This week’s Russia Magazine column, “The Power of Pavlensky’s Nailed Body,”
The image of Petr Pavlensky sitting on the cold, wet cobblestone of Red Square with a long nail driven through his scrotum is shocking and bewildering. What is the performance artist trying to achieve? What does a spike impaling his testicles symbolize? Titled “Nail,” Pavlensky’s installation, which coincided with Police Day, served as a “metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society.” “It is not bureaucratic lawlessness which deprives society of the possibility to act,” reads a press release, “but the obsession with our defeats and losses which nail us ever more into the Kremlin’s paving stones, creating an army of stuffed dummies patiently awaiting their fate.” “Having forgotten its advantage in numbers,” the statement continues, society’s inaction “brings the triumph of the police state closer.” Pavlensky’shas since been charged with hooliganism which carries a maximum five year prison sentence.
Like many, I too was quick to ridicule Pavlensky’s art. A cock and balls nailed to the ground makes it all too easy to descend into grade school humor. But after I read Masha Gessen’s post on the NY Times, I began to seriously contemplate Pavlensky’s installation. “Each of these actions required the police to deal with Pavlensky’s body — something Russian law enforcement officials almost never have to do, even though they routinely mangle, maim and kill protesters, convicts and perceived violators of rules and laws. Pavlensky uses self-mutilation to point out that the victims of Russia’s policies are human beings of flesh and blood.” I was struck how Pavlensky used his body to alter the power dynamic between the protester and police. But “Nail,” as well as Pavlensky’s other acts of self-mutilating art, points to the centrality of the body in protest.
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By Sean — 1 year ago
By Sean — 12 years ago
I’m quite a fan of Kim Murphy’s reporting on Russia in the Los Angeles Times. She always handles an interesting, and often human side of Russia that I don’t see in many English language publications. Sometimes the stories she tells border on the bizarre. Other times they verge on the chilling. Her recent story published in the May 30 edition of the Times qualifies as both. Yet I think that the astonishment that this article conjures should not serve as yet another platform to further concretize the “abnormality” Russian Other vis-?-vis our “normality”. Rather, I would suggest that Murphy’s article identifies universal methods of designating Others through means of categorization that rely on legal, scientific, cultural and governmental discourses.
In “Speak Out? Are You Crazy?”, Murphy reports that the Soviet practice of condemning the political dissident to mental asylums continues in the cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as in periphery of the Federation. Those seeking to pose an electoral challenge to local notables, speak out about corruption, women who want to divorce their powerful husbands, and those who complain about acts of labor, civil, and personal injustice are either condemned by local judges or are forced to sign consent forms to be institutionalized. While this practice is not systematic, “it seems quite clear that such abuses are on the rise, and that this is a trend,” says Iurii Savenko president of the Russian Independent Psychiatric Association.
In one of the many cases Murphy recounts, one Albert Imendayev, a candidate for the legislature in the Volga region was sent to an asylum for nine days. A judge determined that his campaign, which focused on exposing local corruption, was an act of insanity. Similar cases abound.
In another case here in Cheboksary, a four-term opposition deputy in the regional parliament, Igor Molyakov, spent six months in jail on libel charges in 2004. While incarcerated, he was ordered committed for psychiatric hospitalization after a judge agreed with government lawyers that Molyakov’s repeated writings about corruption among local authorities reflected an outlook so “somber” that it might constitute a “mental disorder.”
In St. Petersburg, Ivan Ivannikov, who lectured for 38 years at the State University of Economics and Finance, found himself wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and dragged to the city psychiatric hospital in December 2003 after a protracted dispute with a well-connected contractor over repairs to his apartment. An influential state psychiatrist signed the recommendation for commitment without ever having met Ivannikov, deciding that his multiple legal complaints against the contractor constituted an “obsession” with “revenge.” He was released after 60 days.
In Moscow, Natalya Kuznetsova was fired from her job at the federal audit chamber not long after charging that $140 million had been siphoned out of the federal budget in 2001 and 2002. A subsequent set of quarrels with her supervisors led to her firing, and when she filed suit seeking disability compensation, a state psychologist reported she had a mental disability.
“When they finally fired me on the 25th of January, 2005, they threatened to call a psychiatric ambulance for me,” said Kuznetsova, who successfully fought against commitment. “This is all because of flourishing corruption. These corrupt people are using psychiatric persecution to destroy people.”
In some cases, people who families and friends insist had no overt signs of mental illness have been committed for more than a year, sometimes drugged with sedatives and tied to their beds when they resisted, and prevented from attending the often-perfunctory court hearings that extended their hospitalization.
In many of these cases, patients were talked into signing consent forms. The rate of involuntary hospitalizations is so suspiciously low in at least 51 facilities across Russia that the Helsinki commission concluded that coerced consent through “persuading” and “falsification of signatures” was widespread.
