Petr Pavlensky And Nadiya Savchenko | DIALOGUES
26 June, 2016

She is a regular officer. He is an artist from St. Petersburg. Nadiya Savchenko, who was accused by Russian authorities for the death of Russian journalists, was released from prison on May 25th. Russian artist Petr Pavlensky, who burned the doors of the Chief Directorate Of The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation was released on June 8th.

Two years ago it was impossible to imagine that they would have something in common. Today Nadiya Savchenko and Petr Pavlensky are the most famous political prisoners. They met in Kyiv through a Hromadske initiative to draw public attention to those who are still held captive by the Kremlin.

Both categorically did not consider themselves neither heroes nor victims. Both remained free people in prison. This dialogue is about the prison system in Russia, war, and peace, the price of political apathy and compromise between Russia and Ukraine...

Savchenko: Prison doesn't change a person; it breaks them, makes them harder. But what was in them still remains. As for what a “hero” is — that I don't know.

Pavlensky: Heroism, in my view, is the same as calling yourself a victim. Heroism is suffering.

Savchenko: There are people who make a conscious decision to die for an idea. You also consciously decided to go out and protest against Putin’s regime. I consciously rose to the defense of my homeland. But I ended up in prison by chance. I was abducted. I'm not sure you can call that heroic. But I consciously made the decision when I went to defend my homeland. Can you say about a man that he consciously decided, "I'll sit in jail?" – Of course not. No one there wasn’t going to. We were just doing something.  Someone, for some reason, decided to put us in jail. Therefore, I do not know if you can say really, is it heroism or not. A common human action that has a conscience. I think so.

In the army, you have the right to appeal an order if you think it is criminal. In prison, you're just a slave. 

Pavlensky: When we call it heroism we put it in the category of an exotic gesture — [as if we are saying] yes, let's call them heroes. Let's admire them, and stop at that. Generally speaking, it is a question of responsibility, which lies on everyone. Any action – to go to war or to set fire to the FSB. 

Savchenko: People love to attach labels and tags... They wrote to me in prison: “Don't be hunger striking, fast instead! Then our great Ukrainian martyr will be on the conscience of Patriarch Kirill.” I sat and listened to that, and thought, God, they've found a martyr. I don't like that sort of thing.

Pavlensky: The bad thing is that this way, they cut you off. I am a part of society. And when people pick a name for me, they separate me from society. Here are we, and there are they. They are bad – authority or not, police, whoever, enemies – even more.

Were you in Lefortovo?

Savchenko: No. I was in a typical Moscow detention centers (СИЗО), in a women's prison, in typical detention centers in Voronezh and Novocherkassk. Where Chikatilo was shot.

Pavlensky: In “Shesterka” was it a special cell?

Savchenko: At all times I was in a special cell, in every detention center.

Prisom for me – it's just two dead years. Your body always chained, irritating numbness, switching off your mind so as to not lose your sanity. That's what two years of solitude is. But in spite of this, you should be a human and politely say “Hello!” and “Good Bye!”, “Thanks for letting me in.” And to be a human, when they disperse all the other prisoners, when they yell at the convicts who work there as serving staff, just say: “Behave like humans; they are also people.”

Pavlensky: I'm not even going to share it with you. There is a literal prison and the everyday prison— it's the same lack of freedom, chained people.

Savchenko: Working from 9 to 5 — it's the same prison.

Pavlensky: There's more space, but in prison the lack of space is compensated by an excess of time. You can read more and write. But I was in constant disagreement with the prison administration. I wonder how you dealt with this. You're a military person after all. I am always moving from order to freedom, to unpredictability. Freedom is the unpredictability of action. And prison is a military garrison with a hierarchical system — and at the bottom are those who have been arrested.

Savchenko: You see prison as an alternative reality. If I had been guilty, I would have seen prison normally. But for me, it is lost time because my country was at war and the country fighting on my land was the country that imprisoned me. I couldn't act. Yes, I got used to the order you have in the army. It’s quite similar to prison order. The difference is that there is no police arrogance. They don't order your life. For example, prisoners say “Comrade major!” just as they do in the army. But here you have to say “Comrade major.” And they answer: “A wolf from Tambov is your comrade [Russian colloquialism implying that a person is not ready to behave friendly].” I say, “today a wolf from Tambov is my comrade, and tomorrow - you, because there is no guarantee against ill fortune.” In prison, people are treated like trash. So the first thing I did in prison was not allow myself to be treated that way. I never turned to face the wall. I was fine with the order — get up at 6, lights out at 10, make the bed. In the army, it's the same. Only in the army there is movement. You have to work. And there you just have to sit on the stool or lie on the bed. For me that was barbarity. The same with other things: you can't turn the lights on or off yourself, you don't have scissors or needles, they say, suddenly, “hands behind your back.” And I say to them, “What the hell for?” But if they put handcuffs on me, then yes, the hands were behind my back. And usually I walked around as a free person, I mean, why should I not look back, or something else? What are you talking about? Something surprised me, but I accepted some regime and order. There are, of course, its quirks.

