Sergey Yermakov: Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

a21474785_0
Inflated rubber duckie at June 12, 2017, anti-corruption protest rally in Petersburg. The duckie was later detained by police. Photo courtesy of The Poke

Sergey Yermakov
Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

The final performances by Voina’s so-called Petersburg faction could be termed “actionism of fact” by analogy with “literature of fact,” a project the LEF mob tried and failed to realize in the 1920s.

Voina took ordinary actions from the repertoire of protest and resistance, actions requiring no special skills—turning over a police car, torching a paddy wagon, dousing policemen with urine—and simply did them in their performances.

What happened to the performances due to their actions?

First, the performances simply were carried out, like ordinary actions, bereft of aesthetic and symbolic depth. (We will bracket the question of Alexei Plutser-Sarno’s defamiliarizing press releases.) “They really did it.”

Second, the actions were glorified by the very fact they were performed by the actionists. They were bathed in an aura of glory, but note that this aura was totally colorless. It had no density whatsoever, and it produced no distortions in the albedo. This was because the actions were as commonplace as could be, actions available to everyone, actions to which nothing was added except their execution. (Well, yes, and the group’s signature.)

The actionist readymade (or “readydone”) and actionism of fact, unlike the classic artistic readymade, have no need of a special aesthetic space, such as a museum. Unlike literature of fact (if this literary project had actually been implemented in the twenties), actionism may well avoid the traps of language and representation.

Voina thus directly took on the issue of politically effective action. There is a certain actionist Platonism to it, but if we bypass Plato (no matter how we regard the violence of his gesture) we cannot ask ourselves about art’s attitude and access to politics.

In the Republic, Plato does not suggest banishing all poets for fobbing off the phantom of excellence (εἰδώλων ἀρετῆς) on citizens instead of virtue (i.e., the thought of action). He would let the non-mimetic poets, who glorify the gods and sing the praises of good men (ἐγκώμια τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς), stay in the city. Voina’s Petersburg faction non-mimetically sang the praises not of citizens themselves, but certain actions as such, simply by performing them. Their implicit message was something like: Look, this is up for grabs for everyone, and yet if you carry out this glorious deed, you will not be unoriginal and overshadowed by us, because this is basically something anyone could do. This is a kind of democratic and non-hierarchical political Platonism.

Voina did these performances before the May 6, 2012, clashes between protesters and police on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. They seemingly had offered the demos who took to the streets a possible repertoire of elementary actions. (Of course, the total number of such actions is much greater, and not all of them are either criminal or so primitive. What matters in this case is only the dimension itself.) But the demos did not heed their call, preferring to play at making witty posters, from the December 2011 rally on Sakharov Avenue to this day, and exchanging anti-regime memes in the social networks. (That is, the circumstances are in some way symmetrical to the exile of the poets. In this case, however, the demos itself has turned its back on genuinely political artists, immersing itself in the carnivalesque mimesis of the meme.) By rejecting the dimension of the glorious deed, however, the demos has refused to be itself, because it is eventful, rather than substantial, in contrast to the phantasm of the ethnos.

It took Pyotr Pavlensky half a dozen performances to get close to the place where Voina had arrived in the spring of 2011, that is, in order to torch the front door at FSB headquarters in Moscow. In many ways, the performance was a step backwards, for example, when it came to the question of withdrawal. The guerillas of Voina insisted on retreating in a well-conceived way and unexpectedly returning to strike again. (This is the only worthwhile “We’ll be back!” It is a far cry from Navalny and Co.) But Pavlensky, in many respects by way of accommodating an aesthetic impulse, stood his ground to the bitter end. He has thus proven to be a more direct follower of the National Bolsheviks than Voina when it comes to this issue.

So Voina is still waiting for its demos and valiant citizens back in the spring of 2011, scornfully gazing at rubber duckies, meme politics, and witty anti-Kremlin t-shirts.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Sergey Yermakov is a professional translator who was involved in several of Pyotr Pavlensky’s performances. My thanks to Mr. Yermakov for his kind permission to publish this essay here.

Advertisements

Gleb Astafiev: Trampled by the Madding Herd

Gleb Astafiev
Gleb Astafiev

Trampled by the Madding Herd
Darina Shevchenko
16-year-old Gleb Astafiev is being tortured in a psychiatric hospital because of his picket in support of Pyotr Pavlensky
Radio Svoboda
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 standing next to the door at FSB headquarters that Pyotr Pavlensky set on fire
Gleb Astafiev standing next to the door at FSB headquarters that Pyotr Pavlensky set on fire

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

Darja Serenko’s Quiet Picket

Picketing the Everyday
Marina Simakova
OpenLeft.ru
May 7, 2016

Quiet Picket, a recent initiative by Darja Serenko, teeters on the verge of artistic intervention and protest action. Every day, Serenko boards public transport (often, the subway) bearing a new placard inscribed with an extensive message. Its purpose is to invite people to engage in a discussion. Serenko thus explores the space of communication itself: the distance between placard and recipient, and how potential interlocutors navigate the distance. So far she has produced fifty-four placards, gone through six markers, and directly communicated with ninety-three people. Marina Simakova spoke with Serenko about the background of the action and its effects.

serenko-1
Darja Serenko: “I want to carry it myself.”

Tell us how and under what circumstances the idea for the action occurred to you. What was the occasion?

