16 June 2023

“Do not retreat — it brings us closer to the future.” The remarkable story of activist and prisoner Pavel Krisevich, as told by himself

On the morning of August 19th, 2020, residents of St. Petersburg noticed a person under the Troitsky Bridge. Suspended from the bridge pier, a young man shouted in front of strangers and the police, “Freedom to political prisoners!” Some time later he cut the rope and fell into the water. One of the passing tourist boats picked him up and carried him further along the Neva River.

This man was 20-year-old Pavel Krisevich — TV audiences could know him as the winner of the show “Umnitsy i umniki” (“Clever Girls and Boys”) on Channel One, while participants of Navalny’s rallies knew him as a left-wing activist. It was Krisevich who led the column from Smolny to Palace Square during one of the largest protests in 2018.

Krisevich was imprisoned even before the tightening of repression. In October 2022, a Moscow court sentenced him to 5 years in prison for hooliganism — for staging a suicide performance on Red Square. However, Pavel is still serving his time in a remand prison.

Since February 2023 Paper has been corresponding with Pavel Krisevich, publishing a significant story of the young performance artist. This story, as told by himself, encompasses his coming of age, military service and transition into activism. It also delves into his experience of imprisonment and reveals his plans for life after prison.

“Vecher v khatu!” [literally “evening in the hut” in Russian prison slang, rough equivalent of “good evening”, where “hut” is a prison cell, and “evening” refers to the night hours when prison guards’ control over inmates weakens, and the real life begins] — that’s how performance artist Pavel Krisevich titled each of the 40 pages of letters written for this interview. We have edited and supplemented these letters.

Table of Contents:

“The neighborhood was wayward.” On Pavel Krisevich’s upbringing and first arrest

The neighborhood where I grew up is a typical residential area with Soviet panel buildings located in the triangle of Nastavnikov, Udarnikov, and Entuziastov streets. It is imbued with the spirit of post-punk, the songs of the band Ploho, and the poems of Boris Ryzhy. The sun always leaves a blush on the crumbling tiles of the facades here.

[Pavel Krisevich was born in St. Petersburg on July 7th, 2000.]

On the playgrounds someone is always drinking, strangers meet for a brawl on waste lands, school gangs battle it out in the food courts of shopping malls, and in the forest parks the ground is littered with drug paraphernalia during the summer. But, seriously, it’s a lovely and quiet neighborhood. My school was close to my home, so I didn’t wander the streets. Upbringing and a constant engagement in sports kept me away from bad company.

The neighborhood instilled an internal melancholy about the generation of the 2000s, which sprouted with the potential of wonderful people, but no one asked us to grow, so we remained self-contained, growing in our peripheral habitat. And now, we have emerged into the world and become its adversaries because this world, entirely covered by the state, stripped away our freedoms when the neighborhood was wayward and a some kind of utopia.

Family relationships were like those of any other: with their own scandals and fathers and sons conflicts. For example, my grandfather tried to make me a football player, but as I lost interest in football, I gravitated more towards my studies. [Pavel grew up without a father and hardly ever saw him — in another interview, he mentioned that his father was involved in the Lensovet Theater.]

During the summer, I always hang out at the dacha in Toksovo, and across the street is the Rotenberg’s dacha. After childhood, we didn’t cross paths much, as they seemed to spend most of their time abroad before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I didn’t seek or even consider seeking support from them during my case. If these people wanted to show solidarity, they would have reached out on their own.

My family found out about my interest in politics during my first arrest. For the most part, I was a typical schoolboy. After school, I would do my homework, chat with friends on Skype, pile up books, and make notes. But eventually, I would run away to the city center. Our neighborhood was on the outskirts — it took 20-30 minutes on a shaky bus ride to reach the metro, and going to Nevsky Avenue felt like a journey.

[At the age of 14, Krisevich became fascinated with the theme of Russian Revolution and later, the communist ideas. He extensively read the works of Trotsky, Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, and at the age of 16, he organized a Komsomol (Young Communist League) group.]