Pavlensky: All these “Hands behind your back!”, “Face the wall!”, “Do this, do that!” and any request becomes an absolute command. One time I heard the guard say “Don’t look at me!”

Savchenko: Yes, or say I was walking, they’d say “Don't look at her!”. In the army, you have the right to appeal an order if you think it is criminal. In prison, you're just a slave. But they understood straight away that I didn't accept that, and nobody forced me. Of course, it enraged me, but I didn't accept it, and they understood at once that I have not accepted it and nobody forced me to do it. I behaved properly, if we are going – okay, come on; don’t tell me how to go. And those permanent searches – it’s “happiness” to dress and undress twenty times per day when they take you in and out from the special cell to curtsy. I also fight with cameras all the time; I said: "I wouldn’t do it with the cameras." Once they said: “We will invite a man to have to undress you." I replied, "I wonder what you will do with me and with this man?" You see, these women are crazy, with pea-brains, they shout: "Putin - our president, the best in the world.” They are one-track minded. These women who work in prison drive me wild. No, no, of course not all.  Of course, not everyone behaved that way. There were some decent guards. The most pleasant thing that happened was when a woman, who was just about to retire, wrote me a note and left it in my cell during a search, even though it was forbidden to talk to me. “I support you, all the best” was what she wrote. I found it later, I thought “Wow!”. I mean I saw some displays of humanity; I hope you also had such an experience.

Pavlensky: From my experience, only about one in ten of the filth would be OK.

Savchenko: One in ten.

Pavlensky: Yes.

Savchenko: I counted more. Where I was, I think about two out of ten were bad. Others were good. Maybe that was just me.  

Pavlensky: There was a lot more propaganda stacked up against you. Of course, it was hard for you to be in prison: you were a hostage during a war. Terrorist groups came to Ukraine and started a war. Now they established a military dictatorship from Russia. Interestingly, it is conducted openly.

Savchenko: It was hard to watch Russian television. Until then, I had not come across such shameless propaganda. Where I come from, channels can at least fight against each other. And here they just tell you how to pray to an icon. I watched that and all I wanted to do was barf.

Pavlensky: After any protest, they can arrest me or do whatever they want to me. They could, if they wanted, say my protest was to support animal rights, or North Korea, or whatever. How can you fight against it? This is why I write texts. I'm at war but on another field, a symbolic one.

Savchenko: Everybody chooses his or her own war. It’s good when you take action, because people accepted what happened. You should take action in every area – in farming for example,  fields are seeded improperly. People should fight on every front – let’s not say fight, because we will become slaves or serfs again.

Pavlensky: Not to agree, not to take it as it is, not to take it for granted.

Savchenko: The court hearings, by the way, were a joy for me. Did you have court hearings?

I judge by myself – today it’s flowers, tomorrow they will throw stones at me, the day after they will burn me.

Pavlensky: I had two court cases, simultaneously. One for the Saint Petersburg case; I organized my own Maidan in Saint Petersburg. It was linked to the victory of the Ukrainian Maidan and it was on the 23rd of February. The 23rd of February in Russia is “Defender of the Fatherland Day,” but I used the day to call on people to defend their freedom. We brought in tires at eight in the morning – like on the Maidan. And on the bridge where the Narodovoltsi [19th century Russian revolutionaries] assassinated Alexander II, we created a Maidan. It was a Maidan of five people. And a court case was opened because of it. I was the only defendant.

Savchenko: They probably didn’t understand you.

Pavlensky: The Government starts the war. The war unleashes in their hands. What has happened in Donbas? This is terror, methods of terror. The terroristic operation was started - they began it. Civil people started dying, they got used to it, and they were not supposed to go to war. This is a real terror.

Savchenko: Today terrorism has a speculative meaning; such methods are the sneakiest and they are secret. Everybody can use them, you can say it wasn’t you; they will never be able to prove someone’s at fault. And everybody will say that they’re fighting terrorism, and they will fight it using terrorism. These notions are very abstract.