The action grows out of several occasions. On the one hand, the arrest of Ildar Dadin; on the other, the story with the itinerant exhibition {NE MIR}, when we artists were detained by police while carrying our artworks down the street. I had been contemplating a solo picket for quite a long time. I had a dream of doing an ordinary picket, holding a placard at chest level that would resemble the headings in children’s encyclopedias: “And did you know that…” But ultimately a kind of reformatting of the very principle happened in my head. My understanding of it changed.

And what defined its format?

I was riding the subway after the closing of a {NE MIR} exhibition. I had grabbed a small poster by the Lights of Eirene movement. It featured the famous photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their Bed-In for Peace, and next to it, a current photograph in which similar looking people were lying in approximately the same poses. I was carrying the poster unfolded so it would not be crumpled, and I noticed that everyone in the subway car was looking at it. It dawned on me then and there this was the perfect form of communication. It was completely unobtrusive.

Why did you decide to do it alone, without friends? Did you ask anyone else to join you?

I said from the get-go that the format was open. Two young women joined me, but each has changed the format to suit her. One of them, Sasha, joined about ten days ago. She has attached a placard to her backpack (it comes out more static), and she has been traveling with the same placard for a week. On the other hand, she usually prints it out, and it contains references. The second young woman, Valeria, has also been doing a quiet picket on public transport. She wrote me to ask my permission, and of course I agreed. I have asked the young women to share photos of their placards and stories about what happened as they are able. In no way do I want my action to smack of a manifestation where “I, the performance artist, march forth and educate people.” That is not how it is. Although I do conceive of it as an educational project.

So your action could go viral?

It is difficult to talk about a virus when there are only three young women. But this format really is networked, simple, and palatable. It also functions without me.

How has it been documented?

On VKontakte and Facebook, and a bit on Instagram.  I have a small public page on Vkontakte, and I post a written report on my personal page on Facebook every afternoon or evening, when I have a free minute. I try and describe the situations, the conversations, and the behavior, both my own and that of the people with whom I interact. I also post photographs of the placards.

serenko-2
“#quietpicket is when you feel discouraged and your arms fall.” In Russian, the expression “[one’s] arms fall” means to “feel discouraged.”

And is someone watching and photographing you?

Yes, constantly. Stealthily, very politely. If people photograph at close range, they always ask my  permission. Actually, I have got used to thinking of my action as a tape. Today, something like two hundred people wrote me asking what the action was all about. They had not been following it, and I already find it hard to conceive it any other way and explain it all in a jiffy, because some things were improvised and then they caught on. The format of the action has been changing.

How has it changed?

Initially, I had planned to make a placard early in the morning or the night before, ride around with it for a day, and make a new one the next day. I could not imagine subsequent interventions into the placard. But then I sensed the need to alter it depending on the reactions, to write and draw something extra, to explain something on the back. First, the placards were one-sided, then they became two-sided, and then I started doing several narratives within a placard.

After hearing why I was doing this, one of my accidental interlocutors said, “Oh, I get it. You are making a social alphabet.”

Yes, you could say that as well, and so the alphabet format emerged in my action. I want to put together an entire alphabet. Yesterday, I traveled with Г, for gomoseksual’nost’ [homosexuality], and today it was Ш, for shovinizm [chauvinism].

There is also a storyline involving poems I write on the placards. They can be connected with the topic of the placard, as stated on the other side, or they might not be connected. For example, I have been riding around with texts by the poets of the Lianozovo School, the poems of Vsevolod Nekrasov and Igor Holin, and I have been telling people about poetry. And when people ask me whether I think they are poems, I say that of course they are.

Sometimes, the text on a placard is arranged like a dialogue. There is an enquirer of sorts and a respondent.  There was a photo stand-in placard with holes for the eyes and mouth on which I wrote about the social status of women. The allegory in this case was simple: almost any face could be placed on the placard. But, actually, each placard turns out different from the others.

The last few days I have been stitching the sheets of paper together with thread, because I have run out of tape. (I use A3 sheets, which I combine into one big sheet.) It is an excellent means of representing a placard, because while I am stitching it together, I can turn it over and still remain focused on some task.

Sometimes, I also sew a new placard to an old one. This is a palimpsest placard, and the one is visible through the other. The placards thus form strange seams and montages.

I now always have a pile of posters in my bag.  If I see a person is reacting to the placard I am holding, and realize that I want to say something to them, I take another placard from my bag and sew it to the first. When I was riding around with the placard “Our government is fabricating [in Russian, “stitching up”] yet another case against yet another political prisoner,” I sewed it as well I could, in several rows, with rough stitches. By the way, I have been stitching the alphabet placards into a single notebook so later you can flip through it.

serenko-3
Darja Serenko, Photo Stand-in Placard on Social Status of Women (Quiet Picket), 2016

How do you think up the texts for the placards? Do you take advantage of items in the news?

Everything is unstable when it comes to this, too. For May Day I made a topical placard, and after Pavlensky’s action [when the artist summoned sex workers to his court hearing as witnesses—OpenLeft] I made a placard about prostitution. But there are issues I simply have to cover, so I conceive of Quiet Picket as an educational project, albeit semi-ironically and semi-seriously.  Although it happens that I see my action as a kind of monstration. I ride in the subway, look at people, and think I would like to cheer them up.

Besides the fact that the project is educational, how do you define it for yourself? As a series of political art performances or as a civic initiative?

