The Next Pussy Riot

Why a man who nailed his scrotum to the pavement in Red Square could be Russia's next human-rights champion
Police approach artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who nailed his genitals to the stones of the Red Square during a protest in front of the Kremlin wall in central Moscow. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters) 

If the Kremlin actually follows through with prosecuting Pyotr Pavlensky, then hold onto your hats—it promises to be one hell of a show. 

Pavlensky, of course, is the 29-year-old St. Petersburg artist who seized Russia's attention on November 10 when he stripped naked on Red Square and nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones—an act of protest on the Police Day holiday against what he called a creeping police state. He dubbed the act "Nail."

"I used a metaphor," Pavlensky told DozhdTV after being released from police custody the next day. "It was a metaphor for the political indifference that threatens to become irreversible." 

Prosecutors have opened up a criminal case against Pavlensky for "hooliganism motivated by political, ideological, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred" and he has been summoned for an interrogation on November 21. He could face as many as seven years in prison. 

As Kevin Rothrock, editor of Global Voices' RuNet Echo project, notes in a recent post, his case is based on the exact same article of the criminal code used to prosecute Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich for their anti-Kremlin protest in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. 

And if the authorities decide to prosecute Pavlensky, the case should just be picking up steam by March—just as the two remaining Pussy Riot prisoners, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, are due to be released after completing their two-year sentences.

In many ways, a Pavlensky trial could turn into a Pussy Riot redux—another example of guerilla artists taking on The Man.

Writing in the online magazine Russia! Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies called his Red Square action "an assault on the stasis that grip contemporary Russia" and a challenge for it to rise up.

"The greatness of Pavlensky’s work is that by nailing himself to the pavement, he neutralized police power," Guillory wrote.

"With a nail, a hammer, and a naked body, Pavlensky symbolized Russian society’s impotence at the same time he reveals its potential power."

If the Pussy Riot trial in the summer of 2012 was, in the words of the playwright Natalya Antonova, "a circus of grandiose proportions and with sinister overtones," one can only imagine what the spectacle of Pavlensky in the dock might entail.

"Opening a criminal case against me would be the the authorities' latest colossal mistake," Pavlensky said. "It would only serve to amplify my actions." 

During the Pussy Riot trial, media in Russia and around the world endlessly played the video of the feminist collective's "punk prayer" appealing to the Virgin Mary to free Russia from Vladimir Putin.

In a prospective Pavlensky trial, we would presumably see—over and over again—the artist, nailed to Red Square's cobblestones and shivering naked in the cold November rain in the shadow of the Kremlin.

Clever, personable, and articulate, the three Pussy Riot defendants showed remarkable poise and dignity during their trial. They used the stage they had been given to get their message out and, in the process, impressed even many who were appalled by their protest.

Pavlensky also comes across in interviews as smart, likable, and lucid. And he clearly has the courage of his convictions. He would, no doubt, turn any show trial the state tried to stage into an opportunity to showcase his political message. 

This, after all, is a man who has a history of putting his body through incredible pain to make a political point. It is somebody who, in an act he called "Carcass," wrapped his naked body in barbed wire in front of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly in May.

If Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich made for sympathetic defendants, imagine a young man on trial for an act of self-abuse that the renowned theater director Kirill Serebrennikov called a "powerful gesture of absolute despair."

And if Pavlensky is tried, and if this happens after Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are released, it will give the feminist punkers a golden opportunity to return a favor.

In his first piece of performance art, which he titled "Stitch," Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut in front of St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral in the summer of 2012. He called it an act of solidarity with the women of Pussy Riot.

"The 10 holes around my mouth were minor wounds," he told The Washington Post.   

Indeed, Pussy Riot's friends, supporters, and associates are already rushing to Pavlensky's defense—and to ridicule the authorities.

"Criminal charges for nailing your own balls to Red Square—this is an utterly new level of judicial hell in the country. Unbelievable," Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, tweeted on November 15. 

And lawyer Nikolai Polozov, who served on Pussy Riot's defense team, tweeted this zinger:

"The artist who nailed his own scrotum to the pavement is being charged with hooliganism. Motivated by hatred toward his own genitals, I presume?"


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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