Russian protest artist Pyotr Pavlensky seeks political asylum in France

The artist and his family fled the country after the opening of an investigation against him for sexual assault


The St Petersburg-based protest artist Pyotr Pavlensky, famous for nailing his scrotum to Moscow’s Red Square, has fled to France where he plans to apply for political asylum. The radical artist left Russia in mid-December with his partner, Oksana Chalyguina, and their children, after the opening of a criminal investigation brought against him for sexual assault.

On Monday, 16 January, Pavlensky told the Russian opposition television channel Dojd that a complaint had been filed against him and his partner by the theatre actress, Anastasia Slonina. Pavlensky denies any guilt and describes the complaint as a “denunciation”. The couple’s lawyer, Olga Dinze, says she has not yet received any court documents connected to the investigation.

Slonina is a member of Teatr.doc, an experimental theatre that has supported Pavlensky more than any other Russian cultural institution over the past two years. The theatre’s director, Elena Gremina, says that Pavlensky first attacked Slonina’s boyfriend, another actor. She posted a video on on Facebook showing a man resembling Pavlensky hitting another man on the ground, with the help of accomplices. According to Gremina, a few days later Pavlensky tried to rape Slonina and wounded her with a knife. Gremina says the incident “has no connection to politics, nor to art, nor to the theatre”.

Pavlensky acknowledges that he knows Slonina, who came to his home once, on 4 December, after which she filed a complaint. Pavlensky says he found out about the investigation on 14 December, when he arrived in Moscow airport from Warsaw and was immediately summoned along with Chalyguina by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation—which deals with sensitive or politically related matters. According to Pavlensky, the couple were interrogated for seven hours and he said he was “surprised to have been released”. Pavlensky and Chalyguina decided to leave Russia the next day. They first drove to Belarus, then Ukraine, and flew from there to France.

Known for his extreme performances, Pavlensky is a vocal opponent of the Russian government, which he seeks to show as dictatorial and totalitarian. In the past, he has sewn his lips shut in a protest against the imprisonment of fellow activist-artists Pussy Riot, rolled naked on barbed wire, nailed his scrotum to the pavement of Moscow’s Red Square and cut his ear lobe. He has been taken to court multiple times, and served seven months in prison last year for the “destruction of an object of cultural heritage” after setting fire in November 2015 to the entrance of the FSB security service headquarters.

“A system of informing and reporting on others is re-emerging in Russia, showing that totalitarianism is setting in again,” Pavlensky told the AFP in Paris, as Russian authorities sought to control “all spheres of public and private life”.