I see it as a continuation of my own work as a poet. In the poetry I have been doing, I spent a long time trying to achieve some kind of interaction: I took readymades and inserted them into poems. I think this know-how has influenced Quiet Picket. I am not saying that Picket is a purely poetic endeavor, but thanks to poetry the placard itself has greater opportunities for communicating. And the aspect I cannot keep track of in poetry, the aspect of reading [meaning the reader and her interaction with the poetic text—OpenLeft] is a process I can observe in this case. I see the person’s eyes running over the text, and at the same time she can address me, while I observe how her interpretative mechanisms function, and I can influence them. Quiet Picket takes place in this gap, in the distance between the person and the placard.

Have you thought about urban studies? After all, your action is nothing less than an intervention in one of the most important urban infrastructural spaces, an intervention that would let you get a feel for certain problems, study the behavior of passengers, do work on communications, and so on.

I might prove insufficiently competent as a researcher in this field. I have been trying to document everything I do, and perhaps the outcome will be an article or essay I write. I have not drawn any conclusions for the time being. My research involves collecting information and gaining the know-how of conversing with people on pointed topics that many of them find painful.

There is a rather glaring contradiction in your action. On the one hand, it lays claim to a certain intimacy. It summons a man in the crowd to have a private conversation; it invites him to a politicized discussion. On the other hand, it is very public and open to multiple counter-statements. Could you comment on this?

I don’t see a contradiction here. The fact is that the star of my action is the person who has brought herself to engage in reciprocal communication. She is the master of the situation, not me. She defines her own borders. She can approach me and whisper something in my ear, or she can holler at me from the other end of the subway car, aware that everyone will hear her and thus let other people get involved. It has also happened that a person has asked me to exit the car and have a chat. In that case, I obediently go with him and talk.

serenko-4
Darja Serenko in the midst of Quiet Picket on the Moscow subway

If we shift the focus from the action itself to its subject, meaning you, we can detect yet another problem. At first glance, you appear as a naïve angel in this action. Eyes downcast, silently but persistently, you broadcast your appeal to people. Prepared for any reaction, you throw yourself at the mercy of angry, tired subway passengers. There is a certain victimhood about all this, almost evoking associations with the holy apostles. At the same time, we can look at you in a different way, as an artist working in the aftermath of Situationism and rationally exploiting the temporal distance. So you are protected from the man in the crowd by theory and your own stance, which have found their own places on your placards, while your potential interlocutor, the so-called man in the street, simply has nothing to oppose to you. You thus possess a certain power from the outset.

First, the image of me as meek silent angel is not true. It has been conjured from a photograph of me that has become quite popular. Usually, I don’t look that way. Second, yes, I have a background in culture, a knowledge of manipulative devices, and a set of readymade arguments. There is no getting away from it, but in the process of communicating I still feel unarmed and naked. The things people say, their experience, and the situations they reference have often stumped me. It has happened that I have nothing ready to say to them.

You assumed this experience would change you, pose new questions, and, perhaps, even force you to undergo a kind of metanoia.  Or am I wrong?

I haven’t had the time to keep track of what has been happening to me. But as a woman and feminist, I do think about my own feminine subjectivity (and objectivity). The placard is an amazing agent. When I use the placard to broadcast a feminist agenda, which I do quite often, I am simultaneously the subject and author of the placard and its object.  When I have to dialogue with someone on the topic, I have to act as a subject. So I balance between these points like a pendulum, and this affects me. Of course, I know about the experiments of artists whose bodies, including social bodies, have become sacrificial bodies. But I am faced primarily by the task of a cultural worker. I really wanted and still want to tell people about certain facts. It pains me these facts are hushed up, many people don’t have access to them, etc.

And why should people believe what you tell them? The legitimacy of your claim to know the facts is supported by what? Are you appealing to the status of cultural worker?

Since my format is encyclopedic, I appeal to sources. You will have noticed the references on my placards. People and I often google something: they verify the information on the Internet. I realize that the informational field is infinite, and for various reasons people often deal with only a fragment of this field. I offer them an alternative.

serenko-5
Darja Serenko, “This is how our government has been fabricating yet another case against yet another political prisoner” (Quiet Picket, 2016)

The action has been running for five weeks, and you certainly have managed to collect the most incredible textured. Could you tell us about the most memorable, unexpected or personally important incidents during the picket? I will phrase my question even more openly. Tell us about whatever you would like.

For example, an elderly woman read my placard about political prisoners and thanked me. We were sitting opposite each other in the subway, and she told me about her life. She was a medical worker who helped athletes recover after injuries. On the back of my poster was an old poster, the May Day poster, on which the phrase “Thank you for your hard work” had been written.  She then asked me to exit the subway with her and offered to reward me for my work by having a look at my back and spine.

How long are you planning to continue the action?

For a year. I have a palpable dream that one day I will hit on the right phrasing, the right interactive possibility, and a person will want to make a placard in response right in front of me—as a creative act, as a statement, as an expression of contempt for me or, on the contrary, out of a desire to express agreement or disagreement.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of OpenLeft.

Umida Akhmedova: “I Cannot Abide Being Told What to Do”

Photographer Umida Akhmedova: “I Cannot Abide Being Told What to Do”
Geliya Pevzner
RFI
May 20, 2016

starukha2
Umida Akhmedova, Tashkent: Inner Courtyard of the Kukeldash Madras, early 2000s

On May 5, 2016, it was announced that photographer and filmmaker Umida Akhmedova had been awarded the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. In 2009, Akhmedova published the photo album Men and Women: From Dawn to Dusk and shot the documentary film The Burden of Virginity. She was subsequently charged and convicted of defaming and insulting the Uzbek people. Akhmedova answered RFI’s questions before the awards ceremony on May 25 in Oslo. 