Pavel Krisevich, September 2018. pavelkrisevich / Instagram

The first arrest occurred shortly before the semifinals of “Umnitsy i Umniki” in January 2018. That protest was a regular event in my life as a leader of the Komsomol group. The idea among the left-wing activists in St. Petersburg was to intercept the actions of Navalny’s headquarters and attract people to our cause. We would attend the protests with our own symbols, red flags, and distribute leaflets.

That’s exactly what happened at the January protest that took a stroll towards Dvortsovaya Square. On the way to the square, it turned out that the organizers from Navalny’s headquarters had already been detained, and unintentionally, with the red flag in the head of the column, we were leading everyone behind us. That’s how I ended up on the square, where dozens of police vans were already stationed. I tried to escape, but I was apprehended.

For many activists, their first arrest is a significant milestone. If you can overcome the burden of clashes with the police and the spectacle of court proceedings, then you’re unlikely to give up activism. Many individuals step back from protests for a long time after such detentions. But I was fully charged with the spirit of revolution, and it only fueled my determination further.

Afterwards, the hustle and bustle with the juvenile affairs authorities began, with my mother being summoned to their office, completely unaware of my activities. Initially, they drafted a protocol, threatening me with administrative detention, and then I received a scolding from my family, which was a wake-up call for me.

“Everyone expected me to become a diplomat.” On winning “Umnitsy i umniki” and getting accepted into MGIMO

I accidentally ended up on the TV show “Umnitsy i umniki” — my literature teacher asked me to write an essay about Likhachev, which I scribbled hastily — it turned out to be a selection for the regional stage of the academic competition.

It was the 10th grade, pre-exam nerves, and I thought that if I didn’t win this academic competition, I would never be able to get into the History department at St. Petersburg State University through the Unified State Exam (EGE). I was mistaken – this victory made me hostage to the field of International Relations and Foreign Regional Studies at MGIMO, and it didn’t grant any quotas for the History department.

During the competition, I interacted with other participants and even recruited some of them into my Komsomol group, or rather, an abstract Marxist-Trotskyist circle. We later attended pickets, rallies, and joint events with other left-wing groups in St. Petersburg.

Against this backdrop, I appeared to be somewhat of a genius in my family. Everyone expected me to become a diplomat. I had the ability to predict the host’s questions and cram vast amounts of information. I delved into topics such as the history of Australia, aviation, Soviet Russia in the 1970s, the life and works of Turgenev, and the cities of Russia. However, I showed minimal interest in languages, despite being warned that language education was a cornerstone of MGIMO.

In June 2018, I emerged victorious in the final of the academic competition and was awarded a full scholarship for four years in the field of international studies.

The greatest value came in the form of my comrades from the competition, with whom I forged a true bond. It instilled in me the sense that the young people of my age would become the vanguard of protest. For instance, my friend and first love, Tanya Kolobakina, blossomed into a remarkable independent journalist. Those who remained at MGIMO, I’m certain, have grown into true specialists in their respective fields.

However, MGIMO had to be left behind, as the field I had chosen did not align with the knowledge I possessed. Initially, I attempted to delve into the intricacies of languages, specifically English and Danish. I spent hours memorizing rules and vocabulary, but as soon as the first failures came, I gave up and started contemplating transferring to a different institution.

After the winter term, I traveled to the grave of Egor Letov in Omsk and decided to find a clarity there. It was a place to contemplate life and freedom, where I could make an unbiased decision about my future. In the end, I chose to leave MGIMO and, before transferring to another university, I decided to spend a year in the army.

Pavel Krisevich, December 11th, 2020. Photo: Alexander Koryakov / Kommersant

“Fellow conscripts — brothers in misfortune.” On a year in the army and two novels written there

I joined the army to avoid future problems with military registration and not to deal with paperwork during my new studies. Obtaining the military ID was even convenient before the war in Ukraine started. Later, when I faced the threat of expulsion from RUDN (Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia), the law enforcers thought that I would be scared of the draft, but it didn’t bother me.

In May 2019, I enlisted in the army and served in the 138th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade in Kamenka, Leningrad Oblast. I didn’t really experience a typical conscription service. The first two months were filled with all the hustle of basic military training, adapting to life in the unit, where I was supposed to be a part of a gun crew on the 2S3 Akatsiya self-propelled howitzer. There were guard duty shifts, life in field camps, and then suddenly I found myself assisting with documentation in the gym. Army life was happening around me, but I felt somewhat detached from it, yet I could observe everything that was going on.

