Performance Artist Pyotr Pavlensky Trial Stirs up even More Controversy

May 19, 2016

As we wrote before, Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky had been arrested last November for setting a former KGB security building on fire. The performance was meant to point out to the video and audio surveillance that government agencies use to control the public and it was first nominated and then pulled from the running for the acclaimed Russian Innovatsiya prize. Pyotr Pavlensky trial started on May 18th, and new controversial arguments were instated. The charges were changed from “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred" to "damaging historical heritage" as the prosecutor claimed that the door of the site has this particular status. If convicted, the artist will be faced with up to three years of imprisonment.

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Pyotr Pavlensky during The Burning Door of the Lubyanka Performance

A Questionable Cultural Heritage status For the Door of Lubyanka

There has been plenty of controversy surrounding the Pyotr Pavlensky trial. On May 18th, 2016 the prosecutor claimed that the door of Federal Security Service (former KGB) on the Lubyanka Square, were, in fact, a site of cultural heritage. According to the prosecutor, the door obtained this special status because "leading figures of science and culture were imprisoned there”. And although it is true that the notorious prison has hosted some of the finest minds of Russia that were questioned (and in many cases tortured) by the police in this very building, it remains questionable whether the wooden door truly deserves the preferential status. Historian Natalia Samover said in a conversation with, that the door can not be granted the cultural heritage status considering that they are in fact a replica created in 2008. Additionally, the historian pointed out that other sites related to 1930s repression era were never awarded the cultural heritage rank which is why it's unclear why the prosecution claims that the door of Lubyanka enjoys the particular status.

The Burning Door of the Lubyanka

Pyotr Pavlensky Trial Defense- Another Preformance Art Act

The defense spoke in court as well. Pyotr Pavlensky first asked to be charged with terrorism act alluding to the last's year ruling against Ukranian film director Oleg Sentsov, who was convicted of terrorism for the similar act of burning pro-Kremlin party offices in Crimea, a territory annexed by Russia. Once he was denied the demand, he said that he refuses to testify in the "bureaucratic procedures" and instead, the defense brought three Moscow sex workers to the stands. By elaborating his decision of bringing prostitutes to speak in his behalf the artist said - “Whether you like it or not, there is no difference between prostitutes, judges, prosecutors, teachers, directors or bureaucrats,” The Moscow Times reports.

Pyotr Pavlensky Speaks in Court

Police Brutality Accusations

In the meantime, it has become known that the artist has been beaten by the police during his transportation from court to prison. “Every breath gives me pain,” Pyotr Pavlensky wrote in a handwritten letter that was posted to Facebook by his partner Oksana Shalygina. The artist also wrote that his injuries include "a broken a knee, fractured a rib and internal bruising,”. Pyotr Pavlensky who has become known for a series of politically charged protest art pieces (including sewing his lips in support of Pussy Riot and nailing his scrotum to the Red Square) was on trial for two separate incidents - the burning doors of Lyblankaya performance and burning a set of tires while waving a Ukrainian flag in protest of the Russia's annexation of Crime.

Pyotr Pavlensky is Leaving the coartroom as a Free man, photo Maxim Zmeyev Reuters
Pyotr Pavlensky is Leaving the courtroom as a free man, photo by Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

Epilogue of the Trial

On June 8, Moscow court found Pyotr Pavlensky guilty of damaging a cultural site but instead of the long jail sentence the artist was released and ordered to pay a fine. Judge Yelena Gudoshnikova ruled that Pyotr Pavlensky should pay 500,000 rubles (about $7,750) as a fine for setting the door of a former KGB building on fire and about an equal sum to compensate the cost of the building's repair. Previously the artist was convicted to 16 months in prison for his pro-Ukranian protest, but the sentence was immediately revoked since the statute of limitation for the 2014 incident has expired. After the sentencing, the artist stated that the authorities freed him only “because it suits them to show a hypocritical humanitarian face" and added that he will appeal the decision and refused to pay the fine. The verdict came as a surprise, as many thought that the Russian artist will encounter the fate of his fate colleagues Pussy Riot members who were imprisoned for two years after staging a performance in Moscow cathedral in 2012. After seven moths spent in prison, Pyotr Pavlensky left the Moscow courtroom as a free man and was greeted by a group of supporters waiting outside.

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Sources: The Moscow Times, Yahoo news, The Art Newspaper ; Radio Free Europe ; The Moscow Times

Featured image : Pyotr Pavlensky in court photo Ivan Sekretarev / AP and Pyotr Pavlensky on a protest, via Moscow times

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