Umida Akhmedova: To be honest, [the prize] was quite a surprise to me. Such people have received it: Pussy Riot, Pyotr Pavlensky, and Iranian artist Atena Farghadani. But the press release says that I teach young people a lesson with my documentary photographs. In part, I agree with this. I do not consider myself a hero, but I have never yielded to the state’s machinations. I shoot what I see. I do not reflect on who will like it and who won’t. No, I shoot what is there. I have never once thought it was heroism.

Nevertheless, you were criminally prosecuted.

Yes, of course, and I have not yet been exonerated. Some people still shy away from me as a convicted offender. Six years ago, we appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan, but since then we have not heard a peep from them. They have not responded to our appeal. I was charged with “defaming and insulting the Uzbek people” by publishing the photo album Men and Women: From Dawn to Dusk and releasing the film The Burden of Virginity, which was produced as part of a program on gender sponsored by the Swiss Embassy.

How exactly did you slander the Uzbek people?

My lawyer also asked the question. No one responded, because only the president can decide what slander is. No one, in fact, has any intention of responding. Who personally filed a complaint against me? After all, the law says that if I have slandered you, you go and tell the court I have slandered you. But there was no such complaint. I don’t know how they cooked this up, but nor they did deign to prove anything.

Let’s return to the prize. Was it awarded to you for this album or for your whole body of work?

You know, it was not even for the album or that film. They said it was for my creative and civic stance. Because after everything that happened, I did not going into hiding. I have continued to do my art, and I have been active on the social networks. I was convicted yet again for the protest action “Uzbek Maidan,” as they exaggeratedly dubbed it. We did not expect it would be an Uzbek Maidan when we took a petition to the Ukrainian Embassy in January 2014. Yes, we were sympathetic to the Maidan, and our sympathy boiled down to the fact that the eight of us had our picture taken next to a monument to Taras Shevchenko. We were detained and tried a few days later. True, it was an administrative hearing. Maybe I got the prize for this as well, for having a civic stance. It is what it is. How can you not have a civic stance? How can you call yourself a photographer or documentary filmmaker if you don’t have a civic stance? I don’t understand this.

What are you working on now?

My husband Oleg Karpov and I continue to make films. Actually, the film Burden of Virginity was our film, because he is a director, and the ideas in the film belong to both of us. We recently made a film entitled Samarkand, and now I have a photo project called SNAP, which stands for “means of visual agitation and propaganda” (sredstva nagliadnoi agitatsii i propagandy), which was a subject in Soviet times when I was a student. It is written on every corner in our country that Uzbekistan is a country with a great future, that Uzbekistan is my pride: communist slogans like this, but updated for today’s needs. Meaning that the ideas for visual agitation and propaganda still have their source in the old life. I had myself photographed in front of these banners. You don’t have to look hard to find them. If you drive around Tashkent for half an hour you can take dozens of such photographs. “Shine bright, my native Uzbekistan,” “Independent Uzbekistan has a great future”: every year they come up with some slogan or other about our great country. It comes from the Soviet era. They haven’t invented anything new.

You will be awarded the prize on May 25. Are you working on a speech?

I will talk about the fact I am not a politician or a member of the opposition. I am not a member of a party, a sociologist or a political scientist. I am just a person who cannot abide being told what to do in her art. And I will also talk about fear. When it takes control of you, fear is a really nasty emotion.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) has also awarded the prize this year to Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani and Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Show Trial

Police Show Up to Evening in Support of Political Prisoners
Grani.ru
March 30, 2016

Police showed up at the Moscow cafe Dozhd-Mazhor, where an evening in support of political prisoners had been scheduled. Our correspondent reported that around fifteen officers entered the space, inspected it, and then went outside to the entrance and proceeded to ID everyone leaving the cafe.

Later, police tried to detain activist Habib Poghosyan. They claimed an APB had been issued for his arrest on suspicion of theft. Poghosyan refused to show the officers his internal passport, while they demanded he go with them to a police station. After several minutes of negotiation, the police officers left. The play started a little late.

Show Trial, a fantasy play about how Ildar Dadin‘s upcoming appeals hearing should turn out, and the itinerant exhibition {NE MIR} took place at the Moscow club Dozhd-Mazhor on March 29. Video by Vladimir Borko

“We believe that Ildar’s trial was a show trial, and so we decided to stage Show Trial, with a prisoner of conscience as the defendant. We will show people how such trials should be conducted, not only Ildar’s trial but also the trials of other political prisoners, including Darya Polyudova and Ivan Nepomnyashchikh, whose appeals are pending, and Dmitry Buchenkov and Pyotr Pavlensky, who are under investigation. We will also be recalling Alexei Sutuga, Alexander Kolchenko, and other people in prison on trumped-up charges for their beliefs,” said the evening’s organizers.

In addition to the performance, the art cafe hosted an exhibition dealing with the topic of unlawful arrests and trials. Poets and bard singers performed after the play.

Dadin’s appeals hearing will take place at 10 a.m., March 31, in Moscow City Court. Attorney Henri Reznik will represent Dadin at the hearing.

The hearing, which had begun on March 23, was postponed because the panel of judges had not been informed whether the defense had examined the minutes of the trial, and the defense had not been provided with audio recordings of the hearings.

On December 7, 2015, Judge Natalia Dudar of the Basmanny District Court sentenced Dadin to three years in a minimum security prison under Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code (repeated violations at rallies). However, the prosecutor had asked the court to sentence the activist to only two years in a minimum security prison. Dadin was accused of involvement in “unauthorized” protest rallies on August 6, August 23, September 13, and December 5, 2014.

