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Off the cross and into the police van ‘Meduza’ speaks to the activists behind the ‘crucifixion’ outside Moscow’s FSB headquarters

Source: Meduza
RFE/RL / Radio Svoboda

On Thursday night, a protest performance in solidarity with political prisoners took place outside of the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square. Activist Pavel Krisevich tied himself to a cross while four other activists in coats labeled “FSB” set fire to “criminal case files” at his feet. Police officers arrested Krisevich immediately, and a Moscow court later sentenced him to 15 days in jail. Meduza spoke to the activists involved in the demonstration to get the inside story about how they pulled off a protest performance at the FSB’s doorstep.

A secret plan in a secret place

Russian activist Pavel Krisevich lives in St. Petersburg. He has staged protest performances in support of political prisoners on more than one occasion. In August 2020, he hung himself from St. Petersburg’s Troitsky Bridge in solidarity with Ruslan Kostylenkov, a defendant in the “Novoe Velichie” (New Greatness) extremism case who complained of being tortured in police custody. On the day of the sentencing, Krisevich came to the courthouse dressed in a police uniform and carrying a mannequin covered in the names of political prisoners. He then proceeded to slit the mannequin’s throat — spattering red paint everywhere — as a “sacrifice” to the court. Two months before that, he lit a red flare and chained himself to fence near the court ahead of the sentencing in the “Set’” (Network) terrorism case. Krisevich has been fined for his protests and his action at the Troitsky Bridge earned him 15 days administrative arrest on hooliganism charges.

For the protest performance outside of FSB headquarters, commonly referred to as the Lubyanka Building, Krisevich had help from other activists. The four other people who appeared in the action were meant to symbolize the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — their job was to enter the square in coats marked “FSB,” “set fire” to Krisevich, and throw volumes of “criminal cases” into the blaze. The action required additional “lookouts” to keep an eye out for the police.

Meduza managed to speak with the activists involved in the protest performance; fearing persecution from law enforcement, they all asked to remain anonymous except for Krisevich himself and St. Petersburg activist Anastasia Mikhaylova, who recently moved to Moscow. St. Petersburg photographer Georgy Markov, who shot the performance, told Meduza that the action was carried out by left-wing activists in support of the defendants in the aforementioned “Network” and “Novoe Velichie” cases. 

The participants in the protest told Meduza that Pavel Krisevich came up with the idea himself and put together the team. “This was entirely Pasha’s idea and we helped him at some moments. He has friends whom he trusts and that’s all. That’s enough,” Anastasia Mikhaylova tol Meduza.  

Krisevich also wrote a manifesto to accompany the action, which was never in fact published. Mikhaylova read the following excerpt for Meduza:

“On the volumes of fabricated cases we are putting up not a cross but a crucifix. We stand for the release of all political prisoners in Russia, for the total and ultimate destruction of archives of political repression in the country and the institution of repression as a whole. And we are for the liberation of art.”

The protest performance itself took about two months of preparation: the activists built the cross, made the “FSB” coats, as well as a barbed wire wreath and a loincloth. All of this took happened in a “secret place,” the activists explained. Two weeks before the event in Moscow, Anastasia Mikhaylova invited photographer Evgeny Markov to film the performance; Markov agreed without knowing the details of what would take place. For security reasons, the activists kept him in the dark, only explaining that it was a protest in support of political prisoners. “The fewer journalists the higher the chance that no one would give it away. I came alone,” Markov explained. 

The day before the action, Markov travelled from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where he met with the activists — also in a “secret place.” Only then did they tell him what they had planned for Lubyanka Square. 

‘Down with the police state!’

On November 5, there were more police on Lubyanka Square than usual, the activists recall. They assumed this was because of the nationalist Russian March that took place the day before and ended in arrests. “Due to these conditions, we made adjustments and decided to hold the action not in the center of Lubyanka Square but on the edge. But [initially] we wanted [it to be] in the center,” Krisevich told Meduza (we spoke to him after his arrest, but before his hearing).

