A Letter to Tartu Students from a Moscow Prison

Piotr Pavlensky's action "Fixation"

Pyotr Pavlensky’s famous act in Moscow on November 10, 2013, when he nailed himself to the pavestones of the Red Square by his genitals as part of an art performance in protest of what he saw as apathy in contemporary Russian society which could lead to a police state.
Image credit: Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters / Scanpix

In the beginning of May the notable Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky addressed a letter to the audience of my lecture course entitled “Soviet and Post-Soviet Russian Culture”.

The letter arrived from a Moscow prison: Pavlensky was arrested in 2015 after carrying out the performance “Threat“. The artist doused the wooden front door of the Russian Federal Security Service’s (former KGB) headquarters with gasoline and set it on fire with a cigarette lighter.

Here is the translation of Pavlensky’s letter by Helena Bassil-Morozow – see the photo of the Russian original below.

Hello Roman,


I will talk about what, in my view, is the most definitive aspect of both modernity in general and Russian culture in particular. As your student audience will be international, you can ask them how the situation in Russia compares to how things are back at home.

In my view, the entire history of Russian culture is determined by the conflict between the individual and the state. This dynamic is paradoxical as well as irresolvable. Russian literature waded into this conflict way before all other art forms. Meanwhile, up to the beginning of the twentieth century, Russian painters were prepared to be mere court servants whose task was to render the greatness of God, the Tsar, and the State. Even the most idiosyncratic of them resorted to merely illustrating the influential texts of the time.

‘The Word’ truly dominated the Russian cultural sphere; an almost religious importance was attached to it by the culture. That’s why the lives of Radishchev, Ryleev, Herzen, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, Mayakovsky, and later also Malevich, Filonov, Mandelstam, Kharms, Vvedensky, Oleinikov, Punin, Platonov, Shalamov (and many other writers whose names I cannot immediately recall) have proven that the conflict between the individual and the state is irresolvable.

Yet – paradoxically – these enemies of monarchy and Bolshevism have formed the core of the school curriculum. That’s how the existing political order undermines itself by planting the seeds of social conflict into the minds of each new generation of individuals. This seedling of a conflict is then either split off and rejected by the fragmented psyche of the obedient citizen or, alternatively, it grows into the next rebellious movement.

To be completely honest, I have no idea why the social order maintains the model of culture based on this continuous dynamic.

Let’s keep in touch,
Best wishes,

Piotr Pavlensky's letter to Tartu studentsPavlensky’s letter indicates a problem that dates back to the pre-revolutionary cultural situation in Russia. If we consider it in the context of the last hundred years – and this is the main subject of my course – it is clear that the internal dynamic of Russian culture resists attempts at state control. The state, in turn, in its striving for total surveillance of culture, is each time forced to canonise yesterday’s “troublemakers”. I think this will also be the fate of Pavlensky’s performances if Russian history will not abandon the vicious circle of negative feedback described by Pyotr.

In my opinion, it was very important for the international students to listen to the voice of a contemporary Russian artist – even if it comes from a prison (a kind of a paradox of our informational age).

Pavlensky is both a famous performance-maker and a political activist, and his brilliant, laconic, and highly symbolic actions lie in the field of new art along with the actions of Pussy Riot and the “War” group. At the same time, Pavlensky obviously continues the tradition of Russian culture, including the symbolic behavior of the medieval “God’s fool”, the intransigent attitude of political art and modern artistic practices.

I received this letter about a month ago but presented it to students now in the last class of the semester. Between these events, we have had an almost perfect confirmation of Pavlensky’s correctness. The prosecution said that Pavlensky committed a crime against the Russian cultural heritage, as prominent poets, writers, musicians, and artists were contained behind the door which he set on fire. This is exactly what Pyotr meant in his letter to my class!

Roman Leibov is an Associate Professor of the Poetics of Russian Literature at the University of Tartu College of Foreign Languages and Cultures.

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