Russian performance artist and political activist Pyotr Pavlensky is spending his fourth month in Paris’ Fleury-Mérogis prison. In January 2017, Pavlensky and his associate Oksana Shalygina left Russia after law enforcement questioned him over a rape allegation. But after performing an action at a branch of the Banque de France on Paris’ Place de la Bastille in October 2017, Pavlensky was arrested and sent to an isolation unit. Here, he is denied the opportunity to interact with other prisoners, and letters reach him only after considerable delay. All correspondence is checked by the court authorities, and translating Russian letters into French takes time.
“The Bastille was destroyed by a people in revolution; the people destroyed its symbol of despotism and power. The Banque de France has taken the place of the Bastille, and bankers have taken the place of monarchs” – this was how Pavlensky explained rationale behind the action.
The dangerous property damage case against Pavlensky is being heard in camera, prompting Pavlensky to stage a dry hunger strike (refusing both food and water) last autumn. Nevertheless, Pavlensky’s close friend Oksana Shalygina, who helped Pavlensky organise the stunt and who has also been charged with arson, was released on 5 January. Shalygina remains under investigation and cannot leave France. She and Pavlensky both face up to ten years in prison.
I visited Shalygina for her first post-release interview.
Why were you released?
When I was detained, one of the reasons for my detention was that I had neither an address nor a phone number. I didn’t give them our address because telling them where we lived was undesirable. But how would the police search for me in that case? They were afraid we’d do a runner. Then my friends found me an apartment so as to obviate the formal grounds for my detention. A major exhibition was held at the Saatchi Gallery around the same time. Our lawyer brought back some exhibition materials to show the judge, who examined the list of exhibition participants and eventually ruled that I had to be released. This came as a surprise, even the lawyer had no idea it would happen.
Why hadn’t an apartment been rented for you earlier?
There was no opportunity. Some Russian friends who live here helped us out. They decided the best help they could offer would be to try and secure my release, because I have children and I’d be of more use on the outside. The arrest itself was terrible — we were both of us arrested and separated from our children and each other. Throughout the first month we could communicate only with our lawyer. I needed to get out. The person who was looking after our children throughout that whole period ended up completely overwhelmed. He works, he’s got children of his own. It was a great feat on his part to take care of our kids during those three months. I’m very grateful to him.
Why wasn’t Pyotr released for the same reason?
The application documents were filed for me only. Pyotr doesn’t want to compromise with the judicial system in any way, shape or form — and therefore found the release conditions unacceptable.
Will an application be filed for him as well?
That’ll depend on him. It’s possible that he’ll remain in prison while the investigation is ongoing. Very soon, in mid-February, there’ll be a hearing to decide whether to extend Pyotr’s detention or release him. We’re going to insist on a public hearing.
But in terms of what happens to you, he’s ok with these kind of compromises?
Yes, he is. I only agreed to this course of action because, number one, we have children, and number two, it doesn’t conflict with his views or mine in this particular instance.
You weren’t planning on being detained?
I was involved in the technical preparation for the action and physically didn’t have time to make myself scarce. I didn’t want to appear in shot because I don’t like publicity. But we were clean out of luck because the police materialised literally 20 seconds or so after we started — they were driving across the square and stopped by the bank. The French journos ended up behaving in extremely unscrupulous and unprofessional manner, they violated our agreement regarding the format of the video that was set to be appear online. Ditto the copyright of the photos. Everything should be freely available, with no names on the photos.