The body
as a political
in Russia



This thesis examined the relatively recent emergence of body-protest art in Russia, which replaced a literary text. This shift can be nearly equally attributed to the cultural, socio-political and economic shifts after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Analyzing works of Petr Pavlensky and other activists as an example of a new movement in the Russian art and revealing particulars of using the body in political protesting discourse, I would like to answer the question: what led to the appearance of such a body representation in Russia?

Perhaps a secret of understanding actions of Pavlensky explained in his favourite phrase: “The history of art is the history of a clash of a man and power”, where the legacy of Michel Foucault is noticeable. I also examine historical significance of literature in the Russian society before considering changes.

Mass media propaganda creates a certain veil that does not let make correct assessment of the political situation in Russia. I hope that I will slightly reveal this veil in an attempt to demonstrate and clarify the picture in Russia without hiding anything from outsiders.

“Your power ends where my body begins, because you can never do more to me than I have done to myself.” (Marat Guelman, 2016) 1




Anatoly Osmolovsky and the Radek group, “Against All”, Mausoleum of Lenin, Moscow 1999 Anatoly Osmolovsky and the Radek group, “Against All”, Mausoleum of Lenin, Moscow 1999

Part 1: fear

I step out of a carriage at Pushkinskaya Subway station. Somewhat like 30 fully equipped police officers are on the alert for us on the platform. I walk upward and immediately match myself surrounded by a vast crowd of protesters. There is a single way out of eight open to let people out. Sometime later, I find myself on the square, the entire perimeter of which is blocked by “OMON”. 2 All ways blocked with metallic fences making you feel like a wild animal in a corral. The crowd around me begins to chant: “Pass away!” The police reply with loudspeakers: “Your actions are illegal! You interfere in passage of civilians! Please disperse!” Nearby, an elderly couple tries in vain to explain that they live in a building around the corner and they are not able to reach home because of this pandemonium, but nobody pays any attention to them and the only phrase sounds repeatedly: “Your actions are illegal! You interfere in passage of civilians! Please disperse!” Therefore, that was how the protest began on July 27th 2019 in Moscow in Tverskaya Street with a record number of detentions of 1,200 people.

This protest took place just after election of Moscow City Council representatives while opposition candidates removed and blamed in forging signatures prior the election. Many of removed candidates went on a hunger strike and called for street march to fight for their rights. The protesters managed to prove that there were hundreds and thousands of them, but a hundred. The government paid no attention to it and therefore every other march resulted in mass detentions. We live in time of rising political disappointment. “Blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne”. 3

There are several types of opposition in Russia nowadays. There is a systemic opposition, which obeys Vladimir Putin and receives funding from the state. On the other side, an unofficial non-systemic opposition that is motivated in changes in the country, which due to an absence of a common leader does not have a strong impact on the government. The dissociation of the opposition is also visible in protests when some urge to go on in streets, others say not to do it, but all Russians have deep dissatisfaction with the president which is confirmed by opinion polls. The Russians are clearly disappointed in the authorities, but for the time being, they are too much split to unite around a revolutionary idea. By the end of May 2019, the Russian confidence poll for Putin updated the historical rate and dropped to 31.7 percent by WCIOM (All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion). 4 This indicator began to decline since the summer of 2018 against the background of an increase in the pension retirement age, an increase in the value added tax and a drop in real income of the population. 5 It is ironic that after the publication of the survey data, the WCIOM (All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion) announced a change in the methodology for conducting the survey and the confidence rating for the president all of the sudden rose up to 72 percent. Now if you join the WCIOM website, you can see results of both surveys. 6

My parents taught me to follow the rules since my green years. I should be at home before a curfew, because no one wants to cross with Russian police too often. I should not wear bright clothes, because it might allure some undesired attention. I was recommended never talk of my achievements, as you hardly know what might take place. My parents are afraid of a change in a government framework, because the Dashing 1990's may come back. 7

So what was it like when the Soviet Union ceased to exist? When did it all end with in the 1990s? Money depreciated and the so-called default occurred. Many people lost their well-paid jobs, including my grandfather. It occurred as state-belonging enterprises began floating into private hands. Conditions of work changed and it triggered people in criminal activity. Majority of people lost savings as they kept it in accounts of the only state bank of Sberbank, which functions up to now. My grandmother lost 80 thousand rubles, an amount of money sufficient to pay for some apartments and motors. There was also an ever-lasting shortage of food and people were advancing shops. Bunches of people were waiting for shops to open and luckily grabbed whatever was in the stock. Alcohol and tobacco were distributed with coupons, and people used egg powder as natural eggs disappeared. It took place as all integral republics withdrew from the former USSR one after another. As the result, nearly all economic ties and links were broken.

In general, people tried not show up that life went well. I wonder of reasons for elder generation paint everything grey. I also wondered why the elder generation had that little portion of courage against the fear of punishment. It could originated in past years and even achieved us. Such fear cultivated by Soviet people shifted from one generation to the next one.