During my time in the army, I have caught the coronavirus, which led to some memorable moments: sewing cloth masks, designated red zones in the field camp, formations with social distancing measures.

While I was serving, a contract serviceman hanged himself in an abandoned military vehicles park, allegedly due to drug-related issues. Later, during formations, we were told that he was a hero who died in service, and we were asked to contribute money for his funeral. Also, during shooting exercises, our howitzer division narrowly missed hitting a motorized rifle battalion due to targeting errors.

The sense of camaraderie among fellow conscripts — brothers in misfortune, is immediately felt in the army, and it quickly forges friendship and solidarity. The team that surrounded me in the gym was wonderful. Both the officers and contract servicemen from the training unit were pleasant and had a sense of freedom.

I’m not sure about the current status of my fellow servicemen in terms of participation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but when we interacted after the end of my service, many either transferred from Kamenka or left the military altogether. However, the 138th brigade, where I served, was deployed to the front and was spotted near Kharkiv. It’s likely that many contract servicemen I knew ended up there.

At some point during my service, I was assigned as a clerk. I had free time and there was plenty of defective stationery available, so I would sit and write on the flawed orders and documents. I would transfer them to a battalion computer and send them to an acquaintance who worked as a proofreader, in order to improve the spelling and punctuation.

By the time of my discharge, I had a digital manuscript of a novel called From the Depths of Eyelids, which I began sending to publishers, but it was rejected everywhere, of course. Later, I self-published it through Litres and Ridero. However, after the law prohibiting ‘LGBT propaganda’ was enacted, it was taken down from publication. The reason was not specified, but there are episodes in the plot that fall under the law’s restrictions.

If we were to roughly explain the content, it is a collection of teenage thoughts, army stories and fables written under the influence of Sorokin and Pelevin. I believe that the book, although it is maximalist, manages to capture the spirit of the time: both the young people who are restless and struggling to find themselves, and the peacetime army, which, despite all its eccentricities, is romantic and intriguing.

The second book, handwritten, became an artistic reflection of my music preferences, including Bueraк, Ploho, Molchat Doma, and other post-punk bands. I wrote the manuscript while in the army and edited about a third of the material while out of service. Unfortunately, my arrest cut short the opportunity to complete it.

“From Activist to Performance Artist.” On the first performance

Once I finished my military service, I was determined to fully immerse myself in activism. In the spring, I was discharged, and during the summer, I enrolled at RUDN University. This gave me free time until the fall semester began.

Among my close acquaintances in the protest movement, only the members of the International Marxist Tendency and the National Bolsheviks remained active. In the background, the trials of Viktor Filinkov and Yulian Boyarshinov, known as the case of “Network,” were taking place, and I attended them to support the defendants whom I considered akin. After talking with Boyarshinov’s father, I decided to organize a protest during the verdict hearing.

At that time, I wasn’t concerned about avoiding plagiarism, so I decided to chain myself to the fence outside the courthouse and slash myself. I bought handcuffs and decided to practice with them. I chained myself to the handle of the stove and realized that the key was on the other side of the kitchen. I immediately imagined calling the emergency, them sawing the door down, and finding me surrounded by leaflets that read “Freedom for the defendants of the ‘Network’ case.” I had to demonstrate some incredible flexibility and stretch my leg to reach the key.

On the day of the protest, armed with handcuffs, flares, and a pile of leaflets, I went to the courthouse with a surge of adrenaline — it’s not hard to plan, it’s hard to cross the line between intention and realization.

I didn’t manage to slash myself — I’m not inclined towards self-destructive actions — but overall, the protest was successful. Many people came to support Viktor and Yulian, creating an atmosphere of solidarity that intertwined with the performance. However, mass arrests were inevitable, and we were rounded up due to formal coronavirus restrictions. I was lumped together with the rest of the detainees, with an additional charge of minor hooliganism for swearing.

My mother got to know about the arrest, and the family argument about my political aspirations escalated with renewed force. We agreed that I would continue to pursue my activism, without involving the family and using my own resources.

