Russia frees artist who torched security service door
A Moscow court on Wednesday released radical performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky but gave him a hefty fine for torching the door of Russia's security service headquarters, in a rare show of leniency by the authorities.
A judge ordered the artist to pay 500,000 rubles ($7,800, 6,800 euros) after finding him guilty, saying the punishment was reduced due to the seven months Pavlensky had already spent behind bars.
He was also ordered to pay 481,000 rubles to replace the burnt door of the Moscow headquarters of the FSB security services — the successor to the feared Soviet-era KGB.
Pavlensky had faced up to three years’ jail on charges of damaging a cultural site.
The artist, who previously gained notoriety for nailing his scrotum to Moscow’s Red Square, doused the door with gasoline and set it on fire in a performance last November that he called “Threat”.
“Thanks to all for the support, thanks to those who were not afraid,” Pavlensky told a crowd of journalists in the courtroom, addressing them from the defendants’ cage.
“I can’t pay the fine,” he said, adding that he would not pay up “on principle”.
Pavlensky’s trial was the most closely-watched of an anti-Kremlin artist since Russia jailed members of protest punk group Pussy Riot in 2012 for performing a song attacking President Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral.
Their incarceration caused an outcry in the West.
Pavlensky, a gaunt 32-year-old known for intensely physical performances criticising Russia’s restrictions on political freedoms, said he started the fire at the FSB to highlight its “method of continuous terror” to control Russian society.
Its infamous central Moscow headquarters — known as the Lubyanka — was where some prominent figures were detained and executed during the Stalinist purges.
Ironically, the prosecution cited this fact as a reason to define the building as an important heritage site.
“These authorities hold onto power through terror,” Pavlensky told journalists outside the court after his release.
“It was in their interests to free me — they wanted to show a hypocritical mask of humanity.”
The judge opted to impose a much lower fine than requested by prosecutors, who had asked her to set the fine at 1.5 million rubles.
The artist’s lawyer Dmitry Dinze this week said Pavlensky could be sent to an open prison if he refuses to pay the fine.
– ‘Greatest art show’ –
Pavlensky — who has won international critical acclaim for his work — has previously sewn his lips together, wrapped himself in barbed wire and chopped off part of his ear.
He has consistently argued he should face terrorism charges for the FSB performance, likening his case to that of Ukrainian film maker Oleg Sentsov who was convicted of terrorism last year for setting fire to the offices of a pro-Kremlin party in Russian-annexed Crimea.
In May, Pavlensky was awarded the Vaclav Havel award for creative dissent, previously given to Russian punk band Pussy Riot and Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei.
His performance torching the door was hailed by Pussy Riot singer Nadezhda Tolokonnikova as “the greatest work of contemporary art for the last few years”.
Russian artist Oleg Kulik, notorious for naked performances pretending to be a dog in the 1990s, called it “the greatest art show I’ve seen in the last 20 years,” speaking to AFP at the court on Wednesday.
Pavlensky was also convicted of vandalism last month for a separate 2014 performance in his home city of Saint Petersburg called “Freedom” inspired by Ukraine’s anti-government protests.
He was given a non-custodial sentence of 16 months which was then immediately lifted as the statute of limitations had expired during the trial.