Trampled by the Madding Herd
16-year-old Gleb Astafiev is being tortured in a psychiatric hospital because of his picket in support of Pyotr Pavlensky
June 11, 2016
In late May, Gleb Astafiev, a 16-year-old resident of the village of Ketovo in Kurgan Region, held a solo picket in defense of artist Pyotr Pavlensky, then on trial in Moscow for setting fire to the doors of FSB headquarters. The young man sewed his mouth shut, grabbed a placard on which he had written the inscription “Pyotr Pavlensky’s action was a replay of Varg Vikernes‘s famous gesture,” and stood next to a store in downtown Kurgan. This was a reference to Pyotr Pavlensky’s first action, Seam (July 23, 2012), in which the artist sewed his mouth shut and took to the streets of Petersburg with a placard that read, “Pussy Riot’s action was a replay of the famous action by Jesus Christ.”
Astafiev was taken to a police station, and then sent to the Kurgan Regional Neuropsychiatric Hospital.
On the day Pavlensky was released, Astafiev was able to access the Internet for the first time during the thirteen days of his incarceration at the mental hospital and contact the outside world. He told Radio Svoboda how he had wound up in the hospital and what was happening to him.
Gleb, who sent you to the psychiatric hospital?
After the police detained me when the picket was over, my mother talked for two hours with them. I think they did a number on Mom, because she came back for me accompanied by an ambulance crew, and I was hauled off to the looney bin. My mom thinks I am crazy. She is convinced that normal people don’t sew their mouths shut and take to the streets bearing placards. Mom is a simple woman, and she doesn’t understand my action was an artistic metaphor. The closed mouth is a symbol of the absence of freedom of speech in Russia. My mom watches TV too much, so her mind has been warped by propaganda. It’s very hard to explain the message of my action to her. Mother did not support my creative experiments, but after the action she got angry at me. She doesn’t even bring food to the hospital. Grandmother, on the contrary, has been treating me better since the action. Now she sympathizes with me. The relatives are not planning to spring me from the nuthouse for the time being. The doctors have not said anything to me about the subject.
You sound very calm and confident. How do you feel? Have you been forced to take meds?
They tried to vegetate me with pills, but I spit them out. The first five days I was held in the special supervision ward. They tossed me in with the worst crazies, but I was forbidden to leave the ward. I was in there with eight oldsters. Three of them rarely showed any signs of life. The other five screamed at night, beat the floor with their fists, and raved. They tried to force me to kowtow: to wash the floor and clean up. I refused. I am currently under routine supervision, but I cannot leave the wing.
Do you know that Pyotr Pavlensky has been released? Do you regret you wound up in the mental hospital because of your action in support of the artist?
Of course not. I am very glad for Pavlensky! Maybe it was thanks to the support of different people, including me, that he was released. The regime really doesn’t like people like Pavlensky, because a real actionist is a free spirit and openly declares it. I think I did my bit for free speech with my action, which was, of course, a reference to Pavlensky’s actions.
What were your feelings when you were standing there alone holding a placard, surrounded by strangers who were probably aggressive to you? Did anyone support you during the action?
I thought up and did the whole thing myself. My action was entitled F.P.P. (an abbreviation for “Free Peter Pavlensky”). Passersby reacted differently. Mainly, people were surprised. There were lots of riffraff there. One creep swore at me at the top of his lungs for twenty minutes. Some people came up to me and had their pictures taken. There was an old couple who stood next to me the whole time. Once, the old woman came up to me and said, “You’re a fool. One man does not make an army.” The old man periodically yelled loudly, “Look, people! He is holding opposition placards!” I ignored all of it.
Around thirty minutes after I started the action, two grown louts in black vests (security guards, apparently) came out of the Pushkin Shopping and Entertainment Center. One of them jumped me and tried to grab the placard. I wouldn’t give it up. A dude who was around twenty saw the scene from the window of his car. The fellow jumped out of his ride and told the guard to leave me alone. It’s a pity that many people don’t understand the difference between art and hooliganism and madness. Actionism is lovely! I really love actionism, especially Viennese actionism.
