“He had placed all his trust and hope in the state,” Mr. Pavlensky said. His mother, a retired nurse, is still alive and living in St. Petersburg.
His parents, while conformist in their views, encouraged him to pursue his interest in art, he said, and supported his decision to enroll in the Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, a prestigious art school in St. Petersburg. Increasingly interested in politics, he dropped out of the academy in his final year after deciding that getting a diploma would brand him as a “servant of the system.”
A major influence at this time, he said, was Pussy Riot, a feminist punk rock protest group, two of whose members were sent to jail in 2012 for “inciting religious hatred” after staging a protest inside Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.
That action and the heavy-handed response of the authorities, Mr. Pavlensky said, convinced him of the need for “political art” aimed at shocking people into questioning the system, its rules and ideology. “Art should always raise doubts about power, not serve it,” he said.
So inspired, he joined another artist, Oksana Shalygina, his now estranged partner, in establishing Political Propaganda publishing house, an online platform dedicated to exploring and promoting the use of contemporary art as a tool of political awakening. He staged his first public “action” in July 2012, appearing at a cathedral in St. Petersburg with his mouth sewn shut in protest at the arrest of Pussy Riot members. The police sent him for a psychiatric examination but he was declared sane and released.
His first action in Moscow followed the following year, when, in November 2013, he appeared naked in Red Square and, in a statement, explained that “a naked artist, looking at his testicles nailed to the cobblestones, is a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of Russian society.” He was briefly detained and then released.