The court protest became a turning point, where an activist transitioned into performance artist, but I only truly realized this during my arrest for the hanging performance.

Pavel Krisevich during the rally near the First Western District Military Court before the verdict announcement to Yulian Boyarshinov and Viktor Filinkov, who are accused under pt. 2 of Article 205.4 of the Criminal Code of Russia, “Organization of a terrorist group and participation in it.” Photo: Alexander Koryakov / Kommersant

“Fucking many prisons — fucking more of us.” On how Krisevich hanged himself on the Troitsky Bridge.

The hanging on Troitsky Bridge performance emerged after the sacrificial performance action near Lyublinsky Court in response to the verdict of the “New Greatness” case. I was fined for violating the rules of mass protests, and they confiscated my police uniform, which led to me sitting in the police department in my underwear.

The next morning, I met with the support group of “New Greatness” and discussed our impressions of the verdict. We thought it would be cool to organize another action, like a hanging, for the appeal of the verdict. At first, I didn’t like the idea, but then I realized that hanging could be done in a non-trivial way.

I prepared for the action for just a couple of weeks: I reached an agreement with someone experienced in industrial climbing to lower me from the bridge beforehand and then leave. We practiced the descent in my neighborhood using the horizontal bars.

I made the cloak with a blood-stained collar from a kosovorotka shirt, and my friend did the makeup to make me look beaten up. On my back, I wrote, “Fucking many prisons — fucking more of us.” We chose the Troitsky Bridge because of the busy tourist boat traffic and the absence of surveillance cameras. No one could interrupt the action while we were tying ourselves up. Besides, it was a beautiful location: the Spit of Vasilievsky Island, the Peter and Paul Fortress — why not have a hanged figure in this picturesque scenery?

The shirt alluded to the white-red-white flag, which was associated with the Belarusian protests at the time. A brave individual in any totalitarian state is bound to become a target of persecution. They stand out as a black sheep, and people see that beneath the appearance of elevation, they are actually hanging by a noose around their neck.

On August 19th, 2020, my comrade and I met at Gorkovskaya metro station and proceeded to the designated location. As we approached the bridge railing, nervousness started to grip me. A woman approached us with curious questions: “Are you going to jump? Hang yourselves? Can I watch?” I was already afraid of heights, and now paranoia set in. My comrade lowered me down and went about his own business.

I planned the performance action expecting a swift response from the law enforcement, but I ended up hanging for about forty minutes. Tourists on boats passed by, waving at me. There was a police patrol above, deliberating on what to do with me. I could already feel the strain in my limbs from being suspended, and ultimately, I decided to cut the rope.

When I found myself in the water, the nearest boat changed its course, and the sailors on the next one threw me a lifebuoy, pulled me up, and said, “You’re with us for the rest of the trip. When we reach Nevsky Avenue, get off as soon as possible.”

I was only detained on the following day, August 20th, when Alexei Navalny was poisoned. I delivered a cup of tea to the Federal Security Service building and then attended a rally at the Gostiny Dvor. After the rally, when I was heading home, instead of a bus, a police paddy wagon approached the bus stop. I was arrested and charged with the same minor hooliganism for using foul language during the bridge action, but this time I was sentenced to seven days of detention.

The hanging performance action on the Trotsky Bridge. pavelkrisevich / Instagram

“Modern Golgotha is filled with criminal cases.” On how the protests led Krisevich to prison

Over time, my performance actions became more radical due to my desire to make them more complex and interesting. However, the pressure from the authorities also played a significant role in this. When the grand show of my expulsion from the university began, I waved it aside and said to myself, “If they want to see me as an opposition figure, they haven’t seen the last of me.”

The story of the expulsion unfolded after the crucifixion performance at Lubyanka Square. It was born on its own: I read articles about recent politically motivated cases, and an image emerged in my mind that every prisoner of conscience is a martyr of repression, and is indistinguishable from the one crucified on the cross. Only the modern Golgotha is made up entirely of volumes of criminal cases, and they all reside in the Lubyanka Building close to an empty Staraya Square.

