Russian Performance Artist Detained for Setting Fire to Federal Security Service HQ

The artist poses in front of the burning door as the action is being recorded. Screen cap from the video on Vimeo.

The artist poses in front of the burning door as the action is being recorded. Screen cap from the video on Vimeo.

Petr Pavlensky, a Russian performance artist, has been detained on suspicion of hooliganism after setting fire to the doors of the headquarters of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in Lubyanka, Moscow.

Pavlensky, known for his hard-hitting and sometimes shocking performance art, was photographed and recorded on video holding a canister of gasoline and setting alight one of the entrances to the FSB offices. Video of the performance was posted on Vimeo.

Photos from the action were also published by Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov, and quickly made their way around social media.

According to Pavlensky, the performance piece (titled “The Threat”) was a symbol of the struggle against the “constant terror methods” of the Federal Security Service. The artist called his actions “a glove thrown by society into the face of the terror threat” of the FSB.

Journalists Vladimir Romenskiy and Nigina Beroeva, who were covering the performance, were detained together with Pavlensky, but later released by the police.

Social media users were either dismissive of the performance or very complimentary of it, echoing the usual polarized reaction to Pavlensky's art actions.

- Why is your FSB burning?
– I'm an artist, that's my vision.

This could be anything—from modern art to ancient carnival (see Herostratus), but this isn't politics. And definitely not protest.

Russian MP Dmitry Gudkov (from A Just Russia party) wrote a thoughtful Facebook reaction post, wherein he reflected on the nature of the performance, the society's reaction to it, and what this might mean for the future of Russian protests and the Russian state.

Я тоже скажу свои пару слов про новую акцию Павленского. Во-первых, все, конечно, прекрасно продумано: и время — утро понедельника, чтобы сразу обеспечить СМИ главной новостью, и картинка — лицо аскета на фоне пожара. Как акт искусства — практически безупречно, не нужны никакие пояснения.
А вот во-вторых — все печальнее. Представьте, что тот же Павленский вышел утром к ФСБ с плакатом в одиночный пикет. Этого никто и не заметил бы, сколько таких пикетчиков только за последний месяц повязали в центре города «без шума и пыли». А раз нормальный протест не работает — у ФСБ начинают гореть двери. И все, кого я читал в Фейсбуке, восторгаются. Не красотой картинки, а именно самим поджогом.
…другого способа диалога власти и общества уже нет. И искусство адекватно отвечает на такой вызов времени. Мы дошли до той точки, когда низы не могут достучаться до верхов, а те не хотят слышать этот стук.

I'll also say a few words about Pavlensky's new action. First, it's all very well thought out: the time—Mondya morning, to give the media their main news story, and the picture–an ascetic's face with fire in the background. As an act of art it's practically perfect, it doesn't require any explanation.
And second, everything's much worse. Imagine that the very same Pavlensky came out in the morning to the FSB HQ with a poster to stage a one-man picket. No one would have noticed it, as countless single picketers have been detained in downtown [Moscow] in just the last month, “without noise or dust.” And since a normal protest doesn't work, the FSB's doors start to burn. And everyone who I've seen on Facebook are in awe of it. Not the beauty of the image it presents, but the arson itself.
…there is no other way for dialogue between the authorities and the society. And art is responding in kind to the challenge this time presents. We have reached a point when those at the bottom can't get through to those at the top, and those at the top don't want to hear them knocking from below.

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