For many years now, volunteers, “Memorial” activists and historians have sought to preserve the memory of places of death and suffering of millions of victims of Stalinist repression in Russia. In most cases, this has been done at their own expense. These individuals have had to overcome not only resistance, but indifference and hypocrisy on the part of governmental authorities. These authorities have failed to erect monuments even to the greatest of writers and poets killed during the Soviet era, or to mark their graves with tombstones or monuments. Instead those who cared have taken up this task, though the memorials they have erected have often not been protected from vandalism.
As such, a monument to Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, had to be gifted by sculptor Nenazhivin to the city of Vladivostok no less than three times due to damage sustained by vandals. Mandelstam, the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century, had died at a prison transit point in the city. The inability of authorities to protect the monument from repeated acts of desecration in the location that it had originally been placed forced the need to relocate it to the grounds of the local university.
Commemorations of Ukrainian poet and freedom fighter Vasyl Stus have similarly suffered. Stus died during a hunger strike in solitary confinement in 1985 at a Soviet camp for political prisoners. At the time, Heinrich Böll had proposed Stus as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Literary works written by Stus in the camp disappeared, and although a museum to the memory of the “Perm-36”campwhere Stus died, had originally existed, this museum was taken away from the “Memorial” volunteers curating it, thus destroying this oasis of memory. Exactly one year ago, in April 2015, a memorial plaque installed at Donetsk university, where the poet studied, was also dismantled. Even 30 years after the death of Vasyl Stus there is a continued effort to eradicate any trace of his legacy.
The term “vandalism” appears to take on a different meaning in Russia to elsewhere, with the Russian Penal Code featuring various articles criminalizing attempted attacks on “cultural values”. Contemporary artist, Piotr Pavlensky, was charged with vandalism for burning car tires during his performance “Freedom” in the center of St.Petersburg. He had not sought to destroy any cultural or architectural monument when a relatively small fire was lit. However, his act was considered a more serious offence than the destruction of the Vladivostok monument to Mandelstam – a poet, whose name had been banned for decades, whose works had been destroyed and about whose death all information has been erased from public memory.
The symbolic burning of the former entrance to the Federal Security Service (FSB, heir to the KGB) in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square likewise saw Pavlensky arrested and charged with vandalism – the damaged door supposedly also having great cultural and historical value. During court proceedings Pavlensky repeatedly objected to charges of vandalis. He categorically refused to call himself a vandal and instead proposed the reclassification of his case as a “terrorism” case so that the authorities could shed their “mask of humanity”. He was reportedly charged with Article 243 of the Russian Criminal Code (“Destruction of or damage to the cultural heritage (monuments of history and culture) of the peoples of the Russian Federation, included in the state register of cultural heritage (monuments of history and culture)”). Pavlensky stated in court that “changing the numbers” of the articles of the criminal code with which he had been charged was an irrelevancy and that the motives of the newly qualified “crime” were absurd. However, evidence in the case suggests that the elevated evaluation of the cultural and historical value of the FSB’s doors was founded on the fact that Russia’s “prominent cultural figures were repressed and executed” after having passed through them.
“The FSB is an organization of executioners, but they themselves claim that their office is an operating mortuary. What is the difference?” said Pavlensky. Indeed, the FSB/KGB’s activities and the articles of the Criminal Code invoked in Pavlensky’s case are both in essence, vandalism: that is, “the destruction of cultural heritage”. A more pertinent question might be, what is really significant in terms of history and culture? If the historical value of the FSB’s door is that Mandelstam, Babel and many others, who had entered through it, had lost their freedom first and then their lives, why doesn’t the door itself feature a commemoration plaque to these great artists and their tragic fate?
Destroying the memory of victims of tragic political repression may be considered criminal, but can this door truly be considered a symbol of such memory and grief? Was this door – or any facade or wall of this KGB building – decorated with plaques commemorating the lives of those who were lost behind these doors forever?! One excellent public initiative known as “The Last Address”, places memory plaques on houses to commemorate those taken away and killed by the Soviet terror regime. These plaques are placed by ordinary citizens, using their own means. Arguably, one should expect the entity that became heir to many such killers to atone itself by carrying out a similar such project – not least because it alone possesses all data about how, where and when such victims were tortured and killed. This information should placed above the FSB’s own door.
Had Pavlensky had tried to damage such a “memorial” door, bearing the names of victims, their dates of life, portraits, poems, flowers, candles, or indeed anything made in their memory, he could indeed be called a “vandal” or destroyer of “monuments of history and culture”. However, Pavlensky symbolically burned quite a different door – a door belonging to the current repressive regime that continues a long standing tradition of terror, destruction of history and culture. Indeed, Pavlensky himself could be considered a victim of “destruction or damage”, being a cultural figure, persecuted for his art. Far from destroying historical memory, his so-called “threatening” actions – burning the FSB door – in fact aimed to defend such memory by reminding people of this terrible part of Lubyanka’s history and speaking truth about the present as this spectre from the past once again begins to rear its head to take more power.
These are not, of course, juridical arguments and, as we all know, Russian judicial and investigative authorities do not accept what they might term as the “lyrical”. It is now customary in Russia to invite experts to participate in judicial processes, allowing the courts, prosecutors and sometimes defence lawyers to evade responsibility for making their own assessments of events. But which expert is able to distinguish what has “special artistic value” and what does not? The Russian Ministry of Culture, as it turns out, does not have a methodology or even criteria for detyermining “special value”, and the Ministry’s experts generally base their findings for court proceedings on methodological manuals that they themselves have compiled. As such, during one case concerning library books on heraldry, one “expert” stated that “the special historical value of the books presented was that they can be used to study history, while the special artistic value of the books was that they featured pictures, including colored pictures”.
It is such experts that will probably argue the prosecution’s case during court proceedings against Pavlensky – one of the most talented, courageous and honest contemporary action artists of today. It is using such banal criteria that they will pronounce their judgments on history, culture, memory and the objects of “cultural heritage”. One need not be a certified “expert” to discern who is engaged in destroying memory, history and culture in this case. These people do not subscribe to the belief that “manuscripts don’t burn”, as Mikhail Bulgakov once put it. Manuscripts do burn and well they know. They do however believe that the doors to the offices behind which so many dark secrets are kept do not burn.
Pavlensky, by contrast, believes otherwise.
First published on the website of Radio Liberty