The cross was initially planned to be original, so I went to a church woodcraft workshop and inquired with the priest about the cost of a crucifix for a theater project. He quoted a price of 1.5 million rubles. That’s when we decided to go for a typical makeshift version: we found a stool in some Moscow yard, and a friend from the National Bolshevik movement made the cross. We found people who were supposed to pile up a mock mountain and set fire to it while dressed as FSB agents. We sewed a loincloth, brewed fake blood from coffee and dye, and made a crown of thorns out of wire.

On November 5th, 2020, we approached Staraya Square from the backstreets. We assembled the cross with bolts and washers and, being a very strange sight, reached the chosen location of the performance action. There was no one around, so I freely placed the cross with a stool in front of it, tied my hands to the knot on the cross, and hung myself. My accomplices threw folders with documents to the foot of the cross, doused them in kerosene, and set them on fire. The bonfire unexpectedly flared up intensely, and under cover of its flames, my accomplices disappeared.

I remained hanging until a police patrol approached me, saying, “What are you doing hanging here? Get down!” I replied, “I can’t, I’m nailed.” And we stood together, watching the burning documents. Later, I was taken to the Kitay-Gorod police station. They brought me there with a groin cloth, fake blood, and a wire crown. Just as they were leading me in, a detained drunkard jumped up and started causing a scene, shouting, “What are you doing to people! You monsters!”

The Center E officers arrived and threatened to put me in jail, but a ridiculous administrative offense protocol was issued instead — while being on the cross, I did not provide identification documents to the police. For that, the judge, uttering the words, “Did you think about children?” sentenced me to 15 days in a detention facility.

After that action, there was another performance in January 2021, involving climbing into a barbed wire ball, and in the summer, there was a performance with a gunshot on Red Square.

I got that idea while being detained for participating in the dispersed exhibition on Arts Square in St.Petersburg in May 2021.

A sudden thought occurred to me that during an action, I could shoot myself with a deactivated pistol. Currently, people are metaphorically being killed by intimidation and imprisonment, but eventually, the symbolic shots will undoubtedly turn into real ones.

Previously, the unusual nature of my performance actions prevented me from being charged with a crime, and even if authorities attempted to do so, it seemed absurd. Even in my case with the shooting performance on the square, it didn’t even qualify for administrative charges related to public disturbance. However, now any artist undertaking a performance action risks imprisonment. The stakes have risen. While people used to engage in activism thinking, “Why bother with a picket when I’ll get 15 days even for a performance?” What will people come up with when facing the threat of 3 to 10 years of imprisonment?

On that particular performance action, I was truly overwhelmed by the pressing feeling that I had to express this last cry for freedom in Russia as soon as possible, as there might come a time when I would no longer be able to do anything. And I was right.

[On June 11th, 2021, Krisevich went to Red Square, delivered a manifesto, fired two shots into the air from a deactivated Makarov pistol, and then shot himself once before falling to the ground. One and a half minutes later, the police arrested him and journalist Nika Samusik, who was filming the event].

When I was preparing for the performance, I considered all possible outcomes, ranging from administrative arrest to the possibility of being shot by Federal Guard Service personnel. Initially, the law enforcement built an administrative case, but it eventually escalated to criminal prosecution.

[In October 2022, Pavel Krisevich was sentenced to 5 years in prison for the performance on Red Square. He was found guilty of hooliganism with the use of weapons, committed by a group of individuals in conspiracy].

Crucifixion performance action at Lubyanka Square. pavelkrisevich / Instagram

“You cling to various little things: the sun in the window, a breath of fresh air.” On life in prison

In prison, I find myself in various pretrial detention centers, and, just like any other inmate, in a 20-person cell. About 60% of the inmates are from Central Asia, while the rest come from different regions of Russia, and sometimes even from Europe or Cuba.

In the cell, there is constant multilingualism and multi-religiosity. As for health, I even get sick less frequently in prison than when I was free, but if someone catches a cold, it spreads to everyone. And it’s better not to get sick in prison because the medical care here is not very prompt.

Recently, I had a fever, and I thought they would grant me a posthumous amnesty — the paramedics simply refused to treat me. But my cellmates provided me with medicine and helped me recover.