Mentality of the Soviet Union is still in minds of people and still keep on referring to the Soviet history as the national pride and identity. During the Soviet era, people could not express their ideas and desires, as they were not entitled to be the authorized structure, and if they managed to become a part of the system the principle of hierarchy was in operation like the pyramid scheme where every level had its own chief up to the position of the Secretary General. Therefore, if people wanted to change or say something new, the system always affected them and there were just two options whether to obey or exclude.

Under the Soviet rule, even start-up associations were suppressed and completely excluded. Local entrepreneurship was a significant threat to the state. If they were not banned, they were included in a definite structure. When societies of collectors of stamps, book admirers, and motorists appeared, they were enlisted in the structure of the society of philatelists, book admirers and motorists of the USSR and became its regional division. The leadership of these societies was certainly located in Moscow. Everything was nationalized, and there was a conscious policy. No matter how many years gone, there are still no free and independent trade unions in the country. People daydreamed that the communistic system would have transformed smoothly in democracy. However, after elections of 2012, when Putin was reelected over, democracy in the Russian Federation smoothly shifted into stereotype autocracy.

“The Russian government dropped any pretense of appearing Western; officials stopped trying to hide the wealth they had accumulated through corruption; and the media was increasingly regarded as a tool of state propaganda. Courts became punitive rather than judicial bodies, with political disagreements treated as criminal conduct. In these circumstances, even the most politically engaged segment of Russian society became despondent and apathetic. After all, as one often hears uttered in Russia, There's nothing we can do”. 8

The Russian society once relied on the literary medium as a means of political discourse, began to realize that this discourse was less, less on the pages of the literary text, and more on the bodies of performers in new, unconventional ways of expression. The main question that should be considered in this thesis is: what led to the appearance of such a striking bodily representation in Russia? What are its consequences, given that the Russian cultural consciousness historically dictated the literary milieu? To answer these questions, I will tell about the historical significance of literature in the Russian society before corresponding changes.

Part 2: corpse of an ogre

“The poet in Russia is more than just a poet
In Russia, fated to be born as poets
are only those in whom the proud spirit
of the citizen roams,
those who have no comfort, and no peace.
The poet in Russia is the image of his times
and a ghostly apparition of the future.” 9

The discussion about the role of an artist in the society, the borders between art and activism is everlasting and universal. Writers always played a significant and noticeable role in shaping the public life, particularly in Russia. Since immemorial time, almost the only people who could convey their oppositional thoughts in the country were writers and since that time, they became the subject of persecution and repression.

In April 1682, Avvakum Petrov, the founder of the Old Believers movement, writer and publicist, was burned. His religious doctrine was reflected in several dozen of works. In his youth, he was the closest associate of Patriarch Nikon, but subsequently opposed the church reform and even under the threat of death abandoned his views.

A writer and a politician Alexander Radishchev was arrested due to the decree of Catherine II in July 1790 for publication of the book “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow”, where he outlined his vision of the situation in the country and its main problems.

In the history of literature of the 19th century, the case of Petrashevsky followers, occupied a prominent place. It was important because so many writers and scientists participated in this political process. In addition to Petrashevsky, such writers as Dostoevsky, Plescheev, Palms, and others were also involved. Their participation was reduced to the fact that they were on the Fridays of Petrashevsky and were recorded there as “freethinkers” with revolutionary views and ideas. They were accused of spreading revolutionary ideas among the population, as well as of "attempting to settle the evil principles of liberalism among the younger generation." As a result, the court sentenced all members of the circle to the capital punishment of death. Such a harsh verdict was motivated solely by "criminal talks", "bad ideas", "vile liberalism." Among prisoners standing in the funeral shrouds, Fyodor Dostoevsky, still a beginner, but already a famous writer, awaiting for the death penalty. The verdict was announced. The command was given: "To the charge!". At that moment, a carriage burst onto the parade ground, from which an officer stepped out. He announced a royal pardon to everyone and the firing squad was replaced by hard labor. Fyodor Dostoevsky got four years of hard labor and he lost all his rights and condition. He was only 28 years old by that time.

A Russian revolutionary journalist and a writer, Alexander Herzen first expressed liberal, then socialist views, was forced to emigrate abroad. He published the newspaper Kolokol (the Bell), the most important early organ of the revolutionaries. During 1857-1861, when the Kolokol got the greatest influence, publishers paid much attention mostly to the peasant issues, in belief that serfdom was the main obstacle to the development and strengthening of the country, and considered the community as the basis for future socio-economic relations. They considered their main tasks to contribute to the speedy liberation of the peasants from the land in order to prevent possible, in their opinion, bloodshed because of a peasant riot if the liberation would have occurred without land; rallying for all anti-serfdom forces, moral pressure upon the Emperor Alexander II and the government.