It was the first guilty verdict handed down under the new law, which was inserted into the Criminal Code in 2014.

During his closing statement at the trial, Dadin said the article under which he had been charged was deliberately unconstitutional, “criminal, and political,” and has been designed to crack down on activists.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VZ for the heads-up

Pyotr Pavlensky: We Live between Fascism and Anarchy

Pyotr Pavlensky: We Live between Fascism and Anarchy
afoniya.wordpress.com
February 19, 2016

pyotr

With the news that actionist artist Pyotr Pavlensky was sent to the notorious Serbsky Institute of Psychiatry in a clear case of punitive psychiatry (for more on the case and its context, read Gabriel Levy’s excellent blog post), there is obviously a need to highlight and protest this fact but also a need to listen to Pavlensky’s own ideas and concepts. Here is a small excerpt, published in a Russian online magazine, which will be part of a forthcoming book on the artist in the context of Russian actionism. 

The original interview with Anastasia Belyayeva was posted on the website Snob on February 16, 2016.

—Giuliano Vivaldi

________

It was recently announced the organizers of the Innovation Contemporary Art Prize had disqualified Pyotr Pavlensky’s performance Threat, in which he set fire to the doors of the FSB building in Moscow. This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, Pyotr Pavlensky in Russian Actionism, which publisher Ilya Danishevsky has kindly allowed Snob to run.

* * * * *

Let’s talk about your audience. I am curious about this. In an interview with a Ukrainian television channel you stated that art should articulate, because it is rather difficult for people themselves to articulate why the state is crushing them. Your mission is to articulate?

A kind of diffusion has been taking place. We all find ourselves in a similar situation politically. Certain controversial things are happening to us, fairly unpleasant things. The issue is what is happening and how. Everyone senses it one way or another. But the problem is articulating what the authorities are doing, for they diffuse everything. A persons reads the news, goes to a shop, goes outside or has to go to work, and he sees that for some reason everything is bad, but this badness is somehow diffused.

You articulate this for your audience?

Well yes, for those who can see and hear it. 

When you articulate, if you want your message to be heard, you have to correct for the stereotypes people have, their cultural code, what they are ready for and what they are not ready for. It seems to me that, as a consequence, the people who need an explanation are simply unable to interpret your message, while those who are able, do not need an explanation. So the outcome is somehow nonsensical.

Those who are able do not need an explanation and those who are unable—

The audience of the national TV channels experience, at most, certain negative emotions when they see your actions. It is unpleasant and repulsive to them. Then they are told why you have done this. And this “unpleasantness and repulsion” get mixed up with the reason you did it.

That is exactly what I work for. These temporary gaps are intentional. The precedent remains, and then something happens, and a person comes back to it. One social network user wrote to me that, at one point, he was very much opposed to everything I did. I wrote something to him in response. And he told me in a letter that in the past he had written a lot against the actions, but then he was faced with certain situations in life. It seems the state apparatus had ground him down somewhere along the way. Now he supported this mode of action and apologized.

[…] 

photo_0_1

I have encountered many situations, and I have a rough idea as to how people react to my actions. An excessively emotional response usually can be found in abundance only on the Internet. In real life, when I meet people, I usually see they understand things quite well. Only once in the subway was there an altercation with someone, not even an altercation, but a guy simply went hysterical when he recognized me. A rather young guy recognized me in a subway car. He double-checked my image on the Internet and then began running round the car. We were all riding the subway, the train was moving, and he was running round this car calling on people to rise up against me, to join forces against me. Not a single person supported him. He stuck his phone in people’s faces, but they just brushed him aside as a crazy, hysterical individual. I observed how people reacted. Not having garnered any support, he accused me of humiliating our country, of humiliating him, [Red Square], and so on. It was clear from people’s glances that even if they had recognized me, I didn’t detect any incomprehension towards me or any aggressiveness amongst them. People are rather more understanding than not.

As for that social media user who wrote to you, was it pleasant to get such a reaction?

Of course, he supports some of my ideas.

Is this a rather unique case or does this “I have finally understood you” happen periodically?

Yes, it does happen now and again. There is a whole range of human responses. Sometimes, I feel the force of this whole range of reactions. When I prepare myself for an action, different public reactions flash through my mind at the moments of greatest tension. When you abstract yourself from it somehow, there is understanding to a certain extent. Why can I see this reaction even in my mind? Because we have the same sources: the Internet, maybe television, newspapers, and other things. We all feed on the same sources of information. I confront this range of responses afterwards, after the action has been carried out. Naturally, there are both positive and negative responses.

In the meantime, it remains somewhere in the same—

It will always stay like that, you were starting to say, this issue that some understand, while some do not. The thing is that if I begin to think in these terms so as to make the actions more understandable, and that in this case I need to do them such-and-such a way, it will end up as populism. I will end up trying to please people. That is not my objective.

That is not the objective. The objective is to get your message across in a minimum amount of time, straight away, in clear symbols.

A body wound up in barbed wire, what could be clearer? You understand that here there is no way you could be clearer.

718f

It seems to me there is a kind of clear reaction when people see a man nailing his scrotum on Red Square, and the first unfounded response is that people call you an exhibitionist or homosexual. That is the initial Russian response: he is not right in the head. In Russia, abnormality is associated with homosexuality, and if you are homosexual that means you are a pervert. Regarding such reactions, don’t you think the essential point is somehow diluted?

