Latest News: Freedom of Expression & the Arts


Russian performance artist arrested, forced to undergo involuntary psychiatric evaluation

May 19, 2016 ­— As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been convicted of vandalism by a Russian court for his 2014 performance titled Freedom, celebrating the Ukrainian street protests that helped oust then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. Pavlensky will not serve any of the 16-month sentence handed down by the court, however, as the statute of limitations has expired in the case. The Freedom performance involved a number of performance artists who constructed a mini barricade out of tires, wood, and scrap metal then set it on fire while hoisting Ukrainian flags to symbolize their support for the Maidan square protesters in Kiev.  

Pavlensky remains in custody facing separate charges of “damaging a cultural site” stemming from his November 2015 performance titled Threat, wherein the artist stood with a gasoline canister and set ablaze the large wooden front doors of the Lubyanka—the former headquarters of the KGB and current headquarters of its successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB). 

Following his November arrest and detention, on January 26, 2016 Pavlensky was transferred to Serbsky State Scientific Center for Social and Forensic Psychology for extended involuntary psychiatric evaluation until March 6th. Tanya Cooper, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, has stated that this punitive psychiatry is intended to silence critics, adding, 

“Pavlensky is facing the very violations he had denounced in his performance art.”

Pavlensky’s past high-profile artistic performances include: sewing his mouth shut in 2012 to protest the criminal charges against the female punk band Pussy Riot for their “Punk Prayer” against Russian President Vladimir Putin; his 2013 performance where he nailed his scrotum to the cobblestone of Moscow’s Red Square as, in Pavlensky’s words, “a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of modern Russian society;” and, his staged performance in 2014 wherein he sat naked atop the Serbsky psychiatric center and, imitating Van Gogh’s famous self-mutilation, cut off a piece of his earlobe to protest the forced use of psychiatry against Russian dissidents. On May 5, 2016, the Human Rights Foundation announced that Pavlensky—along with Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani and Uzbek photojournalist Umida Akhmedova—would be awarded the 2016 Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent.

To read more about Pyotr Pavlensky, click here.




Russian opera director arrested, theater director fired for refusing to censor theater production

February 24, 2015 — In 2013, in the wake of the punk rock band Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” at a Moscow church, Russia enacted a law that makes it a criminal offense to carry out public acts that offend religious believers, which carries a jail sentence of up to three years. In December 2014, Russian opera director Timofei Kulyabin’s production of Wagner’s Tannhauser premired to full houses at Novosibirsk’s State Opera and Ballet Theatre in Siberia. However, the Guardian reports that in the wake of the production’s opening, Kulyabin was charged by Russian authorities with publicly offending the feelings of religious believers following a complaint by a senior Russian Orthodox cleric.

Specifically, the BBC reports that Russian Orthodox activists were offended by Kulyabin’s depiction of Tannhauser as a film director working on an erotic film featuring Jesus, and the production’s inclusion of a crucified Christ between the legs of a naked woman.

In mid-March the Russian court dismissed the complaint against Kulyabin finding no evidence of any offense. However, on March 29th Boris Mezdrich, director of the Novosibirsk theatre, was fired by Russia’s Culture Ministry and his replacement immediately removed Tannhauser from the theatre’s repertoire describing it as “blasphemous.” The BBC reported that, despite his dismissal, Mezdrich was proud of his refusal to apologize and adapt the disputed production at the behest of the ministry. Defending Mezdrich’s firing, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov asserted that:

“There is no place for any censorship, but there is a place for subordination. They [the theatre management] should obey.”

Russian rap group’s lyrics ruled “illegal”

July 19, 2015 — Newsweek has reported that on July 15th a local Russian court in the city of Yaroslavl ruled the lyrics of Russian rap group Krovostok illegal. The ruling came after the Federal Drug Control Service office in Yaroslavl filed a complaint to the regional prosecutor following the band’s March performance at a Yaroslavl club.

Formed in the early 2000s by two art college graduates, Krovostok’s original fan base largely consisted of Moscow journalists and intellectuals. During the past 12 years, according to Newsweek, the band has been consciously pushing the aesthetics of gangsta rap by writing “brilliantly detailed, believable and witty—though completely fictional—stories” about the turbulent adventures of drug dealers, street gangs, and hit men. Despite the fictional nature of the band’s narratives, the Yaroslavl court agreed with the prosecution’s allegations that the songs contained obscene descriptions of killing and drug propaganda, a determination that could have implications on the band’s ability to produce its music.

However, in November the Moscow Times reported that Krovostok won its appeal against the prosecution’s attempt to ban its music. The paper also reported that Krovostok received the 2015 Jagermeister Indie Award for hip-hop act of the year—noting that, “the award was for freedom of expression as much as for music.”

To read more about Krovostok, click here.