In 1862, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a Russian materialistic philosopher and critic, was arrested, and then the journal of Sovremennik, edited by him, was shut down for eight months "for a harmful direction." The situation with the writer worsened by a letter of Herzen to the revolutionary and publicist Nikolai Serno-Solovievich, where he expressed his willingness to publish the journal abroad. Chernyshevsky was accused of having connections with revolutionary emigration and was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. In February 1864, Chernyshevsky was sentenced to hard labor for a term of 14 years without the right to return from Siberia. Although the Emperor Alexander II softened the penalty to seven years, in general, the critic spent more than two decades in prison.

“I have such a way of thinking that I have to wait any minute for the gendarmes to appear, take me to Petersburg and put me in a fortress. God knows for how long. I do things here that smell like hard labor, I say such things in class.” (Nikolay Chernyshevsky)

Many Soviet writers took an active part in the October Revolution and expressed, for various reasons, their support. With the advent of the Soviet times, the text more often, voluntarily or involuntarily, became a political statement. In the 1920s, many writers were expelled from Russia; in the 1930s, the time came for camps and executions. Not all of them really had something against the Soviet regime or even treated it with any criticism. However, the case of Osip Mandelstam, who wrote one of the most fearless poems of the 20th century, is given out:

“We live, not sensing our own country beneath us,
Ten steps away they dissolve, our speeches,
But where enough meet for half-conversation,
The Kremlin hillbilly is our preoccupation.
They’re like slimy worms, his fat fingers,
His words, as solid as weights of measure.
In his cockroach moustaches there’s a hint
Of laughter, while below his top boots gleam…”. 10

Mandelstam was first exiled, and then a few years later sent to the camp, where he died.

The camp experience made Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov irreconcilable haters of the communist regime. If the hatred of Shalamov was deposited in the most terrible tales of the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn transferred his writing work to the political plane. His "Gulag Archipelago" eventually played a significant role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Daniil Harms was a Russian, Soviet writer, poet and playwright. His contemporaries believed in the power of art, not only to portray reality, but also for its formation. Their literary works sought to create new language systems that offer the reader the potential for a completely new experience of reality. The absurdist quality of their works reflected the absurdity of the world around them and interacted with it, and by the 1930s, the last Soviet avant-garde poets used instrumental language for relativistic destruction of objects. At the same time, the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union entered in an unprecedented period of oppression. The absurdity of avant-garde poems was a particularly expressive reflection of the terrifying absurdity of daily life, and in the early 1940s, the arrests and executions of these poets demonstrated this absurdity as extrapolated by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova from the Riot group. The political role of the dissident artist is inextricably linked with the role of the martyr. The literary critic Vissarion Belinsky argued that “to take away from art the right to serve the public interest is not to elevate it but to debase it, because it means to deprive it of its most vital force – of thought – to transform it into the object of some kind of sybaritic enjoyment, the plaything of lazy idlers.” His credo, that “our time craves for convictions, it is tormented by the hunger for the truth,” was a response to Russian romantics who had embraced the idea of art for art’s sake, arguing, as Pushkin once did, that “the purpose of poetry is poetry.” 11

Freedom of ideology arrived in public with the collapse of the USSR in Russia. Nevertheless, the tradition of criticizing the authorities and active political actions in conjunction with literary activity did not disappear.

“The return of the great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn from exile in 1994 became symbolic of a new era. By this time, rock music had taken over the roles previously held by theatre and literature. The creativity of acts like Mashina Vremeni, Boris Grebenshikov and DDT led the charge for a new, open world. The whole country knew the lyrics by Kino's lead singer Viktor Tsoi: "Our hearts demand change.” Now, social debate in Russia has been catalysed by contemporary art, and provocative performances have proven the most effective medium for influencing public opinion. Artists have their fingers firmly on the pulse of the rapid changes taking place in Russian society.” 12

“The times when writers played a big role in public life were left behind,” states Boris Akunin. Although he is very famous and is one of the "stars" of the protest movement, along with the most famous bloggers, musicians, journalists and people of other professions, Boris Akunin does not consider himself as Solzhenitsyn. If you look around you can see a lack of writers who would dare to tackle the only relevant topic of Putin's Russia: the monstrous past of terror and the Gulag, the result and extension of it is the reelected president of the country. The ghost of the Soviet Union has not gone and you can feel it ay the back of your head. It follows them on the heels even in science fiction, such as the best-selling book “Metro 2033” by Dmitry Glukhovsky, where survivors of a nuclear conflict meet at the Moscow underground. The literary critic Konstantin Milchin is certain that the spirit of the former USSR still remains an ‘obsession’ of the Russian writers, and it takes occurrence after twenty years of collapse of the Soviet Union.

People got affected with the collapse of the USSR, all of the sudden openness to the outside world and capitalism, the ability to travel freely. “Literature has collapsed from its pedestal,” concludes Irene Sokologorskaya, the ex-principal of the University of Paris VIII and the founder of the bilingual journal Russian Literature (Les Lettres russes). The significance of a book that used to be much important at the time of the Iron Curtain, when neither cinema or television reflected people's lives, has now declined sharply.