If you are talking about how the media tries to influence the response, then of course they are endlessly attempting to make the pendulum of reactions swing between regarding it as a criminal act and insanity, and so one can always expect a certain incomprehension. But it is another question how this influence affects people who actually see an action. During Fixation, one woman was constantly asking, “What’s wrong with him? Is he sick?” Of course, it is rather sad that the cult of psychiatry has such power over public consciousness. However, if a genuine conversation about psychiatric norms does start, that is just wonderful. That is a field that needs to be worked through. That is my first point. Second. About this gesture . . . I am not trying so much to invent or concoct something. The gesture of nailing one’s scrotum down is quite rooted in the culture. It is a gesture employed by prisoners.

Why do they make this gesture?

They do it in different situations.

As a protest?

Yes. They take their lack of freedom, the impossibility of movement, to an extreme. Often, there are wooden floors in prisons, and they nail themselves down. How are you going to move them then? A person is already imprisoned, and he has nailed himself to the floor. This is fixation. And you know, when I talk in my text about the way the country has been turned into a prison camp, about a police state, I am not talking about this lightly. November 10 was Police Day. Each year, banners hang everywhere in the city: November tenth, long live our beloved police! All these signs on the surface. I work with these signs because they are part of the culture. It is important where all this is drawn from if one talks about working with contexts. Without this, the gesture of prisoners would remain behind these fences, doors, and yet more fences. With this large number of barriers, information just does not get to us. You cannot even find photographs of this, because no one in the prisons would be prepared take them. Everyone knows this is happening somewhere behind a large number of doors. But here it is happening at the very center. However, if truth be told, a very conditional border was removed. November 10, banners, the memoirs of dissidents and prisoners: these are markers that link everything in a single statement. If this does not exist, then a passerby will start to think: Red Square, naked, I don’t know . . . I could argue that maybe he is a naked exhibitionist . . . I don’t know the degree to which it works. A naked man: why is he naked? A naked man is a man deprived of everything, even his clothes. It is a degree of impoverishment, an indicator of absence.

Of vulnerability?

No, not of vulnerability. That is not part of the message. The naked man is an expression of a condition, stripped, denuded, and deprived of everything. It is, on the other hand, the body as such. It is what can be found under everyone’s clothes. In any case, clothes always mark you, they are clothes of some kind; they build up an identity. While the body is simply the body. All bodies are similar in one way or another.

To what extent are the police part of your actions?

They are a very important part. To a large extent, they do it all themselves, they engineer everything. Everything changes places [during the action].

In the sense that they arrest you?

No, in the sense of how they react to it. It is not my body that turns out to be the victim. Everything is based on the fact that the authority figures are, in fact, victims of the situation, because they find themselves in the most subordinate situation. They have to obey regulations. I am working with subject-object relations. Above all, law enforcement officials are afraid, but they are obliged to exercise their authority.

They are obliged to free you.

To do something or free me.

Does the fact they are the authorities and are obliged to free you a revolution or something else?

They become the objects of the situation. That is, they . . . I think this is an important aspect: the state objectifies people, compels them to subordinate themselves to regulations, to move within the range of the permitted and the impermissible, to stay in this corridor. A person who submits is an object. When an action is carried out, they become objects, objects raised to a certain power perhaps. Besides the fact they are objects in the first place, performing certain functions, they also become art objects. They want to neutralize: their authority obliges them to do it. They are tasked with neutralizing and eliminating events, with mopping up streets or squares. But this compels them to serve an opposing end. They begin to engineer events. They become characters, actors. Everything is based on them. My own action is kept to a minimum. I simply sit there and do nothing. Or I just stand there. 

And if they had not come, would you have still sat on Red Square?

Yes. It is unclear how an event is going to develop until it actually takes place. It is enough to posit a figure of silence, and the situation is then constructed around the silence. Because the police, ambulance crew or just plain people who would attack me or do something else are simply part of the social body. Something happens: rejection is also a kind of interaction. A senselessly airtight situation: I came, I left. Another important fact is that I speak with everyone in the same way. I communicate with journalists, psychiatrists, and police investigators in the same way. There exist definite rules as to how everything is engineered. If one keeps to the rule of the figure of silence and does not react to the authorities, there should be no interaction. I remain static, but when the action phase ends, when the doors have closed, I start talking, and I talk with everyone in the same way. I make no distinction between journalists whom I am going tell all and, for example, a police investigator. I can, of course, mock the investigator as it were, but it is not mockery really. It is me who involves him in the art process. What has become of these dialogues? Who has achieved their goals in this situation, art or the bureaucratic apparatus? And with my cause I . . .

If everything in the country were fine, what would you have done?

I don’t know.

So you could say that the worse the situation is in the country, the more work you will have?

I understand. The situation is what? It is an unrealizable utopia. There will never be such an ideal society and state. It seems to me that there are certain defining things in people’s nature: subject-object relations and the concept of power. These things dominate all others.

You don’t particularly like the concept of power, do you? I take it that, roughly speaking, you believe it cannot be a good thing, something reasonable? Can power be a good thing?

I believe it cannot, because power’s objective is to create a fully predictable individual. Because an unpredictable individual is a dangerous individual. The closer a person gets to the condition of a subject, the more he goes beyond borders. He looks for something new, and this is dangerous for the powers that be, because he becomes ungovernable.

Would you have protested in any country in the world?

Not in the same way. You must understand there are different contexts. I’m not a professional protester.

Protest art?

Political art. I am not involved in protest art. Political art and protest art are far from one and the same thing. Protest art is when you take to the streets with a placard. There is a NO there, and here there is a YES. That would be a generalization. I take it as a premise that political art involves working with mechanisms of control.

