enacted the protest – only to be detained again by police.
“It doesn’t work, you get arrested anyway,” someone wrote on my Facebook, responding to my comment on Pavlensky and linking to a news story of Gorbanevskaya, Pavel Litvinov, and others in the re-enactment. Yet what a contrast in styles – never raising her voice or engaging in “direct action,” Gorbanevskaya spent her life earnestly writing protest letters or samizdat poetry and articles and publishing materials in the exile newspaper Russkaya Mysl. Natasha would never have been featured by Gawker or Buzzfeed, although long ago, her book Red Square at Noon was reviewed favorably by the New York Times, which also published her obituary.
Her studious generation is passing from the scene, and with it that quieter, long-suffering means of dissent and the peaceable call of government to account. While the Soviet dissidents are credited in part with the dismantling of the Soviet Union through the “power of the powerless,” as Vaclav Havel dubbed their technique, regrettably, quite a few realists today don’t really believe dissidents were even a significant factor. Whether the USSR was run into the ground by Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars,” or depleted by 75 years of eroding human capital and machine plant wrecked under communism, they think top-down economic and government factors are more significant . And they account for the persistence of authoritarianism by such factors, as the Kremlin continues to enjoy both the dependency of neighbors and rule over the world through oil – and lately through duplicitous diplomacy.
“Nothing works,” say not only the cynical practitioners of Realpolitik but hipsters disappointed that their Facebook-driven social activism against Putin’s rigged elections in the “White Revolution” in 2011 seems to have deteriorated, at least for some, into race riots such as seen in Biryulyovo.
Hence radical activists get your attention by invoking their genitals; Pavlensky explained his self-mutilation as a desire to “force people to think” and see the hypocrisy of the age, as his manifesto explains. Although extreme, his deed elicited at least some resonance among the intelligentsia. Sergei Lukashevsky, the executive director of the Sakharov Center and Museum in Moscow, had this to say on Facebook:
“I don’t particularly like modern art. If Pavlensky’s performance was about body-ness (telesnost‘), the bourgeois taboo or what Marina Abramovich and her ilk do their actions about, I would have raised my eyebrows in surprise and continued on my way. If I am aware of my life and the civic situation surrounding me as normal, then such art provocations are irritating (but not hugely) by the fact that they insert unnecessary chaos into an orderly life. Well, let’s say you have to explain to your child ‘why that uncle is sitting naked there.’
“But with Pavlensky it’s not like that. We understand in fact that the regime holds us right at that place by which Pavlensky nailed himself to the Kremlin cobblestone. And the sense of spiritual discomfort comes not from the fact that he is naked and you are next to him clothed and don’t sympathize with his nudism, but because you don’t have the guts and heedlessness to say everything that you think with some vivid gesture. After all, Pavlensky may roll himself a ‘deuce’ […]”
Lukashevsky pointed out that with such heavy prison sentences – although nothing compared to the 7 years of labor camp and 5 years of exile a Soviet dissident typically rolled — the Ukrainian group Femen doesn’t risk demonstrating in Russia anymore. As he struggled to come to terms with Pavlensky’s act, he compared it to a fellow who dashingly tugs at his mustache while others find it irritating and concludes: “Pavlensky gives us a perfect excuse to write off everything as modern art. But don’t be fooled. It is not at all about art.”
“Oh, the Viennese Aktionism again,” somebody commented on Gawker about Pavlensky. Yet as we can see from two action-filled entries for aktionism in the Russian-language Wikipedia – one for art, the other for politics, it is arguably a more lively branch of the movement perhaps deserving its own status as a “school”. For years, groups of artists – including Pussy Riot – have been creating outrages, like a phallus painted on a drawbridge in St. Petersburg aimed at the secret police building, or a sardonic public orgy in honor of then-president Medvedev. But the aktionisty haven’t just sprung from the West, and actually draw on deep strains of the dissident movement in the Soviet period. Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut; so have scores of Soviet prisoners artlessly for decades and continuing today, including recently in Kyrgyzstan. Pavlensky’s self-mutilation, while meant as an art happening, is a regular feature of the Soviet and later Russian prison system. Many people know of the extreme Russian prison tattoos culture. But even more extreme is the practice of prisoners deliberately slashing themselves with worn-down spoons to get into the infirmary where conditions are better, or carving slogans into their body, like the fellow chronicled in 1973 by former prisoner Eduard Kuznetsov who three times carved SLAVE OF THE CPSU on to his forehead – only to have KGB-directed doctors thrice peel away his skin.
Maybe this is why Pavlensky’s art succeeds at least at some level –self-applying sutures might be dramatic political art for him, but for Roman Kuznetsov of Orenburg, a worker at the trouble-plagued and corrupt Olympics construction site in Sochi, sewing his mouth shut was just a desperate bid to get his back wages paid. In Soviet Russia, the art makes you.
When another aktionist, Belarusian artist Denis Limonov, was arrested recently in Moscow during a document check, it was recalled how he had gotten into trouble in his homeland for sending messages “taking credit” for a terrorist attack on the metro as a way of protesting the extremely rapid investigation and capital punishment shortly thereafter of two men no one was certain were the perpetrators. While the young artist may not have realized it, Limonov was channeling the “terror-art” of Soviet dissident artists Komar and Melamid in the 1970s, who sent telegrams “taking credit” for earthquakes in Germany and Iran.
So it’s not as if the seemingly bizarrely new aktionisty of Russia don’t have their roots in the past and even the authentic experience of their suffering people. To be sure, their extremism begs the question of what kind of society they would create, whereas the Soviet dissidents generally left no doubt about their liberalism. Yet, like it or not, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the Pussy Riot artists sentenced to two years in the GULAG, has likely done more to get attention to the deplorable conditions of Russian prisons than any human rights activist or writer since Solzhenitsyn. On their own, the small circles of human rights advocates – veterans of the Soviet era like Ludmila Alexeyeva or Sergei Kovalev and their few younger colleagues who still show up for trials of migrants being deported or demonstrators tortured — are drowned out not only by aktionisty, but by less liberal opposition leaders turning out tens of thousands in the squares.
And Pavlensky, even if he is all about art – or not at all about art, as Lukashevsky figures – is likely soon to become a bona fide political prisoner, joining Putin’s other martyrs in the mute drama of victimhood that tends to equalize all political movements. Then there’s a kind of police-beating porn that appears in Belarus and Russia, and now Ukraine these days — the lovely young girl with the colors of the national flag painted on her face, mingled with trickles of blood from a police beating, or the iconic Reuters photographer continuing to snap Maidan protests as his head wound gushes blood. But at the State Department, we know they speak disparagingly of “victimology” – opposition movements that can’t seem to get past the dramatizing of their own considerable oppression at the hands of cruel authoritarians they can never seem to beat, not even with the “power of the powerless.”
After reading about Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s last-minute refusal to sign the European Union’s association agreement, I found myself tweeting that I bet some Ukrainians feel like Pavlensky right now.
Except they don’t. They aren’t “held by that place” where the regime holds people, but have gone out on the squares in numbers far larger than any Russian demonstrators who had more time to organize on Facebook. They aren’t posing in body mutilation, but taking the direct action of storming government buildings and trying to force the government’s resignation. Of course there is unnecessary violence, triggering more police brutality, and the usual fascism for this part of the world for the usual reasons.
Where will the fight “for our freedom and yours” end, watched so enviously by failed opposition members in Russia? Some will take it to “the place right where the regime holds us” figuratively rather than literally, and someone will remove the martyrs’ nails.