“The USSR itself is the corpse of an ogre who has not been buried. Compared with post-war Germany the West helped to dig a grave and dump all this Nazi past there but in Yeltsin’s years, the corpse was thrown with sawdust and said that he himself will become darn, and we need to move forward,” Vladimir Sorokin sneers in a recent interview with Ogonyok magazine.

In a survey of the Levada Center, 13 a non-governmental research organization, the Russian people were suggested to list the best writers in Russia. The survey was conducted on February 19-24, 2016 among 1600 people aged 18 and elder in 137 settlements of 48 regions of the country. The results were interesting, in the first places, of course, were Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Pushkin, there were no names of any contemporary writer in the top 10. What happened? Are contemporary Russian writers not good enough? Of course, by these criteria people tend to think first about Tolstoy and Chekhov, but and Victor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin or Boris Akunin. No wonder that Alexander Pushkin gained the highest points. We used to be taught at school that “Pushkin is our everything” and now this statement is firmly embedded in our subconscious to define our opinion. The influence of the Russian educational system is evident throughout this list, filled with reputable Soviet classics. Marat Guelman, a Russian art curator, who presented an exhibition titled "Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism," opened at London's Saatchi Gallery in 2017, argued: “Contemporary writers in Russia are often bleak and challenging. Postmodern literary patchworks, dense thickets of imagery, or violent, veiled satires, while pleasing some literary judges, are unlikely to win huge global audiences. But there are other factors at play in Russia. This poll suggests a conservatism beyond the casual reader’s nostalgia that inflects every literary poll.”

Part 3: actionism

The term "actionism" does not fully correspond to the concept itself. It would be more correct in this case to use the word "performance", which describes all the artistic activity associated with a gesture in space, that is, an artist. In addition, in this sense, an action is like a derivative of a performance. In old encyclopedias, they are divided: action, performance, happening and so on. The term of "Moscow actionism" arose by analogy with Vienna actionism of the late 1950s - 60s, so sharp and provocative. It rooted in a form of Moscow actionism. Historically, Moscow actionism has been divided into some parts. At first, it is somewhat like performances of groups, collective actions that started in the 1970s and still on. Actually, Moscow actionism is considered as actions of a group of artists that began in the 1990s and fundamentally differ from what their predecessors.


An article Published in the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper:
“What a performance! The youth movement “E.T.I." already known for its non-standard performances. At two o’clock in the afternoon, 13 guys and girls laid out a three-letter word using their bodies in Red Square. The police officers arrived, picked up the young people and invited them to a nearby police station.”

The most famous first action was the action held in 1991 on the Red Square in front of the Lenin Mausoleum. It was a performance of the group “E.T.I.” (“Expropriation of the territory of art”): they laid out with their bodies on the Red Square the famous Russian word with three letters “ХУЙ” (“Cock”). This performance began the history of the radical performances of the 1990s, because it was the first performance in the public area - at a key point and at a key time.

For performance, both place and time are of a great importance. Accordingly, it had a certain linguistic character, because this indecent word was reflected in the inscription on the Lenin Mausoleum. It is interesting that at that moment the police did not immediately realized what was happening. Participants explained: "We are laying out the ornament." The most important thing happened there: the next day a very small article was published in the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, and this event turned out to be important because the performance resonated in the media space. It is known that one of the members of the group who simply sold it initiated performance. In addition, the performance in this case took place in the medial field. However, it is not necessary that it should happen in the medial field. In addition, the most amazing thing was that at first, a case was instituted on them, then the Soviet government fell, and after letters from the public, the case was somehow hushed up. In addition, it was one of the most amazing properties of the performance of the 1990s that the most radical actions ended for the artist with a maximum of one or two hours of questioning at the police station. In addition, no one seemed to suffer any punishment, with the only exception - Alexander Brener.

Over here, it should be mentioned that the performance does not have to be in the public area or even have a mass media orientation. Because one of the most important performances that Avdey Ter-Oganyan made in the Trekhprudny Pereulok gallery was called “Toward the Object”: the deadly drunk Avdey Ter-Oganyan was in the gallery. That is, people received invitations and found on the floor only one object - Avdey Ter-Oganyan himself, which directly responded to disputes among professionals - artists and critics - what art is, what an object of art is, and what a subject of art is. Avdey Ter-Ohanyan presented himself, simultaneously leaving the subjectivity, in two guises: as an object and as a subject, as a creator and as a result, his own creation. Naturally, this performance did not have too much media response.

