This past week my attention was drawn to Russia, when I learned that a man in Moscow nailed his scrotum to the cobblestone street in Red Square in an act of protest against the nation’s growing apathy towards the Kremlin’s “police state.” I immediately questioned to what degree self-mutilation takes precedence in art, and to what extent such an act truly influences a nation’s political conversation.
In the summer of 2012, three women were tried for hooliganism in Moscow’s Khamovniki District Court after singing an anti-Putin song in a church. The women were members of a punk rock group, Pussy Riot. They were subsequently found guilty and sentenced to up to seven years in prison.
After the trial, Russia erupted in riots and protests in support of Pussy Riot. Perhaps the most silent protester was then 28-year-old Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who sewed his mouth shut and stood outside of St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral holding a sign that read, “Pussy Riot act is a replay of a famous act by Jesus Christ.”
Pavlensky’s self-mutilation garnered immediate international attention, as he spotlighted the relationship between President Vladimir Putin’s oppressive government and the tyrannical history of the Russian Orthodox Church — which coincidentally endorsed Putin as a candidate during his campaign for presidential office.
In an online inter- view with “Dazed Digital,” Pavlensky stated his protest was merely intended to demon strate how Russian citizens are “living in an environment where there’s a ban on public ity, the tightening of censorship, and suppression of public statements in contemporary art.”
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government has passed multiple laws in an attempt to restrict citizens’ freedom of expression, assembly, and association. They have enacted strict anti-blasphemy laws, limited digital freedom, re-criminalized libel, and banned homosexual propaganda — the latter occurring mostly recently in June, when President Putin signed into effect the highly controversial “anti-gay” law.
Still, Pavlensky seems to be the lone crusader against political tyranny.
On the morning of Nov. 10, Russia’s national Police Day, Pavlensky made headlines once more, sending social media aflutter as he marched to Moscow’s Red Square, stripped naked, and nailed his scrotum to the cobblestone street outside of Lenin’s Mausoleum. Authorities promptly draped a blanket over him to shield him from the eyes of pedestrians and tourists before he was taken to a hospital for treatment — and then arrested. The Russian authorities have yet to release a statement about Pavlensky’s act, but it is speculated that he will be charged with hooliganism and serve prison time, the same fate as the Pussy Riot members. Prior to the demonstration, Pavlensky published a statement on grani.ru, a Russian news website, stating that his act would be a “metaphor for the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of contemporary Russian society.”
What is starkly different about Pavlensky’s protest this time around is that fellow Russians did not rally behind him in support. Yet, that is the very point of Pavlensky’s message. He is not just a man who is protesting his government — if nailing one’s genitals to the ground is not a call to action with the intent of mustering public interest, I do not know what is. If Russian citizens want to free themselves from oppression, they must stand in solidarity against their government. Otherwise, the government will continue to grip them by the balls.
Kimberlee Parton is a sophomore International Studies major.