Such practices were part and parcel of the Soviet attempt to squash dissident. Soviet dissidents were often sent to mental asylums for speaking out against the regime. Authorities justified this practice on the grounds that a person who condemned life in “socialist paradise” had to be insane. Within the logic of Soviet socialist ideology dissidence was categorizes as wholly illogical. However skeptical one may be of the Soviet justification, and many at the time went further than skepticism and rightly condemned the practice, the Soviets explanation fell squarely within the context of albeit flawed Soviet logic. It was backed by Soviet law, science, medicine, and culture. Dissidence fell outside of Soviet truth.
Some will say that nothing has changed. The many of the structures of the Soviet system continue to exist in a different context but are still deployed for similar ends. This is Murphy’s contention. Her byline bills the practice as a “throwback to Soviet times.” I don’t disagree with this. However, I think it would be a mistake to simply write off this practice as a “throwback” because it reveals something inherent to our modern condition. No matter how instrumental the condemning of dissidents (and do not let the term “dissident” conjure images of high profile figures like Andrei Sakharov. The majority of those sent to these psychological hells are regular people often without an overarching political agenda), an ideological justification remains. Sending someone to a mental institutional is often justified in terms that make it plausible that the condemned is indeed insane. And it is these terms that are placed in a discourse that employs a vast array of legal and medical institutions, experts, and state power. Having cynicism toward the use discourse therefore should not lead one to reduce the power of that discursive structure to nil. That is to say, just because the powerful silence dissent through corruption does not remove the fact that the silencing occurs within a matrix of legal institutions and structures. The condemnation of someone as insane requires the condemnation to fall within the parameters of what is coded as insane behavior.
This attempt to place the act of speaking out within an institutional and cultural context of madness is evident in case of one Molyakov, an opposition lawmaker who challenged the iron grip former Russian Justice Minister Nikolai Fyodorov has had on the reigns of power in Chuvashia since he became its governor in 1994. Molyakov was charged with slandering Fydorov during an electoral campaign in 2004. Using the levers of power at their disposal, Fydorov’s people have since tried to get Molyakov condemned to a mental institution. What is interesting about this case of power and corruption is what Fydorov’s lawyers argued in their appeal to federal Judge Oleg Zhukov’s overturning of a lower court’s psychiatric referral order.
Murphy reports that Fydorov’s lawyers asserted that Molyakov’s standing as an author and philosophy professor didn’t mean that he wasn’t insane. Quite the contrary, those accomplishments made his insanity more likely:
“The court ought to know that even being a personal genius doesn’t rule out a mental disorder … (Van Gogh, F.M. Dostoevsky, N.V. Gogol, etc.). As has been established by scientists, the risk of a mental disease in gifted people … is seven to eight times higher.”
Such a passage should be so quickly dismissed. Notice what is being referred to here. First there is a correlation of “genius” with “mental disorder” by way of referencing insane, and more importantly, culturally authoritative geniuses like Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, and Gogol. One is a bit surprised Nietzsche wasn’t also included in such a venerated list. Second, the lawyers back up their cultural assertion with science. “Geniuses” are “seven to eight times higher” to be mentally insane. The appeal to experts is to give the cultural claim the weight of empirical and scientifically validated truth to push the subject from the parameters of normal to that of abnormal.
If one thinks that this practice of pushing a subject from a position of normal to the abnormal is particular to Russia, I recommend considering the fact that what is categorized as normal and abnormal is based on a post-Enlightenment discourse whose domain encompasses the entire West. The issue is not whether any of those in Murphy’s article actually and objectively committed a crime. We, who pride ourselves on the fact that we cherish the sanctity of human rights and the inviolability of the sovereign, individual subject should not so quickly revel in how the actions of the Russian Other reinforce our liberal sainthood. Instead the Russian case should rather reflect universal discursive structures that allow for the innocent to be transformed into the guilty through a process of re-categorization. Here I am thinking of the stripping of American citizens of their right to habeus corpus through their re-categorization as “enemy combatants.” A similar border crossing between the realms of “normal” and “abnormal” is also occurring in the American case through similar appeals to culture, legality, social-scientific expertise, and state power.
Make no mistake. I am not equating the Russian and American cases. To do so would be to nullify their particularities. My point is a larger and I think more profound one. It is one inspired by Michel Foucault’s and Giorgio Agamben’s thinking on the confluence of law, social science, medicine, culture, and state institutions as a means to discipline, condemn, and manage bodies. This process is not one that requires objective acts of criminalty, insanity, or even terrorism but rather the categorization of certain acts through the use of an array of apparatuses that do not exist outside the boundaries of legality as some human rights activists might argue (and however much I may agree with their arguments), but rather exist inside the very structures that supposed guarantee human rights. The act of condemning exists within a matrix of already existing “regimes of truth,” to use Foucault’s words, that allows the possibility of the normal subjects in Murphy’s article to suddenly become abnormal and thus condemned and silenced.Post Views: 40
By Sean — 5 years ago
Last weekend’s sudden death of Boris Berezovsky generated a slew of questions. How did he die? Murder, heart failure, or suicide? Why? What’s the significance? It’s increasingly clear that Berezovsky committed suicide thanks to a mixture of financial ruin and depression. But perhaps the strangest mystery was the bomb Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov dropped when asked about the kingmaker’s death.