When we think of a political component, we can state that the political action failed as the audience and mass media means noted only radicalism. For example, during the famous campaign performed by Oleg Kulik at the Regina Gallery “Piglet Handing Out Gifts”, a pig was slaughtered by real butchers from a market. The media hype occurred just around the action, and for the first time any groups of indignant fellows appeared on the scene. As the result, no one noticed that the message of Oleg Kulik was fundamentally political as at that time the Parliament (Duma) was discussing a matter of rising a ban of capital punishment. He intended to show that slaughtering pigs was as horrible and cruel as condemning people to death. Unfortunately, not many people took that message. As it often happens, the majority of the public for some reason decided that Oleg Kulik wanted to become famous. Certainly, he received fame, but no one took him seriously. Later on, Oleg Kulik became famous, wandering around streets of Moscow like a dog, crawling naked, biting and barking at passers-by. For Kulik, the action was aimed at identity in a country where all landmarks disappeared. That is how Noah Sneider described it in the article “Body Politics”:

“What was left was only the body, which had never belonged to you before. The first actionists of the 1990s offered this body, the naked body of the naked man in the midst of a wild city, It’s a powerful image: out of these endless myths of collectivism, these endless crowds and groups and bands and parties, emerges a person, emerges an individual with nothing and no one behind him. He’s one against all. But it’s not that he’s fighting, he is simply saying: I exist! Here I am, and I am art.” 14

Alexander Brener. “Yeltsin, come out!”
Red Square, Moscow 1995

In one of newspapers, just after another “dog show”, they either jokingly or seriously wrote: “What people have been driven to, people naked run around the streets and rush to passers-by!” Yuri Luzhkov 15 in response promised to expel all naked people from Moscow streets. In the future, Kulik in the already beloved image of a chain dog organized scandalous actions in a number of western cities - New York, Stockholm, Zurich, attacking and biting people. During one of performances, a passerby literally perceived the threat from a dog-man and, pulling the chain, strongly squeezed his throat with a collar - Kulik lost consciousness for some minutes. In 1996, Oleg Kulik, under the slogan “Beasts Against Atrocities,” decided to run for president of the country from the Animal Party, but was rejected by the Electoral Commission at the stage of submitting subscription lists, as his documents were printed with cat paws and were glued with flies and cockroaches.

Avdey Ter-Oganyan and Anatoly Osmolovsky, «Barricade on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street», Moscow 1998

If we continue discussion of politicized actions, we should mention the action of Alexander Brener, who went to Lobnoye Mesto in boxing trunks and gloves and began to box towards the Kremlin with shouts: “Boris, come out!” 16 Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin certainly did not appear. There was many journalists, but nearly almost no one noticed that Alexander Brener had in mind a direct political statement: he opposed the outbreak of war in Chechnya. After that, in most cases, law enforcement agencies were surprisingly complacent about such actions. They described the poet and artist Alexander Brener as a “creator with a schiza” or “a weirdo with strange manners”.

He was the leader of Moscow actionism and one of the most prominent performance masters in Russia in the 1990-s. In 1997, at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, a certain artist painted green symbol on the painting of Kazimir Malevich “Suprematism” with green paint. A creator was sent to jail for 5 months. According to Brener's acquaintances, the motivation for that act of vandalism was the artist’s desire to solve his housing problem at least for a while. Alexander Brener admitted that the objective of his actions was to attract public attention to issues that were ignored. For example, in January 1996, he flooded the windows of the Belarusian embassy with ketchup. The reason for such a daring trick was an incident that occurred on the Polish-Belarusian border. Then, during the festival of air vehicles, held in Poland, one of the balloons strayed and crossed the border of neighboring Belarus. In response, Belarusian border guards fired on air transport - both pilots died.

It should be noted that actionism of the 1990s had practically no real political effect. They were a kind of anarchist antics that in essence, simply indicated a certain phenomenon or lack of this phenomenon. Accordingly, John Lennon and Yoko Ono spoke out against the war, posing naked to journalists in their own bed, then there were powerful currents behind them. Performers of the 1990s actually acted on their own behalf, like Alexander Brener. The only case when a semblance of such a movement was created was the action “Barricade on Bolshaya Nikitskaya”, the authors of which were Avdey Ter-Oganyan and Anatoly Osmolovsky. Some anarchist movements also joined that action. Street of Bolshaya Nikitskaya was blocked, as everything was painted with slogans of 1968: “It is forbidden to forbid”. There was even a barricade constructed with paintings of various artists.

Finally, it turned out that political activity could have been corrupted. One of the most striking actions performed by Anatoly Osmolovsky and the Radek group followed. They ran up to the Mausoleum of Lenin and stretched out a poster that read "Against all." At that moment, Osmolovsky announced an opening of a party called "Against All." However, the party in that performance remained an extremely marginal phenomenon, and due to the inability to go to the media and become a real force, it remained in a marginal position. Moreover, that completely idealistic project was unexpectedly corrupted by the activities of the Kremlin political strategists, who, for some tricky reasons, suddenly began to support it somehow from the side. As a result, it turned out that a naive artist can have been used in particular direction, which canceled all his intentions. As a result, in the 2000s, Anatoly Osmolovsky categorically refused such open actionism, declaring non-spectacular art that did not fall into that theatre of absurd.