Imprisonment has its consequences: eyesight deteriorates and the body weakens. Many receive packages, and there is a store, so no one is in dire need. This is in the regions like Kirov or Perm, where there is nothing at all, but here in Moscow, people eat not only gruel.

I am actively engaged in creativity. For example, I take fabric, prime it with toothpaste, and then paint near-prison themes using ink or handmade paints. Drawing is one of my regular activities. As soon as I wake up, I immediately start writing letters or working on canvases. I take breaks for prison food, or if I’m really tired, for TV.

The charges of other inmates here vary greatly. There are cases of theft, fraud, hooliganism, and a whole lot of cases of drug-related offenses (Article 228 of Criminal Code of Russia). We all get along well in every remand prison, and I don’t remember any scandals or fights. The most disruptive event is usually a search in the cell.

As for the prison staff, I have been here for a long time, and my case received a certain amount of attention, so almost half of the officers recognize me. When I recently returned to Butyrka prison from the Perm region, everyone kept asking, “Where have you been?” and that kind of thing.

I am an even-tempered person, and throughout my time in detention, I have managed to avoid conflicts arising from the prison rules. In some cases, during the legal proceedings, they try to exert pressure, place provocateurs in cells, but my case remained unaffected by all of that.

The main thought in detention is, of course, about freedom. Also, it is what you miss the most. You cling to various little things: the sun in the window or a breath of fresh air. What you miss even more is the freedom of movement, walks, lively conversations with friends, and the opportunity to engage in meaningful endeavors rather than to draw sketches on toothpaste.

There is an immense amount of support, and I am incredibly grateful for all the letters — there is a tremendous number of them. If not for the war, there would be even more of them. The letters mostly consist of words of encouragement, but sometimes people share their experiences, with some people we discuss religion, or make creative plans with others. I’ve started a tradition of attaching handmade postcards to my response letters, so I also share examples of creativity with the outside world.

Pavel Krisevich during the performance action near Lyublinsky Court before the verdict announcement in the case of “New Greatness.” Photo: Artem Geodakyan / TASS

“Even after release, I consider staying.” On the future plans.

Currently, exhibitions and catalogs of paintings are being planned, so it can be said that thanks to my support group, I am able to live freely while being in prison.

I have never thought about leaving Russia. I wouldn’t find my place in the West, and the world that surrounds us in Russia, in terms of mentality and nature, suits me very well. Yes, we have a dictatorship in our country, but we can strive to make Russia free — then no one will have to leave.

Leaving cannot fix everything. I don’t blame those who have left, but in my personal truth, the everyday reality in Russia is more important than emigration. Even after my release, I am considering staying.

In hindsight, I wouldn’t change much about the past, perhaps just work more meticulously on manifestos and courtroom speeches. By the way, prison makes it difficult to speak — the more immersed I am in letters, the more rambling my speech becomes.

It seems to me that all the events that have taken place in my life have their purpose. If I hadn’t received my five-year sentence, I would definitely be among people like Dmitry Ivanov and Ilya Yashin with a term for “discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces.

If a year is deducted from my sentence or if the case is sent for retrial, then I definitely won’t make it to the corrective colony. However, if everything remains unchanged, I will start writing various appeals for parole, which will undoubtedly take another year or year and a half.

I can offer only one piece of advice to activists and artists: go all the way. If you have entered the field where criminal prosecution is imminent, the most important thing is to maintain your integrity and not make it easier for investigators. If you suddenly back down, renounce your views and aspirations, there will be no way back. But if you continue on the path with the principles you fight for, each new day will bring more benefits both to yourself and to the world around you.

Our activities as artists and activists inspire people to engage in humanitarian pursuits and draw attention to issues. Our task, like that of Mayakovsky’s LEF, is to create a sense of romance and an image of a beautiful country worth fighting for. Not only do we create this image, but we also gradually bring its embodiment closer.

We have never been in such a pivotal moment in the history of modern Russia, and our task is to preserve ourselves, our views, and our ideas. If we are afraid to fight under the pretext that there are already many prisoners, then no one will ever be set free. Do not retreat — it brings us closer to the future!

Authors: Бумага
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