In the early hours of November 9, 2015, Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky approached the main entrance of Russia’s most feared institution and set the door ablaze.
Posing in front of the burning door of the headquarters of the FSB (the successor to the KGB in modern Russia) mere seconds before he was detained, Pyotr, with his diamond-cut cheekbones and heavy gaze, looked like one of those death-and-doom dispensing angels heavily featured on dramatic frescoes by the likes of Mikhail Vrubel and Victor Vasnetsov. Weeks later – as Pavlensky sits in prison awaiting his trial – I’m in a warm Moscow kitchen with two people closest to him – Oksana Shalygina, the mother of his children, and Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – or Nadya Tolokno, as she is widely known.
Together, Oksana and Nadya create an interesting visual contrast. Oksana is makeup-less and ascetic-looking but has a wide, tremendous grin that takes over her entire face, making her eyes shine. Perched opposite Oksana on the window, Nadya has the air of a rock star – dramatic eyeliner, expertly styled hair that somehow makes her look like a cross between an elf and a punk, and the habit of smirking slightly at your questions.
Both are united by their love of comedy, and their need to not take our conversation too seriously. Oksana and Nadya haven’t been friends long – they only met after Pavlensky was arrested – but they seem instantly comfortable in one another’s company, smoking and laughing together, Oksana in no way intimidated by Nadya’s worldwide celebrity. In fact, on another wintry day in Moscow, Oksana will accompany Nadya to scout locations for ‘Chaika’, a new music video about highprofile corruption scandals in Russian law enforcement – a topic that’s been in Russian news of late, following allegations by anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny that the sons of Russia’s Prosecutor General, Yuri Chaika, have close ties to organised crime.
Oksana is frequently referred to as Pyotr’s “wife” in the Russian press. She prefers the word “ally”. But, as both Oksana and Pyotr have told the media, submitting to social norms and registering for an official marriage is, to them, just another form of oppression. They are “against oppression as manifested by society,” she says, be it political, religious, or social. The couple, who have an open relationship and are raising two daughters together, are currently separated by thick walls and barbed wire – Pyotr is in pretrial detention following the fire incident at the FSB.
“Everyone in Russia understood that particular performance,” says Oksana, who co-edits the journal Politicheskaya Propaganda (Political Propaganda) together with Pyotr. “People can agree or disagree with it – but they know what it meant.” The performance art piece at the FSB was called ‘Threat. The Burning Doors of Lubyanka.’ The threat referenced, however, was not the comparatively puny one made by him. The threat, as Pyotr and Oksana have both put it, is that of more terror from the Russian security services.
Twenty-first century Russia is a country that has yet to deal with its past – particularly Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s. This shameful period in history saw the security services execute up to 1,000 people a day. According to independent polls, at least one third of Russians view Stalin’s legacy as favourable. The language of the Great Terror remains a part of the Russian political lexicon today, with Kremlin critics often labelled “traitors” and members of a foreignbacked “fifth-column” in the mainstream press. The current president, Vladimir Putin, is a former KGB agent and Russian security services enjoy a tremendous amount of power and an equally tremendous lack of public accountability.
In this tense, but also confusing atmosphere – where repressions are so random as to be unpredictable, and the Russian Constitution still ostensibly guarantees the freedom of its citizens – it is indeed conceivable that Pyotr’s symbolic act of setting the FSB’s door on fire is imbued with a specific logic for millions of Russians who, in one way or another, have been affected by both a totalitarian past and a bizarre, postmodern present. Whether they like to admit it or not, entire swathes of the Russian population have internalised their suspicion of security services and law enforcement.
Today, this fear creeps up in popular culture – in prison songs, jokes and random conversation. Pyotr first came to the public’s attention in 2012, when he sewed his mouth shut and stood across from St. Petersburg’s Kazansky Cathedral in protest at the decision to jail another group of performance artists, the punk band Pussy Riot. He explained that his latest act was highlighting censorship of art and “society’s fear, the mass paranoia that I see everywhere”. Pyotr famously does not fear pain.
In 2013, he wrapped himself in barbed wire outside the Legislative Assembly of St Petersburg to protest laws that, among other things, restrict civic activism. “These laws, like the wire, keep people in individual pens,” he explained. In another particularly notable performance he stripped naked and nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones on Red Square. In Pyotr’s own words, an act in which an artist gazes down on his testicles, fixed in place right by the Kremlin is a “metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society”.
Today, Nadya, freed in 2013 after being amnestied along with Pussy Riot band-mate Maria Alyokhina, is a fierce champion of the rights of Russian prisoners both famous and unknown. She works on their behalf through the organisation Zona Prava, which she cofounded with Maria. Since Pyotr was detained, Nadya has raised money for him and has written about the importance of his art. “What I hate in [my own art] looks magical, integral, and organic when it is done by Pavlensky,” Nadya recently wrote on Facebook.
