Too Creative Dissident

Artist’s intuition and human rights letter

Possibly the best-known Russian action artist today, Petr Pavlensky received an award connected to the name of Václav Havel. But he was quickly stripped off the award – for fears of his overt radicalism. What does this embarrassing event tell us about?

The circumstances surrounding the awarding and subsequent removal of the international Václav Havel Human Rights Prize to the Russian action artist Petr Pavlensky resemble scenes from Havel’s absurd dramas. The whole story gets complicated by the fact that there are simultaneously two such Prizes awarded in Václav Havel‘s name for achievements in the field of human rights. One is awarded by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe(PACE) jointly with the Václav Havel Library and the Charter 77 Foundation, another by New York Human Rights Foundation, represented today by the Russian chess player Garry Kasparov, under the auspices of Dagmar Havlová. Pavlensky received and lost the latter – the New York Prize.


Primorsky Partisans

In May of this year, when Pavlensky was awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize for creative dissent, it didn’t seem possible that the decision could be challenged. Pavlensky is probably the best-regarded contemporary Russian action artist, incriminated for his latest performance Threat in which he set fire of the main entrance to Lubajnka, the headquarters of the former KGB and contemporary FSB. When he was awarded the Prize, he was in prison, facing a sentence of several years. Everything got complicated during the award ceremony in Oslo. The imprisoned Pavlensky was represented by his spouse and collaborator Oksana Shalygina who announced before the jury that they will leave the money connected to the Prize to the so-called Primorsky Partisans.

Primorsky Partisans is a group of young men from the from the Primorsky district in the Russian Far East who in 2010 decided to leave for taiga and resist to the police terror with arms in their hands. They claimed that this was an act of self defense: they were allegedly kidnapped and tortured by the local police officers to confess to crimes they never committed. During 103-day long clashes in which 1,500 police officers and soldiers were deployed against the Partisans, two police officers died and six were wounded. During the last police intervention in Ussurijsk two „partisans“ were either shot dead or committed suicide. The ideological leader of the group, Andrei Sukhorada, a former supporter of the nationalist-bolshevik party of Eduard Limonov, also lost his life. Of the surviving „partisans,“ three were given life sentences and the remaining ones were sentenced to twenty-five, twenty-three, and eight and half years. The trials took place without the presence of the public and there were numerous errors, including the denial of the right to impartial defense. As it turned out recently, in the attempt to hand down exemplary punishment, Primorsky Partisans were charged with several premeditated murders. In the appeal process the jury acquitted two of them – Alexei Nikitin, sentenced to eight and half years and Vadim Kovtun, who had been given a life sentence.

Shalygina intended to speak about plans to support Primorsky partisans at the award ceremony, but the jury prevented her from doing so. But Pavlensky was awarded the Prize. Afterward, Pavlensky wrote a letter to the jury, specifying that he will donate the monetary award not to the Primorsky Partisan’s directly but instead to a foundation that secures impartial attorneys and legal assistance on their behalf. Subsequently, the Human Rights Foundation delayed the monetary award by a few months. This lead Pavlensky to pen a manifesto titled Jednomyslnost in which he accused the founders and organizers of the international Václav Havel Human Rights Prize of trying to dictate what to do with the monetary award: „Attempting to force a uniform opinion is a sign of totalitarianism. Václav Havel’s life was a struggle against the post-totalitarian dictatorship of bureaucracy. But in 2011, Václav Havel passed away. Corporations and organizations that shield themselves with the names of the dead often do what goes against these people lived for.“ The jury closed the case on July 8, when announcing that they withdraw the monetary award.


Unadvised Jury

The clumsy ways in which the letter to Pavlinskij, announcing the withdrawal of the monetary award, was penned adds to the scandalous treatment.  The jurors argued in a moralist, buck-passing overtones: „We have come to the conclusion that nobody familiar with the living conditions of activists and artists in authoritative regimes could not presume that Mr. Pavlensky would support an armed guerrilla group such as Primorsky Partisans who used deadly violence to promote their beliefs."

Regardless of how we will judge the decision, it is clear that it isn’t very prudent. If the jury, before deciding to award Pavlensky the Prize, had familiarized itself with his ideological opinions and artistic methods and traditions he builds on, it could save itself an unpleasant faux pas. At the very least the jury should have been aware that they deal with an artist for whom, as he himself explained in an interview with Radio Free Europe journalist Dmitry Volchek, „a process of drawing boundaries and forms of political art is a constant matter“, and that they too could quickly become part or objects of such artistic process, as it indeed happened. Pavlensky clearly utilized the whole affair as a possibility to expand his artistic concept; this time on the other, western side of the barricade. Another mistake the jury made was its inadequate knowledge of the intellectual legacy of the very patron of the Prize - Václav Havel. So what does the Václav Havel Prize jury know and doesn’t know about Petr Pavlensky? And what does the jury know about Václav Havel?


Victim and Violence

The action artist Pavlensky emerged in the dramatic summer of 2012 when the civil protest, unprecedented in its intensity since 1991, was already dying out and disappointing hopes of all centered on the members of the punk group Pussy Riots who stood trial. Pavlensky’s pale, dignified, sharp, ascetic face and lips brutally sewed with a coarse thread and dried out blood on the backdrop of the Kazan cathedral in St. Petersburg depicted a lot: it convicted those who remain silent as well as those who silence; it spoke about the violence of power and necessity of self sacrifice without which there is no freedom; about pariahs and martyrs. The religious and simultaneously radically militant motif of a performance titled Seam was emphasized by a poster with a line „The performance of Pussy Riot was a replication of the famous action of Jesus Christ (Matthew 21:12–13)“ – i.e. threw out the merchants from the temple.