Why are you able to see the difference?
Hard to say. I’m an ordinary schoolboy from a simple family. I read a lot, especially science fiction. I think a lot about what’s going on with my own head. I want to have a vivid, interesting life, not a life like the majority’s: home, work, and television. I can’t talk anymore. I see the medical staff coming.
Gleb Astafiev’s action has sparked a fierce debate among Kurgan Region residents on social media. Some Internet users have admired the young actionist’s audacity and honesty. Others have written that Astafiev is as abnormal as Pavlensky. Astafiev has said he is uninterested in the negative feedback of philistines. He is suffering from a lack of communication most of all now. A girlfriend has been visiting Gleb at the hospital. She asked that her name not be printed, because she did not want to attract any public attention.
“That hospital is a hellish place: closed, stuffy, and miserable. Gleb is now all alone there. He is very depressed: almost no one comes to visit him. He doesn’t even have anything to read. Gleb asked me to buy him science fiction books. Gleb’s pupils are dilated: apparently, they are medicating him. I don’t know Gleb that well. Before his incarceration in the hospital, we had seen each other only five times. We met by chance at a concert by a local band. He wanted to have his picture taken with me and my ex-boyfriend. Then Gleb seemed like a cheerful, carefree, very dear and open boy, a young idealist with a dream. He and my ex-boyfriend then traveled to a Krovostok concert. A bit later, I realized that Gleb was very independent and intelligent, and had a very strong spirit for his age. Even today at the hospital he didn’t complain and didn’t ask for anything special except a couple of books and a bit of food. I know nothing about Pavlensky, but Gleb had the right to support him. I am surprised his mother sent Gleb to the hospital, but he is definitely not a whacko, as the majority thinks. The opinion of the herd is often wrong.”
Pyotr Pavlensky is not the only artist whom Astafiev has tried to support. In November of last year, the team at the news website Mediazona shot a documentary film about Astafiev. The reporters there were touched by the story of a young man who had borrowed money to travel from his village to the trial of the band Krovostok. In November 2015, Yaroslavl Regional Court considered rescinding a district court’s decision to ban the group’s songs and block its website. The trial resembled a comedy with a happy ending: the court took the side of the musicians. The members of Krovostok liked Astafiev so much that when the trial was over they took him along with them to Moscow for a big concert.
Margarita Filippova, photo and video editor, Mediazona:
“We were making a series of documentaries about the Krovostok trial. I noticed a long commentary by Gleb on Instagram. He wanted to know when the next hearing was and whether he could come to Yaroslavl to get the autographs of the guys in Krovostok. The photographs in Instagram initially made him look too eccentric. But when we saw him at the train station, we realized he was a very modest, friendly guy. That was when it occurred to me to show this absurd trial through the eyes of a touching 16-year-old boy who made the long trip from Kurgan to support his idols. Gleb is like a kid from another world, a world distant from our reality where we lazily follow insane trials on our iPhones, sighing and voicing our dissent, at best, on Twitter.
“Gleb sees the world like an artist, but at the same time he has a very rational attitude to reality. He has a good sense of the country in which he lives, and he really wants to change his life. I’m sure it will work out for him. Gleb feels responsible and concerned about other people. When I was sixteen I wasn’t worried about protesting artists, and I sure didn’t know what a court trial was.”
Zarina Kodzayeva, camera woman, Mediazona:
“Gleb is a very independent and open person. It seemed to me that Gleb didn’t have a drop of the infantilism you would expect from a teenager. He argues things sensibly and behaves like an adult. He and I chatted a lot when we were shooting the film. I found it very interesting to listen to him. Gleb writes things himself. When he speaks, you can tell he loves the Russian language. I got the sense this kid believed in the power of deeds. It really was important to him to support Krovostok and Pavlensky. One of the most important questions in documentary filmmaking is who can be a main character, the hero, and who cannot. Aside from the context, which might turn into a story, there is always an intuitive understanding that probably has to do with a person’s energy. I think Gleb is an absolute hero. And now he continues to prove it with his actions.”
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AM for the heads-up. Photos courtesy of Radio Svoboda