Pavlensky: A speculative word. It seems to me it’s time to introduce such a concept, so that there will be a difference between terrorists and insurgents – which means rebels.  Rebels are always from the people, they’re against the government, and they have no state interests.

Savchenko: You are right. This concepts need to be dictated and divided. The problem is what the person is. Just like us he makes his inner choice. His conscience, his ideology? How do you know what inner goals the person had when going to war? For example, we say that Bandera is a hero, in Russia he is a fascist. For us Mazepa is a hero, in Russia he is the betrayer of the Russian Tsar and his ideology is bad, for us, Ukrainians – it’s good. To betray a Russian Tsar? How can you betray him? It all depends on personal beliefs - if he is well intentioned doing something, but it ends up not always in a good way or not the way you wanted, and the world will judge you.

I judge by myself – today it’s flowers, tomorrow they will throw stones at me, the day after they will burn me. I can take it all – I have a choice in my soul, I am still ready to go my own way. Just like you will go your own way.

It’s hard to recognize each person. You can write it in a law – if it’s with the help of the state, it is real terrorism against the other country. If these people are rebels against the government - you need to write it in a law.  It is as a delicate matter, as a compromise, like war, as well as talks about the prisoners. You take a great risk and if something goes wrong, you fall in one direction or another.

Protect yourself… There is a person – let’s start with the personal level – who supports Ukraine, he came here to help us. Why separate yourself from him, when he separated himself from his state’s wrong choice. Russia is an aggressor, but the nation is not a state. Government can fool it or it can make its own decisions. It is authority, politics, and their interests. You should insulate yourself with a wall from this and limit the interaction. Because when the president of Russia says that the bear in Taiga won’t ask …In Taiga he shouldn’t ask for permission.  But if he goes beyond – they also train him, just like in a circus. That’s why we should show our neighbor that he’s not right. Why is he wrong? We’ve been living next to them for 2 thousand years; we can’t insulate ourselves from other countries for 7 thousand years. Everything is changing. The authorities change, the public views change and we neglect new relations – nobody’s eternal.

Pavlensky: I think that the nations should look for ways to communicate; technologically, we have many ways to communicate – Internet etc., bypassing the government. The question is about the way nations communicate as “friends” bypassing the government. Because the authorities are the provokers and bring the evil.

Savchenko: The problem is that there is a tyrant, who has sick complexes - a collector of Russian lands: the Tsar. Once in a hundred years, a man whose ambitions go beyond the limit is born and he becomes a problem for many people if he gets power. If he's just an idiot who didn’t get power…it means there will be less trouble. If he gets power – it is bad.

Pavlensky: But now this man has a power structure behind his back, they’ve got the power, the FSB, they wanted power. It’s the same that is was in the 90s, when the KGB removed the Communist party. Because they disturbed them.

And now who has Putin turned into? Into a talking head.

Savchenko: I could say that in Russia there is a real junta. The fact that they put down their boards and put on jackets and ties doesn’t make them better people. All of them are from that system that is a real junta. The country is governed by the security agencies.

Pavlensky: It began at the times of “red terror”. That’s what is going on in Russia now; it’s spreading and occupying territories. That’s the politics we live in, that’s what we have to fight against using different methods.

Savchenko: You ask what can be done for Sentsov and Kolchenko. Everything can be done. Look at what my sister did for me. We used to be ordinary girls from the Troyeschina district in Kyiv; didn’t have anything to do with politics or something like that. She not only started to fight for me, she was opening all the possible doors with her feet. She has shown that we don’t desert our own. The program was launched at the Ukrainian and Russian presidential level and people will be released. I was asked: “Nadiya, it must be difficult for the guys that you have been released and  not them?” I think they take it easy. We’ve understood that it was like the first drop. They hope that all of them will be released. Only when the whole world fights for you in full force and when you are ready to die at any moment, then everything works out. Both sides sacrifice something in such a way. And if you betray your beliefs, start moaning and begging, asking for mercy, the world even doesn’t want to fight for you.  I wish them resilience and all of them will be released. I was always happy when people were writing “for your freedom and ours.” I understand that Russians need freedom badly.

If a person is afraid, you won’t put pressure on him. Of course, in case he doesn’t touch you and doesn’t get into your business. 

Pavlensky: Now it’s a real crime to be apolitical. To settle for palliatives means to work in the interests of the authorities. It’s exactly what the authorities need. Just don’t be for and against at the same time - it’s the most important.