Two actions that have acquired an extremely negative public character were shares of the "School of Avant-Garde", which Avdei Ter-Ohanyan did. He announced that he would cut icons for money. Well, his idea was the real avant-garde should have done it: cut icons. Those actions were undertaken in terms of "School of Contemporary Art", where his students did various offensive actions. Any complacency of the authorities and the public about radical actionism ended there. Some religious groups sued Avdey Ter-Oganyan, and Ter-Oganyan had to emigrate from the country. In 2000, Oleg Mavromatti made a share. He really had such a religious character: he nailed himself to the cross. The action was called "I am not the Son of God." That action provoked an extremely radical response from the religious community. A criminal case was instituted against him (inciting ethnic and religious hatred), and Mavromatti had to leave the country as well, and currently he resides in Bulgaria. By the beginning of the 2000s, such forms of actionism had almost have ceased and revived only in the second half of the 2010s.

“Russian rulers have long sought to smear their critics by calling them crazy. In the 1820s, the philosopher Petr Chaadaev, who penned a series of unflattering “Philosophical Letters” about the Russian identity, was declared insane by Tsar Nicholas I. later on, in the Soviet era, the state developed a practice of punitive psychiatry. A series of writers and dissidents, who dared to challenge the official line, including Joseph Brodsky and Vladimir Bukovsky, passed through dubious psych wards. “There are people who are fighting with communism…but those people are clearly not in a normal psychological state,” declared Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. Similar proclamations have been voiced by Putin’s supporters too, including the nationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin, who once stated, “There are no more opponents of Putin’s course, and if there are, then they are mentally ill and must be sent for examinations.” 17

Part 4: Petr Pavlensky

PAVLENSKY: Malevich said, “In art, truth is important, not sincerity.”
YASMAN: Petr Andreevich, my dear, I quite enjoy talking with you. But will we be long today? It is just; I come here every day at seven in the morning...
PAVLENSKY: I want us to find some points of contact; I want to understand how both sides think. To decontextualize something from the symbolic field into the legal-procedural codex is a difficult task.
YASMAN: What did you say? I didn’t understand a damn thing – just like when I studied your statement.
PAVLENSKY: I spent a long time writing it.
YASMAN: Let us speak Russian.
PAVLENSKY: Russian: there is a symbolic field. Symbols, signs. Signifier and signified. Art works in this field. However, at the same time, of course, in reality too. For us, just as for Malevich, truth should come before sincerity. That is, we should begin to look at the action, at the act of art from different sides, and then we can arrive at some kind of truth. What was the action aimed at: defiling social mores, or, instead, strengthening social ties?
YASMAN: No one is investigating anyone for any kind of action. The investigation is being carried out in relation to an undetermined group of people for the burning of tyres.
PAVLENSKY: For fire?
YASMAN: For the burning of tyres!” 18

Pavel Yasman, a young investigator, was assigned to assemble the criminal case against Petr Pavlensky’s action “Freedom”, during which on February 23, 2014 he and other participants set fire to a barricade of tires on the Malo-Konyushenny Bridge in St. Petersburg in support of the Maidan in Kiev.

By infiltrating the legal system, Pavlensky finds ever-richer material for his art. Their conversation was wired without concept of Yasman. Pavlensky later published it online as a three-act play, a set of dialogues about the nature of the legal system, the role of the state in the Russian life, and the meaning of art. On August 8, 2015 Yasman resigned from the Investigative Committee. On December 10, 2015, he received the status of a lawyer, and on July 15, 2015, he came to the first meeting in the case of Pavlensky in full readiness to provide him with protection. The metamorphosis of the prosecutor impressed the public.

Pavlensky has a lot of artistic events: in 2012, he stood with his mouth sewn (“Stitch”) in front of the Kazan Cathedral in support of the Pussy Riot, in 2013 he was lying wrapped in barbed wire (“Carcass”) in front of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg. In 2013, he nailed his scrotum (“Fixation”) to the paving stones of the Red Square (the most famous action to date), in an artist’s statement, Pavlensky makes clear the intent to shock, declaring that this action is “a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of the Russian society”. In 2014, he cut off his earlobe (“Separation”) sitting on the fence of the Institute named after Serbian.

Petr Pavlensky, “Threat”, Moscow 2015

All these actions were widely discussed - especially, of course, about nailed testicles. However, it seems that genuine glory came to him only now - against the background of the burning massive door of the FSB (“Threat”). A month of art criticism literally began on social networks: everyone enthusiastically discusses whether this was an art or not, what a real artist should and should not do. Most believe that the real art is to paint canvases, like Aivazovsky, and a real artist should be exhibited in galleries, these are the remnants of ideas about high art that were once learned at the Art History lessons. Pavlensky argued:

“The authorities strive to objectify a person, to turn him into a predictable function. But I am fighting for subjectivation through the objectification of power, trying to get these tools to work for art. I build actions on it, and it is important that during the implementation of the action, I have to do the very minimum, and then the authorities make the maximum, all these police, doctors, firefighters, psychiatrists - they are drawn into the situation and form a statement. In addition, in the general process of political art, administrative and criminal matters are of great importance. After all, art is a direct work with an area of ​​understanding. Fear that you will be prosecuted, by the way, is also an instrument of power with which I work. However, this is not a problem, but the beginning of the process of establishing the boundaries of the form of political art. The instrument of power is naming, labeling: for example, in Nazi Germany, the government stuck the label “degenerative” on a whole layer of art. What I am doing, the authorities are trying to call crime or madness. My task is to prevent it from imposing naming.”