In conversation with Meduza, Evgeny Markov explained that on the day of the action, there were police vans stationed around the perimeter of the square. As such, the activists set up lookouts near the square around 4:00 p.m. — about five hours before the protest. The lookouts were supposed to signal when and where the police appeared.

In the evening, the activists pulled up to Lubyanka Square in a rented minivan. “Everyone gets out, pulls out the cross, Krisevich gets out naked in a loincloth, [and so do] the guys with the “FSB” raincoats. I thought this was a big problem, but [no one] paid any attention to us. And the police officers ignored us too, they had gone into the police van to warm up,” Markov recalled. 

The activists put up the cross and hung Krisevich from it (tying his hands to the crossbar) — he was wearing the loincloth and a “wreath of thorns” made from barbed wire. Four activists scattered thick folders around the cross, symbolizing the criminal case files of political prisoners. There were folders bearing the names of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, assassinated politician Boris Nemtsov, as well as the Khachaturyan sisters. Others were given the unofficial titles of the “Network” and “Novoe Velichie” cases. 

The activists doused the cross and the folders with a substance that burns at 40 degrees Celsius (104 degree Fahrenheit) and won’t set fire to people. They started the fire and Krisevich shouted “Down with the police state!” and “Freedom for political prisoners!” — within ten seconds the police officers nearby realized what was happening. “They got out, looked, and only then they reacted. ‘Damn, there’s some dude on a cross and there’s fire all around!’ They started to run,” said Markov, who was filming the protest at the time. 

The burning criminal cases and the “crucified” activists near the Lubyanka Building
RFE/RL / Radio Svoboda

By the time the police officers approached the blaze, all of the activists had fled the scene except for Krisevich, who was still tied to the cross. That said, he didn’t intend to get arrested either — they hadn’t tied his hands very tightly. “But when you’re on a cross in the middle of burning cases and a policeman comes up to you and says ‘What are you hanging here for..?’ I reply to him ‘I’m attached, I can’t.’ And then the rest of the police officers arrive and remove [me from the cross] quickly, breaking the ropes. You can’t escape anymore,” Krisevich tells Meduza. 

All total, Krisevich spent about three to five minutes up on the cross, after which the police officers took him down and carried him to a police van. One of the police officers took out a fire extinguisher and put out the remnants of the burning “criminal case files.” The head of the police unit on Lubyanka Square came to talk to Krisevich while he was still in the paddy wagon. According to the activist, the officer threw the “criminal cases” that hadn’t burned “in his face.” “He [the police officer] was very deeply offended, he ranted, called [me] a beast, and then just hit me in the face with all his might,” Krisevich recalled.

Half an hour after his arrest, caretakers were already cleaning up the sidewalk and washing Lubyanka Square with shampoo. By that point, Krisevich had been taken to the police station in the Kitay Gorod neighborhood. Lawyer Sergey Telnov from OVD-Info came to help him and his friends brought him clothes and food. Krisevich spent the night at the police department, where officers wrote him up for repeatedly violating the rules on holding public rallies. Krisievich was also taken to an emergency room so he could record the mark leftover from when the police officer hit him in the face. Krisevich and his lawyer have yet to receive the medical documentation. 

Conveying an idea

The day after the protest, on November 6, the charges against Krisevich were changed to disobeying a police officer. His lawyer, Sergey Telnov, told Meduza that both charges are punishable by administrative arrest, but the initial charge — repeatedly violating the rules on holding rallies — didn’t hold up. Krisevich had been arrested previously on different charges and he had also challenged the fine imposed on him after another protest, so the charge hadn’t entered into force because of the pending appeal. 

At the same time, Telnov noted that the police didn’t record any complaints against Krisevich on the evening of November 5. The activist also confirmed that he didn’t resist arrest: “They simply took me off the cross and dragged me to the police van,” he said. Nevertheless, Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court found Pavel Krisevich guilty and sentenced him to 15 days administrative arrest.

In conversation with Meduza, however, Krisevich underscored that he’s pleased with how the protest turned out. Activist Anastasia Mikhaylova also emphasizes that the performance went exactly as planned: “Pasha realized it exactly as he saw it. The main thing is to convey an idea and we managed to do that,” she said.

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Story by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translation by Eilish Hart

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