Pyotr Pavlensky is a thirty-one year Russian performance artist and political activist. He studied at the St. Petersburg Art and Industry Academy. He has gained worldwide attention in the last three years for his outrageous public performances, which usually involve some type of self-mutilation. The performances are intended to draw attention to political conditions in Russia. Each one is carefully planned and executed in public spaces with Pavlensky usually releasing statements of explanation after the fact. He has been arrested on multiple occasions for hooliganism and is currently in custody for vandalism after setting fire to a prominent government building.
Pavlensky has carried out six major performances since 2012, each in protest to specific government actions. His first well-known performance, entitled Seam, was carried out in May 2012. He showed up near Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral with his mouth sewn closed. This performance was in protest against the arrest of members of the punk group Pussy Riot, several of whom had worked with Pavlensky on past projects. Pavlensky was taken to a hospital after this stunt and given psychiatric evaluation. He was declared sane and released. The following year, Pavlensky performed two more acts of self-mutilation. Carcass was performed in May, when he lay naked in front of the Legislative Assembly Building wrapped in barbed wire, in protest of laws which had been enacted to suppress activism and other actions threatening to the government. In November of that year, Pavlensky sat naked in Red Square and nailed his scrotum to the ground in order to symbolize the helplessness of the Russian people in the face of political actions. This performance was called Fixation. His next performance, Freedom, occurred the following February, when he protested in support of the Ukrainian Revolution by building a small barricade and burning tires in the style of the Maidan protestors. Also in 2014, Pavlensky sat naked on top of the Serbsky Center and cut off his earlobe in an act entitled Segregation, this time protesting abuse of psychiatry for political reasons.
Pavlensky’s most recent act, which has been entitled Lubyanka’s Burning Door, happened early Monday morning, November 9, when he doused the front door of the building with gasoline and threw a match on it. The door sustained some damage before the fire was put out and Pavlensky was arrested. The Lubyanka building was the headquarters of both Lenin’s secret police and the later KGB, and Pavlensky’s attack was planned to call attention to the tortures and other atrocities that have been committed in that building, with the fire being lit to symbolize the gates of hell. Pavlensky posed in front of the burning door as he waited to be arrested, and he submitted to his arrest without incident. When his case was opened the following day as an act of vandalism, Pavlensky requested that his charge be changed to an act of terrorism. According to the Telegraph article “Controversial Russian Artist Arrested after Setting Fire to the Door of Secret Services Building,” Pavlensky had this to say about terrorism: “Terrorism can only exist thanks to the animal instinct of fear. A person resists this instinct by an involuntary defensive reflex. That is the reflex to fight for one’s life. And life is worth starting a fight for.”