Savchenko: So you think the Russian people are betraying themselves by agreeing to this?

Pavlensky: Of course, of course, I’ve recently faced it: the situation with “Primorye Guerrillas”, when I was awarded the prize of Vaclav Havel, I decided to give the whole amount.... I was in prison then, but decided to give it to “Primorye Guerillas”. Almost a month has passed and they are deciding whether to give this money to me or not because I’ve decided to spend it at my own discretion. Is it in the paradigm of liberalism that decided to be based on the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi? You know that they first want to tell me what to do, and second, they support the rating of those who are now telling me what to do. So this is the Russian state. In the media, on TV for instance, it’s forbidden to use the word combination "Prymorye Guerrillas”. So if it so happens that money isn’t given for support of the guerrillas and there is a need to look for other ways to support them - well, it will be a betrayal from the liberals’ side, of course, maybe another one, or perhaps one of the greatest betrayals. That is real assistance. These are palliatives: everyone wants to live in comfort, do not want to start some kind of a conflict, and so on. They are thinking about how to justify their own cowardice.

Savchenko: I’m listening to you and understand. Sentsov was in the same situation; he had nothing to fear. Maybe, I have something like that from the army: I won’t allow myself to be afraid, but I won’t condemn those who fear. I won’t feel sorry for them, won’t condemn them; I’ll be indifferent.

Let him fear if he wants. I’m grateful to the Ukrainian people for our Maidan; we fear less. There were a lot of people. I can be an example of the person who isn’t afraid, and those who want will follow me. The Maidan taught us not to be afraid. Russians are afraid. Why?

The National Guard, Russian Guard, call it what you wish is also an example of the policy of double standards: they condemn our National Guard, but they have created their own unclear on what basis. And the problem is that Novocherkask, where I was sitting in prison… in KGB-NKVD times, there was an incident when the protest was shot, using tanks and that was a real massacre. People kept silent for very long. That’s what you are asking about: why people do not go until the end ... Because nobody wants to die! Only a couple of people ... When people were writing to me they were mentioning: "Yes, we are afraid, yes, we do not want…" And then at some moment they started to write: "We are not afraid anymore." In the next message the person informed me that they were put in jail. Not everyone can do this; people have something to lose, they have children, families. I can understand them. I don’t have the right to condemn them, because it is me who has nothing to lose, it's my choice. I would certainly recommend them to do exactly the same; the moment comes when you have to get up from your knees. When you, for example, see how somebody is being beaten or killed, not to come to his defense is to be a Judas. Yes, you must stand together and not be afraid, rank upon rank, to fall, to fall again until your future generation doesn’t come and doesn’t overthrow this whole mess. I agree with you, and you, as a Russian citizen, have the right to call your people out on this. I as a Ukrainian can request this of my people, but there is no need for this. Thank god we’re rather active.

I feel sorry for Russians. They have no country to be happy in. We’ll make Ukraine a country where people can be happy. We have everything for this.

Pavlensky: To each his own. If a person is afraid, you won’t put pressure on him. Of course, in case he doesn’t touch you and doesn’t get into your business. On the other hand, sometimes it’s imposed. When people are saying that they aren’t afraid to be afraid. It’s scary when it becomes a common rule.  

Savchenko: When you go to battle with such a person, you understand that he won’t have your back. It’s better not to go on recon missions with such people. There is self-selection. Sooner or later everyone joins. Our country has more potential – we can’t stand aside when somebody beats students. And in your country, people are turning their backs and say that they aren’t afraid to say that they are afraid. But not everyone is like this, I’m sure that sooner or later everything will be alright.

Pavlensky: The Maidan scared Russian authorities. And to emphasize what a scary war can start. On the one hand, they started the war to destabilize the situation in Ukraine and on the other hand, to create a situation in the country which needed Putin and the FSB. The aim was to show what can happen if people oppose those in power. It was an artificial example at the cost of people’s lives. They are killers. They do it at the cost of the people who died, who will die and who were taken as hostages.

Savchenko: It would be interesting to meet with the guys who wrote letters to me, as you today. Someday we’ll meet all together – your people and mine, in the free country, in the free world.

Pavlensky: Yes, yes. Not at the request of the authorities.

Savchenko: We’ve got to not to give up. To fight until the end.

// Interview made by Nataliya Gumenyuk, Angelina Kariakina, Anna Tsygyma, Oleksandr Nazarov, Nikita Mekenzin