Too Creative Dissident

Petr Pavlensky received the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, but was quickly stripped of the award due to fears surrounding his overt radicalism. What does this embarrassing event tell us?
Петр_Павленский/ Pavlensky

The circumstances surrounding the awarding and subsequent removal of the international Václav Havel Human Rights Prize to the Russian performance artist, Petr Pavlensky, resemble scenes from Havel’s absurd dramas. The whole story is complicated by the fact that there are simultaneously two  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)  along with the Václav Havel Library and the Charter 77 Foundation, while the other is awarded  by the 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 award – the New York Prize.

 Primorsky Partisans

When Pavlensky was awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize for creative dissent in May, it didn’t seem possible that the decision could be challenged. Pavlensky is probably the best-regarded contemporary Russian performance artist, who has been incriminated for his latest performance Threat in which he set fire to the main entrance of the Lubyanka, 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 became 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 donate the prize money to the so-called Primorsky Partisans.

Regardless of how we judge the decision, it is clear that  the situation was poorly handled-had the jury familiarized itself with Pavlensky’s ideological opinions, artistic methods and traditions before deciding to award him the prize it could have saved itself from an unpleasant faux pas.

The Primorsky Partisans are a group of young men from the from the Primorsky district in the Russian Far East who decided in 2010 to leave for the taiga to launch a resistance against police terror by armed means. They claimed that this was an act of self-defense: they were allegedly kidnapped and tortured by local police officers and made to confess to crimes that they never committed. During clashes which lasted for 103 days, and 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 Eduard Limonov’s nationalist-Bolshevik party, also lost his life. Out 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 respectively. The trials took place without the public being allowed to be present and there were numerous errors, including the denial of the right to an impartial defense. As it turned out recently, in the attempt to hand out exemplary punishments, the Primorsky Partisans were charged with several premeditated murders. In the appeal process the jury acquitted two of them – Alexei Nikitin, who had been sentenced to eight and half years and Vadim Kovtun, who had been given a life sentence.

Shalygina intended to speak about her and her husband’s plans to support the Primorsky Partisans at the award ceremony, but the jury prevented her from doing so. However Pavlensky was awarded the prize, which gave his wife a platform. Afterwards, Pavlensky wrote a letter to the jury, specifying that he will donate the monetary award not directly to the Primorsky Partisans but instead to a foundation that secures impartial attorneys and legal assistance on their behalf. Subsequently, the Human Rights Foundation delayed presenting the award money for a few months. This lead Pavlensky to pen a manifesto titled Yednomyslnost 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 what these people lived for”. The jury closed the case on July 8 and announced that they were withdrawing the monetary prize.

 Unadvised Jury

The clumsy way in which the letter to Pavlensky announcing the withdrawal of the monetary award was written adds to the scandalous treatment.  The jurors argued in moralist, buck-passing overtones, stating: “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 the Primorsky Partisans who use deadly violence to promote their beliefs.”

Regardless of how we judge the decision, it is clear that  the situation was poorly handled. If the jury had familiarized itself with Pavlensky’s ideological opinions, artistic methods and traditions he builds on before deciding to award him the prize it could have saved itself from an unpleasant faux pas. At the very least the jury should have been aware that they were dealing 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 an artistic process. 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 their inadequate knowledge of the intellectual legacy of the patron of the Prize – Václav Havel. So what does the Václav Havel Prize jury know and  not know about Petr Pavlensky? And what does the jury know about Václav Havel?

 Victim and Violence

The performance artist Pavlensky emerged  during the dramatic summer of 2012 when the waves of civil protests, unprecedented in their intensity since 1991, were already dying out and the hopes of all of their supporters centered on the members of the punk group Pussy Riot as they stood trial. Pavlensky’s pale, dignified, sharp, ascetic face and lips brutally sewed together with a coarse thread and smeared with dried blood, standing against the backdrop of the Kazan cathedral in St. Petersburg depicted a lot: it implicated those who remain silent as well as those who impose 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 the performance titled Seam was emphasized by a poster with the line “The performance of Pussy Riot was a replication of the famous action of Jesus Christ (Matthew 21:12–13)“ – i.e. when Jesus threw out the merchants from the temple.

