One of Russia's most radical performance artists faces up to three years in jail after setting fire to the main entrance to the headquarters of the FSB security service, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB secret police.

Police detained Pyotr Pavlensky in the early hours of Monday morning after he doused the main entrance of the building — a symbol of Communist-era repression and state authority for many Russians — with gasoline and started a fire.

Pavlensky has carried out extreme acts before, which he says are designed to poke holes in the Kremlin's propaganda machine.

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In 2012, he sewed his lips together to protest against the jailing of anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot, and the following year he wrapped himself in barbed wire to express his opposition to laws he deemed regressive.

In November 2013, he nailed his scrotum to Moscow's Red Square, a gesture he described as a metaphor for the political apathy of Russian society.

He was briefly detained in October 2014 after slicing off part of his earlobe while sitting naked on the roof of an infamous state psychiatry clinic to protest against what he said was the Kremlin using psychiatric hospitals for political ends.

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Public reaction to his latest act was mixed with some Russians taking to social media to laud his bravery and others strongly denouncing him.

The entrance to the FSB's headquarters was boarded up with sheets of corrugated metal on Monday afternoon.