Fine. Political art. Would you have done political art anywhere?

I don’t know. If I lived in another country, maybe I wouldn’t have done political art. Given how I think now, I would probably have found something to do. But maybe it would be something formally similar, because different countries and different control systems generate different ways of suppressing the human imagination. 

Is there a model or regime you find ideal? Anarchy perhaps?

Probably anarchy is an ideal model. I am aware its ideal rests on its impracticability. It is unlikely that humankind will decide to sacrifice the benefits of scientific and technological progress to utopian anarchy. Anarchy is liberation from certain paradigms, it is resistance, a rejection of certain impossible rules. Anarchy involves working with the concept of power.

Anarchy is what you find most congenial? Or is it something else?

Yes, I probably find it congenial in some way. There is insurrectionary anarchism, and there are other kinds of anarchism. Anarcho-communism is a contradictory delusion: the dictatorship of equality versus the dictatorship of freedom. Either there is the one or the other. It is difficult to imagine the emergence of punk culture in a dictatorial regime of universal equality.

Would you like to live in a state where anarchy ruled?

There can be no state where anarchy rules.

A city where everything takes shape in this way. There is anarchy, but something takes shape all the same.

Undoubtedly. That is why I say it is anarchy. The individual’s life is spent in permanent struggle for subjectivation and self-assertion, because all possible resources, forces, interests and, ultimately, other people or groups of people work towards objectivation, towards subjugation. Even if a pseudo-anarchist structure was to take shape, groups or structures would still emerge that would turn it all

Systematize it.

Yes, turn it into an ossified mass. And it is better to reject these dogmas before they have managed to become political disenchantment. History persuades us that the lessons of the twentieth century did not prevent the kibbutzim from reconciling the beautiful idea of communal property with the defense of the growing and sacred borders of the state of Israel. This constant self-assertion has to be rejected. It is like a never-ending process.

Is there an ideal model for individual existence? Is it possible the way you see it: that nobody usurps you, and you do not intersect with anyone? 

It’s difficult for me to say. It all depends on the person. A person must overcome the [rules] imposed on him—

Globally.

Globally, there is a movement towards the anarchist model.

Then everything will circle round again?

Without a doubt. There is a certain range or continuum, of course. As in the [Grazhdanskaya Oborona] song: “Everything that is not anarchy is fascism.” We are situated between these two poles. Fascism not in terms of the Italian model or some other model, obviously, but as a kind of generic term. Fascism as absolute diktat, absolute and total control. And there is the other pole: anarchy as a certain absolute freedom. In fact, all the oscillation occurs between them.

And in the middle, between these two extremes, normality rolls along?

I have never thought about what is in the middle. I don’t know what is in between. In between there is dull liberalism with its shoddy political correctness.

I am just trying to understand your goal in this essentially vicious circle. You understand that things will never be wonderful?

What actually changes society and generally produces transformation? Certainly not any political templates or schemes, because working with cultural codes is the most important thing. Semantic precedents influence how a person relates to what happens around him. They are his reflexes, developed vis-à-vis different situations. Which of his associative models are activated, and what kind of situational response does he make? He may give a quick response, or he may, upon reflection, make a decision. This is the field where the struggle takes place. Regimes change, of course. There was the Soviet regime. Before that there was the monarchy, the Russian Empire, and now there is this regime. In any regime, the siloviki [military and security services] are in power. In 1917, there was a revolution, there were changes, and there were significant changes in culture, art, and how people related to each other. Things were in motion for fifteen years, and then there was a reaction. The Bolsheviks suffocated everything, and things were rolled way back.

Do you have an overarching idea about you are doing? Where are you taking all this? What point between fascism and anarchy seems to you the most appropriate?

You undoubtedly need to push everything in the direction of anarchy because

Because something budges at least a little bit?

Even for things to remain as they are, you already need a certain effort. If you make a great effort you can move things a little further. On the other hand, there is a very strong force moving us in the other direction, towards fascism and absolute subjugation. The state apparatus with its huge resources, an entire system of agencies, is working towards this. It is a constant clash. It never stops. For me, the head-on collision takes place on this stretch of road. It is ridiculous to dream those forces that are a hindrance will eventually dissolve and disappear, and we will suddenly find ourselves in anarchy and living under a different model. I think this is a more realistic perspective on things. But speaking theoretically, of course, when you loosen frameworks and push back borders, you really help others, the people who come after you.

Translated by Giuliano Vivaldi and reprinted here with his kind permission. See my previous posts on Pyotr Pavlensky.

People and Nature: Punitive Psychiatry Back in Vogue in Russia

Russia: punishment psychiatry back in vogue
People and Nature
February 17, 2016

The Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been sent to the notorious Serbsky Institute of Psychiatry, and his family and lawyers are worried about him.

On November 9, 2015, Pavlensky poured petrol over the doors of the infamous Federal Security Service (FSB) building at Lubyanka Square in central Moscow and set fire to them. He named the action Threat (Ugroza). Friends photographed and filmed him as the flames took hold. (Damage was done, but no one was hurt.) Pavlensky was arrested soon afterwards.

The FSB’s building was inherited directly from the Soviet KGB. Thousands of the regime’s political opponents were tortured and killed behind its austere façade.

Pavlensky has been charged with “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred,” whatever that means, and appeared at the Tagansky District Court several times. At his first appearance he compared his case to those of Crimean activists jailed on false “terrorism” charges – including Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov – and said he would not address the court further.

Oleksei Chirniy, who was charged along with Kolchenko and Sentsov, was also detained at the Serbsky Institute prior to his trial. His supporters alleged he had been mistreated with psychotropic drugs.