Pavlensky refers to his art as political and understands the history of art as the history of human clashes with power. An important leitmotif of all of his performances is a moment of violence – including against himself. In the  performance titled Carcass the artist lay wrapped in a cocoon of barbed wire in front of the Petersburg Legislative Assembly. In the  performance Fixation  he nailed  his scrotum to the pavement of the Red Square. In the performance Segregation  he is cut off his ear whilst sitting on the wall of a psychiatric ward. In the latest, above-mentioned performance Threat, Pavlensky  doused the doors of Lubjanka with petrol before setting them on fire and was then photographed against the backdrop of the fire with a jerrycan in his hand, before he was  eventually arrested. This time, the artist voluntarily exposed himself to institutionalized violence – unjust imprisonment.

To some, these now iconic images  are reminders of the turbulent atmosphere of the turn of the 19th and 20th century. At this time, the environment was full of  ‘terrorists’ – Social revolutionaries,  artists, and god-searchers. These people were filled with feelings of resistance against absolutist rule, and as such the distance between religious acts and violence began to lessen, and therefore the escalated and exalted need for self-sacrifice for the right thing in the eyes of the contemporaries  redeemed these violent acts of terrorism.   In his essay about the 21-year old  social revolutionary-maximalist Natasha Klimova, who was sentenced to death for an attack on the prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, Varlam Shalamov wrote: ”Selflessness of the century found the highest measure of freedom, the greatest strength in connecting the word and the act. They started with ‘you shall not kill’  and ’God is love’; with vegetarianism and assistance to fellow human beings. The moral demands and sacrifices were so huge that the best of the best who grew disappointed with the principle of nonviolence moved from “you shall not kill“ to launching attacks. They grabbed revolvers, bombs, and dynamite. They did not have time to grow disappointed in bombs: all of the 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, and when the terrorist Boris Savinkov searched for religious justification for terror with his friends Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius and tried to merge the undoubtedly altruistic selflessness of Russian revolutionaries with the no less unproblematic sixth 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 intelligentsia 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, but feel like crying out: Yes, yes, violence isn’t right; it isn’t justifiable. Blood cannot 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 1907 essay Revolution and Violence.

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, cannot be overlooked.

As we now know, the impact of such religious-ideological fervour had fatal consequences for Russia in the 20th century. But at the same time, it isn’t possible to close our eyes to the fact that similar questions emerge now, a 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, Charter 77 has always been distinguished by increased sensitivity toward human rights violations, even in cases that delineated from the objective human rights canon. It was perhaps historically given by the fact that 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 – conservatives, Catholics, Trotskyists and the revolutionaries of 1968. If the Charter was to work, there had to be a great degree of tolerance on the inside and outside and there also had to be increased sensitivity when evaluating “borderline“ cases, not too different from the one that became the core of the conflict between Pavlensky and the jurors. In context it would be worth remembering that in a typical “borderline case“ such as that 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 a pardon 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 Yednomyslnost that “Primorsky Partisans are rebels. And rebels are those who fight to defend the local population against any terror.” But did not Havel’s first pardon in 1990 include a whole number of such ”borderline cases“ that were fundamentally criminal, but which had been 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, Pavlensky intuitively sensed which border for him as an artist is worth drawing and crossing. And the surprising thing  is that even before Pavlensky, the Czech artist Josef Žáček sensed 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 the Primorsky Partisans from the Russian Far East that 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 between the two can we see through its contours the fragility of the world, its gloomy beauty.“ But this takes us back to Charter 77 since Jirous crucially contributed to its ”sensitivity”.  We are now 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 at least subconsciously felt this when he decided how he was going to act. 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.


Translated by Dáša Frančíková.

This text was originally published in A2 16/2016.