Pavlensky’s works are an illustration of a new trend in the Russian art, and Activism is a political performance art that has a clearly bodily character. These works represent a significant deviation from the literary milieu, which historically functioned as the main site for official and opposition discourse.

Part 5: body is a text, sexuality, sociality

The time when an artist needs certain tools have gone. In the middle of the last century, new forms replaced old methods in art; the object of art was modified along with the environment in which the artist lived. Actionism has become the most popular form of visual art, which consists of a desire to erase a line between art and reality and a search of new ways of artistic expression. In actionism, an artist is usually the subject or the object of a work of art.

Your own body is the only tool, which can be easily obtained to create works of art. The body is a text, sexuality and sociality, something that goes beyond the limits and in particular an instrument of power. Actionists often emphasize the latter, using their main instrument of creation. Pavlensky also draws attention to it. His spectacular actions related to self-mutilation, as well as vandalism, blurred the boundaries between art, protest and crime. A sewn mouth, a cut off earlobe, barbed wire around the torso and a nailed scrotum are the brightest illustrations of the lack of freedom of the body social, political and personal.

The concept of “corporeality” is impossible without mentioning of Michel Foucault. All of Pavlensky’s works are riddled with thoughts on the interaction of power and a man. Disciplinary mechanisms, according to Foucault, directly influenced formation of a number of concepts, as well as the mind, sexuality and bodily practices of a person. Pavlensky’s art is filled with references to many books and concepts of Foucault. The most interesting in the context of Peter's actions are the two epistemological works of the philosopher: “Madness and Civilization” and “Discipline and Punish”. The last book is particularly significant since it imbues every absolute share of Pavlensky. Through seemingly simple actions, Pavlensky unfolds the internal of Foucault from “Discipline and Punish.” The philosopher describes how and due to which the attitude of the individual and power changed through the transformation of the penitentiary system. The art of Pavlensky contains the whole process. Self-torture on the street, of course, dates back to the spectacle of medieval executions, the starting point of Foucault's narrative. The consequences of the actions cleverly dissects the features of modern repressive mechanisms and prisons.

Among many actions of Pavlensky, there is one that refers directly to Foucault, his speech about the “Segregation”. In 2014, after the ongoing “psychiatric persecution”, Peter prepared an answer specifically to this instrument of power. The artist, naked, climbed onto the roof of the Serbian Institute, where he cut off his earlobe in front of the crowd. "Segregation” is one of Pavlensky’s most striking and deepest action, working on several semantic levels at once. The easy-to-read reference to Van Gogh illustrates the long history of the artist’s relationship with repressive psychiatry. Foucault precisely analyzed the epistemology of this kind of relationship in the book “Madness and Civilization”. Psychiatry has always built a concrete wall between the healthy and the sick, serving the authorities.

Thus, we got to the central concept in the art of Petr Pavlensky, in which the legacy of both Foucault and predecessor actionists is noticeable. The secret of understanding Pavlensky’s actions lies in his favorite phrase: “The history of art is the history of a clash of man and power.” There are a lot of arguments and examples in favor of such an understanding of the history of art, although the interpretation, of course, is controversial and subjective. Over here, we are interested in precisely the point of view of the artist. Pavlensky basically puts himself in the position of "one against the system." As we see from same rallies, the government knows very well what to do with community. However, Petr's case illustrates a funny paradox - power has no idea what to do with a loner. By getting up in the position of "one against power", Petr does not try to claim the mantle of the hero, he is still an artist. An act puts the repressive apparatus at a loss, because it also turns into a direct participant of the action.

The specificity of actionism is that art works much longer than the creative act itself. In the case of Pavlensky actions work as long as they talk about them. The artist very well understands what strings to pull, in order to force the authorities to interact with him in an exact way he intended to. His most sensational action “Fixation” on Red Square is a good example of this.

If artists of the past subtly touched power through images in their works, then the activists create an image that directly touches power itself. The artist’s toolkit and the creative process have changed. Now it speaks not only of the beauty, the terrible or the momentary, but also the importance. Importance for the artist himself, and for the socio-political context in which he lives. An action is not that it is performed directly in a street, but what happens afterwards. The “Fixation" performance widely glorified the artist, but it was the famous arson of a door of the FSB that became the pinnacle of his work. A simple act already contains the most important message - a person goes into a direct, contact, clash with the authorities and it cannot even keep track of the door to their “house.” From the very beginning, Pavlensky took an attacking position and kept it at all subsequent stages of the action - which also reveals its new meanings.