Pavlensky is also awaiting trial for charges arising from an earlier performance, Freedom (Svoboda). In February 2014, days after the removal  of Ukrainian president Viktor

Separation (Otdelenie). Pavel Pavlensky protesting against punishment psychiatry, October 2014. Photo courtesy of Calvert Journal

Yanukovich, he went with collaborators to the Maly Konyushenny Bridge in Saint Petersburg, setting light to car tires and banging dustbin lids, to recreate the atmosphere of the Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv.

Pavlensky was sent to the Serbsky State Scientific Centre for Social and Forensic Psychiatry last month (on January 27) to be observed by doctors. The centre was then closed due to an outbreak of a strong flu-like virus, and Pavlensky’s lawyers have been denied access to their client.

Human rights campaigners are focusing on Pavlensky’s case and Amnesty International have expressed concern about it.

On February 3, in Pavlensky’s absence, the Tagansky District Court extended his detention to March 5. His wife expressed fears for his health in a Facebook post: “We do not know if they are injecting him with drugs, trying to give him pills. We don’t know.”

Meanwhile, artists are protesting a decision by the National Centre for Contemporary Art to throw Pavlensky’s performance out of the contest for this year’s Innovation Prize.

His action at the Lubyanka was included after an online vote by critics. But on February 15, the organizers of the prize struck it off, on the grounds that it had involved an illegal act. Members of the expert committee that advised the organizers were angry; art critic Anna Tolstova quit the committee, saying: “I don’t consider myself obliged to agree with censorship and become part of the repressive machinery of the state.”

Clearly, the Innovation Prize organizing committee has taken a step backwards. In 2010, the prize was won by the Voina group for painting a large phallus on a bridge near FSB headquarters in Saint Petersburg.

Punitive psychiatry has been on the rise in Russia again since the 2011 demonstrations against government ballot-rigging.

In October 2013, Mikhail Kosenko, one of the defendants brought to trial after those demonstrations, was sentenced to indefinite psychiatric treatment after the Serbsky Instititue declared him insane. Psychiatric treatment was also used in the recent case of Crimean activists, three of whom are serving long jail sentences in Russia and are widely regarded as political prisoners.

Pavlensky has protested against punishment psychiatry. In October 2014, he sat on the wall of the Serbsky Institute and cut off his earlobe to make his point. He then wrote: “Armed with psychiatric diagnoses, the bureaucrat in a white lab coat cuts off from society those pieces that prevent him from establishing a monolithic dictate of a single, mandatory norm for everyone.”

But punitive psychiatry goes back much further. It was used in the Soviet Union from (at least) the 1940s, to deal with those who defied its tyrannical, misnamed “socialism”, and became widespread in the 1960s. It was the Serbsky Institute that developed the diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia” (vyalotekushchaya shizofreniya) which was widely applied to political dissidents.

Not only were internationally known oppositionists, such as the independent trade union organizer Vladimir Klebanov and the Second World War general Pyotr Grigorenko, confined to psychiatric institutions, but psychiatry was used against large numbers of less-well-known Soviet citizens. (Indeed two western writers who studied the phenomenon in Soviet times concluded that the abuse of psychiatry against prominent dissidents was “probably only the tip of an iceberg.” It had a wide-ranging function in dealing with “social deviants,” “suppressing individuality […] so that the state can maintain a stifling social as well as political control.” Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway, Russia’s Political Hospitals, Gollancz 1977, pp. 278-279.)

An early (and typical) case was that of Revolt Pimenov, a maths student who resigned from the Communist Party’s Youth League, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and consigned to a psychiatric hospital – the sentence being lifted when he agreed to rejoin the league! His story is recorded in the marvellous archive of the Chronicle of Current Events, a dissident journal. (Thanks to J. who drew that to my attention!)

Revolt Pimenov in his student days. Photo courtesy of the Chronicle of Current Events

Finally, a thought about Pavlensky’s art. I am pretty conservative in my artistic tastes, but it works wonders for me. What is an artist supposed to do when his government becomes increasingly repressive and supports military mayhem in a neighbouring state? Paint landscapes?

In my view, setting fire to the doors of the Lubyanka was a cry of sanity in an insane world. I’m not blind to the limitations of individual protest, but this protest tried seriously to deal with the state machine’s monstrous corrosion of humanity.

If you are a western leftie thinking “Well, this is hardly the worst example of state repression,” give me some credit. I know. I, too, see the sickening irony in the denunciation of Putin for ordering Syrian children’s deaths to gain diplomatic advantage by people who had little to say about Tony Blair and George Bush ordering Iraqi children’s deaths on a vastly greater scale. Well, you know what, it’s not a competition! Putin’s violence is part of the same process as Tony Blair’s, not some sort of answer to it.

For me, this is about the reality with which my friends, activists in social and labour movements in Russia and Ukraine, have to deal.

If you’re a psychiatrist, please get on to your professional association about that institute. If you’re an artist, please get on to that art centre about that competition. If you’re a letter writer, please follow Amnesty’s advice on protesting to the Russian prosecutor, and if you’re fighting for some other cause, big or small, please keep doing what you’re doing. How else can we deal with the inherent madness of the system under which we live? GL, February 17, 2016

Meaningful art: the Lubyanka ablazePeople & Nature, November 2015

■ For the latest on the Crimean political prisoners, read the website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

Editor’s Note. A huge thanks to Gabriel Levy for writing this timely and pointed essay and especially for his permission to republish it here.