“Some time ago Berezovsky gave his own letter to Putin where he recognized that he had made many mistakes and begged pardon for his mistakes. Berezovsky also asked Putin for allowing the oligarch to return home.”
We do know that he wanted to return to Russia. He said as much in an “off the record” interview with Forbes Russia the Friday before his death.
F-R: Do you miss Russia?
B: Return to Russia… I want nothing more than to go back to Russia. Even after a criminal case was opened, I wanted to go back to Russia. Even after a criminal case was opened! I only stayed on the advice of Elena Bonner [the late widow of Russian physicist and exile Andrei Sakharov]. The main thing I underestimated was that Russia was too dear to me, that I couldn’t be an immigrant.
I have changed many of my past assessments. Including of myself. My views, as to what’s Russia and what’s the West. I absolutely idealistically imagined the possibility of building a democratic Russia. I idealistically imagined what a democracy in the heart of Europe would be. I underestimated the inertia of Russia and greatly overestimated the West. And this was happening gradually. I changed my view about Russia’s future. I shouldn’t have left Russia.
F-R: If you would have stayed in Russia, you’d be in jail. Is this what you want?
B: Now, looking back at how I spent those years in London…
Berezovsky looked ahead, then put his hand to his chest. His hand was shaking. He turned to me and looked me in the eye for a while. Finally he said:
B: I don’t have the answer to this question. [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky [Russian political prisoner, once the country’s richest man] saved himself.
Berezovsky looked at his feet, then quickly glanced at me and began to speak quickly as if trying to justify himself.
B: This doesn’t mean that I have lost myself. But I’ve lived through a lot more of my own revaluations and disappointments than Khodorkovsky. I lost the meaning.
F-R: Of life?
B: The meaning of life. I don’t want to engage in politics now.
Still, a letter to Putin asking for forgiveness and to return to Russia? No way. Few believed it could be true, including myself. I assumed it was one last dig at Russia’s mortal foe. It was a rare moment when I agreed with Masha Gessen:
Berezovsky would have appreciated Peskov’s apparent bit of fancy: It was a page out of his own playbook. Berezovsky was a master of political intrigue and manipulation. He never lost his taste for it, even when the consequences of a poorly played hand forced him into exile and, eventually, into near-bankruptcy.
Despite my skepticism, I admit I sure hoped Berezovsky’s letter was true. It would be karma coming full circle.
Unsurprisingly, speculation swirled around the purported Berezovsky letter. Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan quoted an alleged passage on air, “I made many mistakes. I understand how hard it is for me to ask, but I become unraveled and I implore you [Putin] for forgiveness.” Moskovskii komsomolets editor, Pavel Gusev (who of late is no stranger to scandal), said that he didn’t doubt Berezovsky wrote the it, adding that it was written in the former oligarch’s style.
Reporters badgered Peskov. What was Putin’s reaction? How did Berezovsky send it? Would the Kremlin publish it? The answers were: Don’t know. Through private channels. No, it was personal.
So did Berezovsky fall on his sword before Putin or not? It turns out he did, or at least, so says Katerina Sabirova, a close Berezovsky confidant, in an interview with The New Times.
What do you know about Berezovsky’s letter to Vladimir Putin?
Yes, I came to London in October and he met me at the airport. We went to his home. He told me that he thought that the only way he could return to Russia was to “make a move”–to apologize to Putin. He talked about it like it was his last chance.
For what in particular did he want to apologize to Putin?
He said that he didn’t see another way except to go to [Putin] on all fours. I think that it was Boris’ and his [ex-]wife’s idea. He discussed it with her for a long time on the telephone. They talked about it for hours. I was never present at their conversations. Boris left and I understood that they talked about the possibility of such a letter. He didn’t conceal that they talked about this letter. I didn’t believe that this letter would help. He said that it was all the same to him and he would see it as necessary to return [to Russia]. Elena [Berezovsky’s ex-girlfriend] convinced him to go back and make peace (with Putin.) Even his mother, Anna Aleksandrovna. I heard her say, “Borya, maybe you can make peace?”
Was there a letter?
Yes, I saw the handwritten text. He read it to me. He asked forgiveness and asked about the possibility of returning. It was such a whipping. He asked me what I thought about the letter. I said that they will publish it and you will look bad. And that it won’t help. He responded that it was all the same to him, that everyone will hang every last sin on him, and that this was his only chance.
So there you have it. And keep in mind, this isn’t coming from the Kremlin. But from one of the most liberal, anti-Putin publications in Russia.
Photo: ReutersPost Views: 66