Going to jail is also an important stage of the action. It shows that the artist as a prisoner and as a terrorist - both roles that are very close and understandable to Russia. Moreover, in many past actions Pavlensky symbolically connected the country with the zone - to take the same “Fixation” or an equally powerful image from “Carcass”. Five years ago, Petr loudly voiced what Face 19 had recently sung about. In a country like a zone, police officers are lost at the sight of a man in barbed wire.

In any art, classical or modern consequences are always important. Reaction is also an act of art and that very fuel, thanks to which it lives forever. Maintaining attention in a manner immortalized in stone or canvas is a great skill.

A. Monastyrsky, “Slogan 1977”, the forest near Moscow, 1977
“I do not complain and I like everything, despite the fact that I have never been here and do not know anything about these places.”


This thesis examined the relatively recent emergence of bodily protest art in Russia, which replaced the literary text. This shift can be equally attributed to the cultural, socio-political and economic shifts after the collapse of the Soviet Union and is particularly indicative of modern conditions that simultaneously contribute to and threaten the development of the Russian public sphere. I am certain that the main task of activists is to shock the public, as well as destroy the power of the systems that make up this public.

The starting point of inspiration for writing this thesis was a documentary that I accidentally watched on YouTube, although it was just impossible to pass, because it caused a rather great resonance in the Russian society. The video “Kolyma - Birthplace of Our Fear” was shot by Jura Dud, a Russian journalist and video blogger. It made strong impression on me because it was dedicated to the Stalinist repressions. The crew of the Vdud YouTube channel for 9 days drove the entire Kolyma highway (2 thousand km), which connects Yakutia and the Magadan province during severe frost. Prisoners constructed this road in the 1930s. A bigger part of the 2-hour film is presented in interviews with local residents. Also in the documentary, the daughter of space rocket designer Sergei Korolyov, Natalya recalls what her repressed father outlive in Kolyma. According to Dud, the purpose of the film is “to tell and remind you of the horror the country experienced during the period of 1930–40s”.

In April 2019, Russian residents appreciated positively the role of Stalin in the history. According to a Levada Center survey, more than 70 percent of respondents noted that they sympathized him or admired him, 20 and almost half of those polled ready to justify Stalin's repressions. According to WCIOM (All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion) almost half of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 have never heard of Stalin's repressions.

Working over this thesis, I studied many materials and had discussions with a number of people who were very different. Many of them were asking me to explain specific topics in detail. I was sure that people outside of Russia knew almost as much as I knew about it, but later I realized how wrong I was. Mass media propaganda creates a certain veil, which does not let properly evaluate the situation in Russia both abroad and within. I strongly believe that this thesis will assist and help people to open their eyes and see what is taking place in Russia.

In “Why Should We Protest,” by Masha Gessen, she explains that “the choice to protest ... is the choice to take control of your body, your time and your words, and at the same time regain your ability to see the future.” 21 When democratic freedoms are so much limited, the importance of protest grows and certainly, it is easiest way to ignore this fact. However, if we learn to listen and try to understand these actions, we can create a space where the exchange of political discourse is possible, which ultimately will enable us to play an active role in shaping our own future.

The Russian people have fears, archetypes despite the time had passed, and new generation have grown. That is certainly a philosophical problem. The essence, apparently, is that this state, which holds Russia together and allows it to exist all the same immense, it also fetters the country. Some global change should be taken in the country. It is necessary to give free rein to the initiative from below let people create, try, make mistakes, and invent something. To achieve it, it is necessary to loosen the bonds. In addition, in order for conditions to make it real, one must not impede the self-organization of people.

After a 40-minute journey in a stuffy paddy wagon, we finally stopped. The hissing sound of the opening door made it clear that they would have led us to the police station. A police officer got into the bus, opened the cage and told everyone to come out. When we got off the bus, we met a large number of police officers creating a passage for us. We were taken to the station, the police officer on duty asked: “How many? Are they all from the protest in Tverskaya Street?” Another officer replied to him: “Yes. Sixteen of them!” We were taken to some classroom, there were desks, but a lattice iron door make it different from a typical school class. The windows were sealed and it was very hot due to terrible ventilation. We talked with each other, initially there was a thought that we were not kept for a long time and we would leave this place before midnight, but after two hours, they started to call us to give testimony. We went up to the third floor to give testimony; they took a picture of us and sent back to the classroom. Time floated, but no one gave out an arrest report and did not let us leave. Many people were sleeping at these school desks. Around 3 a.m., a police officer came in and called my last name. I was handed a report on an administrative offense. I signed it and asked the police officer: “What’s next?” He replied: “Only a fine of 500 rubles (7, 10 euros). You didn’t do anything; you just have been in the wrong place and time.” He wrote out summons for July 29 and released me. I went out from the police station building, breathed in the fresh morning air and thought: “Maybe my parents were right?”

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