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Pyotr Pavlensky: does a leading Russian art activist deserve unconditional support?

Pyotr Pavlensky: does a leading Russian art activist deserve unconditional support?

Reactions to the departure of performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky from Russia are a depressing example of the ‘opposition saint’ phenomenon, argues Sasha Raspopina

1 February 2017

The Russian art community was shaken earlier this month by the news that performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky was fleeing Russia and intending to seek asylum in France. Despite serious criminal allegations, many immediately jumped to the artist’s defence.

The news broke on 16 January on the Ukrainian TV channel Hromadske and Russia’s TV Rain. Both channels quoted Pavlensky and reported that the artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina had left the country with their children following lengthy questioning by the police as part of preliminary investigations relating to accusations of sexual assault. The alleged victim is an actress with the independent theatre company Teatr.doc. Pavlensky accused her of “working with the regime” in her denunciation of him, and insisted that he and his partner were innocent.

While the alleged victim remains silent, Teatr.doc founders Mikhail Ugarov and Elena Gromina and Vsevolod Lisovsky, a director associated with the company, stood up in their employee’s defence, claiming that Pavlensky had also attacked her then-partner, who is also an actor with the company, and publishing CCTV footage of the beating online as proof. An investigation into the attack has been launched since, and Pavlensky has admitted that there had been a conflict between them – whilst maintaining that he is innocent and that it was the accuser’s partner who was being abusive.

While it’s too early to comment on the sensitive case itself (since preliminary accusations were enough to drive the artist out of the country there aren’t really any hard facts available), it is possible to comment on the reaction to it. There have already been a number of attacks on the alleged victim in social media and the press. Despite the severity of the accusations, public opinion seems to be firmly on Pavlensky’s side.

This cannot be explained as just another example of the depressing yet routine dismissal of allegations of sexual assault – which is, after all, hardly a Russia-specfic problem. Those who immediately jumped to Pavlensky’s defence consistently make reference to the secret services, and accuse those who entertain the possibility that the crime might actually have taken place of working for “the regime”. The situation is not entirely dissimilar to the case of Julian Assange, whose potential extradition to Sweden is viewed by many as a political rather than a criminal case.

What we are witnessing here is not just another example of attempts to silence the victim of a potential assault, although that may well be the case. The denial of allegations of sexual assault due to the accused’s good reputation was covered with bravery and sensitivity in a piece by openDemocracy Russia editor Natalia Antonova. This in itself is tied up with another, local issue here, that of the liberal intelligentsia idolising those who take a stance against the Russian government, and seeing conspiracy in any accusations, criticism or even doubts. “The story with the rape is a successful secret service operation,” chimed in famous curator and gallerist Marat Guelman in a blog post titled ‘The Authorities Want to ‘Remove’ Pavlensky’. When he later appeared on the Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station, Guelman said that the public should not stop supporting Pavlensky: “If we stop supporting him now it will basically mean that his good reputation is finished, that the provocation worked, and they will understand that this is a method that works […] So our strategy, at least in the beginning, is not to believe the authorities and to believe the artist.” While practically equating the accuser with the regime, Guelman also specified that he doesn’t “possess any special information on the actual case,” and that this is his “opinion”.

Simply criticising the regime in Russia is often enough to be considered a hero in the eyes of the liberal public, and there are other examples of this phenomenon of the “opposition saint”. For example: the activist Leonid Volkov, who works for the opposition politician Alexey Navalny, was accused of sexual harassment by another Navalny staffer. The scandal quickly died down and his reputation and career were unaffected.

Even when no crime is alleged to have taken place, liberals are apparently willing to overlook troubling attitudes and actions on the part of these opposition saints. Navalny himself enjoys a very favourable position amongst the intelligentsia, despite the fact that early in his career he took part in “Russian Marches” — controversial nationalist protests frequently accused of inciting xenophobia — and delivered a speech laden with racist stereotypes at the 2011 “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” rally in opposition to federal subsidies to regions like Chechnya. While Western media have on several occasions drawn attention to these troubling views, Navalny’s authority among the Russian intelligentsia remains largely unchallenged, and he enjoys a reputation as the country’s sole political hope.

A nationalist Russian March parades the colours of the pre-revolutionary imperial flag through Moscow in 2008 (Dmitriy under a CC licence)

The majority of these examples, of course, are not as extreme as the allegations against Pavlensky – being a nationalist is not a crime. And none of this is to say that sexist, patriarchal attitudes do not play a part in the dismissal of the allegations against Pavlensky; rather that the case is complicated by his cult status among the liberal public and Russia’s contemporary intelligentsia. After all, Teatr.doc has also enjoyed a solid oppositional reputation, having themselves been censored by the government and threatened with eviction. Pavlensky’s deserved status as both Russia’s foremost performance artist and as a fierce critic of the government means he is favoured in any dispute and spared further questioning by the public, even in cases that require rigorous investigation. It is very common for the victims in sexual abuse cases to be labelled as liars; adding the suggestion of politically motivated denunciation to the mix only moves us further away from normalising trust for victims. The Pavlensky case is a reminder that whitewashing works across political and personal boundaries.

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