She was referring to the fact that until Pussy Riot was actually in court, they lacked seriousness and acted more as tricksters and jokers, showing up hypocrisy in society. The strain of detention and court proceedings made them serious, and it was this seriousness, this pain, that Pyotr has integrated into his own work, says Nadya
Sitting across from Oksana, Nadya is initially a categorical, icy presence. “What am I even doing here, having this conversation?” she asks, annoyed, as soon as I bring up the meaning of Pyotr’s performance art. She insists the meaning is obvious. But when I dig deeper, it turns out that Nadya is mostly weary of protest art being misinterpreted. She mentions an interview of Pyotr’s in which he was misquoted as saying that the entire country of Russia is a huge prison. “He was talking about society as a whole,” Nadya says, dragging on her cigarette with a scornful look. “The way it came out made it seem Russophobic.”
Russophobia is a contentious issue – especially because the Russian government often uses its existence to excuse any foreign opposition as inherently prejudicial. “Of course, there is such a thing as Russophobic discourse, and the [Russian] government itself participates in it,” Nadya says. Even when she’s trying to be serious, however, her famous fey, oddly unnerving smile creeps onto her face – she can’t help it, as she readily admits herself. Both Pussy Riot and Pyotr, with his ally Oksana, have lived their art. They are willing, in Oksana’s words, to “go all the way,” to suffer for their work, to be punished, derided, scorned, and, in some cases, jailed for them.
For two members of Pussy Riot, this has meant serving time in a penal colony after being convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for singing an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral, an action that was meant to draw attention to the Orthodox Church’s close ties to the Kremlin. While his actions have prompted much laughter and derision, it can’t be denied that there is something viscerally frightening about them – frightening and appropriate, as their outward absurdity seems to fit in nicely with Russia’s own confused, contradictory political state, borne from the country’s inability to decide whether it’s a democracy, a tyranny, or both.
Pyotr’s latest act, the one that will likely see him go to prison, shines a stark, uncompromising light on this atmosphere – like holding up a mirror to the FSB and showing them the damage that they and their predecessors have done. In court, Pyotr insisted he wanted his protest to be classified as an act of terror – leaving him open to up to fifteen years in prison. But so far, he remains charged with vandalism – which, when paired with charges of “ideological hatred”, carries just three years. “He is very cheerful in jail,” Oksana tells me, smiling. It seems important to her that Pyotr not be seen as a victim of the criminal justice system, but as an artist who successfully manipulates this system even as he is caught in its jaws.
“He’s upbeat,” she adds. Oksana has the unmistakable aura of a true believer; her relaxed, casual attitude is no act. There is no doubt in her eyes, no notes of sadness in her voice, her very body language suggests that she is an individual who has eased into her role as companion to Russia’s most bothersome and uncompromising performance artist, and will remain in it for as long as necessary. And yet, as Oksana and Nadya talk, there is a sense of absence in the room – the absent Pyotr, and the absent, yet still somehow ever-present security services. “I’m watched all the time, of course,” Nadya tells me, her tone also casual. “It becomes especially evident when I travel [outside of Moscow] on behalf of prisoners, for example – that’s when [the security services] get really conspicuous about following me.”
“And if you value your privacy, you can’t talk much on the phone,” Oksana chimes in. Both women know that once you have the attention of the security services, they won’t forget you in a hurry. This happens even if you’re just an artist, i.e. belonging to a category of people that the FSB considers crazy and bothersome, but also largely harmless – certainly more harmless than terrorists and terrorist sympathisers, of which Russia has plenty. I ask them both about the possibility of leaving. Russia is constantly restricting new people from coming into the country, but Sovietstyle exit visas have not been introduced.
Some political experts insist that they won’t be at all, since Russian politicians are too interested in making money from natural resources to worry about people leaving, and see the majority of the population as a burden anyway. Plenty of dissidents have left Russia already – some quietly, some with lots of fanfare – but Nadya and Oksana say they’re not going anywhere. “Sure, a lot of my friends have left,” Nadya says as she boils water for tea. “Because they want to concentrate on different issues. They don’t want to sit around here and be answering questions such as, ‘Is being gay okay?’ or whatever. They are too far ahead of all that. But I’m not going anywhere.”
“Neither am I,” insists Oksana. Both women grin. The electric kettle dings, punctuating the moment. I ask them about the future. Russia is one of those countries, after all, where the future never seems set. Just a few years ago, who could have predicted the annexation of Crimea? The war in east Ukraine? Sanctions and counter-sanctions? In a society where there isn’t a buffer between the individual and the state, such tectonic shifts affect individual lives in dramatic ways. Now that the price of oil has dropped and sanctions are also having an effect, the Russian economy is in trouble.
For the first time in a long time, economic protest is also beginning to stir – and Nadya and Oksana are familiar with the rumblings. Although Moscow’s protest class is frequently derided as bourgeois and out of touch, they both have small-town roots and say they empathise with blue-collar protesters. “For certain, there will be more protest – not just economic, but artistic protest as well,” Nadya says of the future. “Of course, there will be less support for institutions – so there won’t be people explaining artistic protest to the general public.”
According to Nadya, in the current, uncertain climate, it was Pyotr that picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Pussy Riot. “That particular story is over – his is ongoing,” she says. Nadya pointedly looks at the time on her phone. I ask Oksana about Pyotr’s eventual fate. “The verdict doesn’t matter,” she says, smiling brightly. “What matters is the action. It happened. It’s done. It was a success.”