Pavlensky calls his art political and understands history of arts as history of human clash with the power. An important leitmotif of all of his performances is a moment of violence – including against himself. Performance Carcass – the artist lies wrapped in a cocoon of barbed wire in front of the Petersburg Legislative Assembly. Performance Fixation – he nails his scrotum to the paving of the Red Square. Performance Segregation – he is cutting off his ear on the wall of a psychiatric ward. And the last, above-mentioned performance Threat – at night Pavlensky is dousing the doors of Lubjanka with gas, sets them on fire and is arrested – on the backdrop of the fire with a jerrycan in hand. This time, the artist voluntarily exposes himself to the institutionalized violence – unjust imprisonment.

To some, these nowadays iconic images possibly remind of the turbulent atmosphere of the turn of the 19th and 20th century when in the environment of terrorists - esers, artists, and god-searchers, coupled with resistance against the absolutist rule, the distance between religious act and violence began to quickly shorten, and where the escalated and exalted need for self sacrifice for the right thing in the eyes of the contemporaries redeemed violent terrorist acts. Varlam Shalamov, in an essay about the 21-year old eser-maximalist Natasha Klimova, who was sentenced to death for an attack on the prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, discussed this as follows: „Selflessness of the century that found the highest measure of freedom, greatest strength in connecting the word and the act. They started with „you shall not kill,“ with „God is love,“ with vegetarianism and assistance to the fellow human being. The moral demands and sacrifices were so huge that the best of the best who grew disappointed in the principle of nonviolence moved from „you shall not kill“ to attacks. They grabbed revolvers, bombs, and dynamite. They did not have time to grow disappointed in bombs: all terrorists died young.“

Pavlensky’s intellectual and esthetic affinity with the Russian sentiment of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries when terrorism, metaphysics, and art melted into an explosive amalgam when the terrorist Boris Savinkov searched religious justification of terror at his friends Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius and tried to merge the undoubtedly altruistic selflessness of Russian revolutionaries with no less unproblematic 6th commandant of Christ cannot be overlooked. As Savinkov himself put it: „To not kill is impossible, but at the same time, I understand that it isn’t possible to kill.“ This led the Russian inteligentsia of the fin de siècle to justify violence and accept terror as moral necessity. "Those who fear the violence of struggle, do not fight and humble themselves, feel like crying out: Yes, yes, violence isn’t right; it isn’t justifiable. Blood cannon be shed; this is not possible. But for the impossibility to become real, this is necessary! The pressure is enormous, but in humble acceptance of the times, there is redemption and vindication. Life vindicates, life crowns those who sacrifice their strength for the eternal and magical sainthood of life", writes Zinaida Gippius in her essay 1907 essay Revolution and Violence.

As we now know, the impact of such religious-ideological fervor had fatal consequences for Russia in 20th century. But at the same time, it isn’t possible to close eyes to the fact that similar questions emerge now, hundred years later, with the same intensity as they did on the eve of the Russian revolution. All the more, Pavlensky’s attitude should have not come as a surprise to the jurors of the Václav Havel Prize who, just like any other reader of the internet age should know that while in prison, Pavlensky read not only works by Václav Havel, but also memoirs of the artistically-inclined anarchist and advocate of revolutionary terror par excellence, Nestor Machna.


Charter 77 and borderline cases

As for Václav Havel’s legacy, the Charter 77 has always distinguished by increased sensitivity toward human rights violation, even in cases that delineated from the objective human rights canon. It was perhaps historically given by the fact that by circumstance, without Havel’s assistance, the Charter peacefully unified both the people who in 1950s helped build the communist system of lawlessness and those who became its victims – conservative catholics, trockists, and revolutionaries of 1968. If the Charter should work, there had to be a great degree of tolerance on the inside and outside and there also had to be an increased sensitivity in evaluating „borderline“ cases, not too different from the one that became the core of the conflict between Pavlensky and the jurors. In such a context it would be worth remembering that in the typical „borderline case“ of the Bareš cousins who in 1978 kidnapped a bus with high school students from Říčany and attempted to escape to the West, Václav Havel added his signature under the petition demanding a just evaluation of the kidnapping in the appeal process, possibly clemency for the second Bareš cousin who was sentenced to death (the border patrol started fire and killed the driver and one of the cousins, wounding several children).

To be sure, unlike Havel, Pavlensky made it clear in his manifesto Jednomyslnost that „Primorsky Partisans are rebels. And rebels are those who fight to defend local population against any terror.“ But did not Havel’s first clemency in 1990 include a whole number of such „borderline cases“ that were fundamentally criminal, but affected by the conditions of the totalitarian regime?


Sensitivity of the artist

In conclusion, a note about artistic intuition. Recent events make it clear that a minimum of two Primorsky Partisants were sentenced unjustly and were also unjustly imprisoned for six years. At a time when this was not yet immediately clear, artist Pavlensky intuitively sensed which border is worth for him as artist to draw and cross. And the surprising thing – even before Pavlensky, the Czech artist Josef Žáček sense the unambiguity of the case and painted an iconic cycle titled Přímořští partyzáni that the poet Ivan Magor Jirous introduced in this way: „Who among us has heard about Primorsky Partisans from the Russian Far East the painter confronts us with? Žáček shows us again that it is neither the painting that is important nor what is painted. Only in the tight connection of the two, we can see through its contours the fragility of the world, its gloomy beauty.“ But this takes us back to the Charter 77 since Jirous crucially contributed to its „sensitivity;“ and we are back at Savinkov who was Magor’s consciousness of the times and whose book Kůň plavý (1909, Czech translation 1910) became one of his fundamental poetic inspirations.

Pavlensky too realized, or subconsciously felt this when he decided on his gesture. The jury who withdrew the Prize did not and possibly could not realize any of this... and now the jurors can only cry over spilled milk.

The author is a Russianist.