That Pyotr Pavlensky’s latest actionist protest is likely to be the talking point in future days should not mean that we ignore other recent protests which are also of significance. Moreover, Pavlensky’s act in itself is as much an action of symbolic (and real) despair as anything else- the fact that an artist is willing to go to such lengths of potential self-harm should surely open up wider questions after the first exclamations of horror or raptures at such an extreme act of artistic scandal. That Pavlensky’s act alone is unlikely to stir this narcoleptic society suggests, at the very least, that the goals of actionism and its aims are as yet fairly wide apart.
That the Russian government is able to keep silent the whereabouts of Nadezhda Tolokonnikov for almost three weeks without any extreme indignation from any significant sector of Russian society still points to the fact that a form of indifference is hanging like a heavy cloud over Russian society. Whether it is indifference or an anomic generalized fear is hard to tell. All the same Pavlensky’s protest marks (whatever the amount of sympathy one may have for his extreme attempt to draw attention to society’s narcolepsy) potentially a low point as well as any high point that it may represent for actionism as such. Beyond this point it seems that art actionism is unable to advance ‘artistically’ without some truly suicidal action. In one’s more sceptical moments one feels that there is almost a hidden ‘market’ for this form of Russian protest- individualized, spectacular but as yet unable to reawaken society as a whole. So however powerful this action was, however scandalous it doesn’t look like it will be accompanied by any real change in social mentality.
It is important not to forget that other protests, too, have taken place in recent days. Small protests but indicative that the more openly political action is not at times without its creative side. On the 7th November Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s birthday was celebrated clandestinely in Moscow thus:
In an action aimed at highlighting the death by suicide of a Russian oppositionist at a Dutch detention centre early this year (and the failure of the Dutch authorities to fully investigate this fact), tomatoes were thrown by members of the Dutch Royal Family at their visit to Moscow. Interestingly, enough it was Liberals in Russia who were most condemnatory of this action with the nominally opposition radio station Ekho Moskvy calling the two members of the National Bolsehvik Party ‘hooligans’ and other justifying a punishment of fiteen days detention for the pair.
Another action of note is related to the attempt of Russian authorities to ram down people’s throats a monarchist rewriting of history and this has included the opening of an exhibition devoted to 400 years of the Romanovs. A group of anti-monarchists turned up with their own guide to give their own reading of events with recitals of anti-monarchist poems and their own version of history. They also turned up wearing t-shirts proclaiming ‘Thanks great grandad for the victory’ referring to the overthrow of the monarchy by early 20th century revolutionaries. Interestingly other people at the exhibition were said to have applauded the recitation of anti monarchist poetry by many of Russia’s great poets and although the security guards were wary and nervous they didn’t prevent the excursionists from completing their tour. The alternative activist tour guide could be an excellent idea for Republicans in Britain too. In short, this action although small scale had a certain effect at least on the social surroundings and was rather original in form and content.
As well as Pyotr Pavlensky’s action on Red Square on November 10th, the previous four activists staged an impormptu demonstration to celebrate the day against fascism, racism and anti-semitism commemorating Kristallnacht. They were detained almost immediately by the police in the aquare:
One of the less reported stories is of the second strike at the Antolin factory in the region outside of Saint Petersburg. An attempt by the company to sack striking workers was met by more industrial action. These are a number of the small hopeful signs of an opposition to the regime coming the left and socialists instead of the nationalists with their pogroms and Russian marches. Any increase in working class organisation like from the workers at Antolin can only bring some more real hope that society is slowly reawakening from its narcolepsy.