Prosecutors in the trial said that Pavlensky's performance, titled “Threat. The Burning Door of Lubyanka,” had damaged a Moscow heritage site because prominent Russian intellectuals had been detained there. Pavlensky has been in prison since November, facing vandalism charges for several of his recent performances. Throughout the trial, Pavlensky refused to stand or testify in court.
Prosecutors this week unexpectedly asked for a fine, and not for jail time for Pavlensky, citing his good character and his small children. He was released Wednesday immediately after the trial, thanking supporters and speaking with journalists from the steps of the court.
"We have to be very attentive and we have to be very active," Pavlensky said, decrying police surveillance, a focus of his work. "Otherwise, in the near future, the prison of everyday life will become a real prison for each of us."
Pavlensky's gaunt visage and outrageous public performances had already become well-known on Russia's contemporary and political art scene before he and several photographers approached the Lubyanka building in November. Working quickly, he doused the doors in gasoline and set them ablaze.
In a video of the protest published on Vimeo, Pavlensky stands motionless, looking straight into the camera as flames lick at the doorway of the iconic Lubyanka building behind him. Soon, a police officer rushes over to arrest him.
Police then said that Pavlensky was being investigated for vandalism "motivated by hatred or hostility to a social group," a charge that carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
In a note published under the video, he said the demonstration was a response to political terror from the government.
"The burning door of the Lubyanka is the glove thrown by society into the face of the terrorist threat," Pavlensky wrote, employing a dueling metaphor. "The Federal Security Service acts using the method of ceaseless terror and holds power over 146,000,000 people. Fear turns free people into a sticky mass of desperate bodies."
He said the threat of violence and surveillance provoked a "defensive reflex."
"This is a reflex of the struggle for one's own life," he said. "And life is worth enough to begin fighting for."
Pavlensky, who first attracted attention in 2012 for sewing his mouth shut in support of the jailed punk protest group Pussy Riot, has welcomed attention from investigators as a way "to suck the authorities into his art."
"Criminal cases open a door for me to get inside the mechanics of the system — the investigators, the court system, psychiatrists — and allow me to work there," Pavlensky said in a recent profile in Politico.
Pavlensky is already on trial for vandalism in a separate case. In February 2013, he erected barricades made of tires on Tripartite Bridge in St. Petersburg and set them ablaze in an imitation of the anti-government protests that overthrew the government in neighboring Ukraine.
During his trial, Pavlensky has maintained a vow of silence in the courtroom. One young investigator tasked with interrogating Pavlensky changed sides and has sought to defend him before a judge.
While Pavlensky has taken inspiration from other Russian protest art movements, including the Voina art collective, Pavlensky has more regularly employed a motif of self-harm.
Protesting the "police state," he nailed his scrotum (pierced in advance) to the cobblestones of Red Square in November 2013 on a national holiday for police officers.
In May 2013, he wrapped himself in a cocoon of barbed wire, lying motionless for half an hour in front of St. Petersburg's city legislature.
During the investigation against him, Pavlensky underwent several psychiatric analyses, where he was declared sane. In October, protesting the use of similar analyses to jail political foes of the government, he scaled the walls of the a Moscow psychiatric center and promptly sliced off his earlobe.