A Russian police investigator interrogates a detained political artist, with the end result being that the detective — his eyes opened to the state’s abuses of power — renounces his badge. It sounds like a short story Nikolai Gogol or Fyodor Dostoyevsky might have written, but it actually happened last year.
According to the Moscow Times, police investigator Pavel Yasman was tasked with the job of eliciting a confession from Pyotr Pavlensky. The 31-year-old performance artist had been charged with vandalism after he burned tires on a UNESCO-protected bridge in St. Petersburg to show his support for the Euromaidan protests. The state now wants to imprison him for up to three years.
Given Pavlensky’s track record, it’s easy to understand why Russian authorities would want to put him away. His acts of political dissidence have included sewing his lips together during the 2012 Pussy Riot trial to symbolize state silencing; hammering a nail through his scrotum in Moscow’s Red Square in 2013 to show political indifference in Russian society; and cutting off his earlobe while sitting atop Moscow’s infamous Serbsky Institute in 2014 to call attention to how the government uses psychiatry wards to shut away political dissidents. It’s attention-grabbing stuff, meant to force Russians to think about political problems they may rather choose to ignore.
Yasman’s interrogations led to lengthy discussions about the boundaries and nature of art. According to transcripts of the interview published by Snob magazine, the 30-year-old detective told Pavlensky that under the artist’s view of art, he could murder someone and still call it art. He also argued that if what Pavlensky does is art, then he could be called an artist too. “I am an artist of justice,” he mocked. “The context of my art is statistics … I have made an invaluable contribution to the formation of statistical reports.” Pavlensky spent a while explaining the ideas of Kazimir Malevich, and Yasman sardonically replied that it was too bad they couldn’t call in Malevich as a witness.
But over the course of three interrogations between March and June of 2014, Yasman’s tough-guy persona broke down. He eventually told Pavlensky, “Pyotr Andreyevich, I already got thoroughly screwed [by my superiors] because your case is still not in court.” Pavlensky replied, “So you agree that you are just a tool. The government simply makes tools out of people.” And Yasman answered, “I agree.”
Shortly afterward, Yasman resigned from his position, became a lawyer, and asked the St. Petersburg court to allow him to represent the artist — much to Pavlensky’s surprise. “I thought he was just trying to put me at ease and make me trust him during the interrogations,” he told the Moscow Times. “People in law enforcement agencies are forced to become tools; everything human in them is suppressed …. But many of them doubt that what they are doing is right, so the human element can rebel against the functional one.”
The court rejected Yasman’s request earlier this month, claiming he could not represent Pavlensky because he is an interested party. “Pavlensky is a very strong person. I think it’s great to believe so fervently in what you are doing,” Yasman told the Moscow Times. “I think his work has made many people become more critical and change their worldview.”