Sergey Yermakov: Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

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Inflated rubber duckie at June 12, 2017, anti-corruption protest rally in Petersburg. The duckie was later detained by police. Photo courtesy of The Poke

Sergey Yermakov
Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

The final performances by Voina’s so-called Petersburg faction could be termed “actionism of fact” by analogy with “literature of fact,” a project the LEF mob tried and failed to realize in the 1920s.

Voina took ordinary actions from the repertoire of protest and resistance, actions requiring no special skills—turning over a police car, torching a paddy wagon, dousing policemen with urine—and simply did them in their performances.

What happened to the performances due to their actions?

First, the performances simply were carried out, like ordinary actions, bereft of aesthetic and symbolic depth. (We will bracket the question of Alexei Plutser-Sarno’s defamiliarizing press releases.) “They really did it.”

Second, the actions were glorified by the very fact they were performed by the actionists. They were bathed in an aura of glory, but note that this aura was totally colorless. It had no density whatsoever, and it produced no distortions in the albedo. This was because the actions were as commonplace as could be, actions available to everyone, actions to which nothing was added except their execution. (Well, yes, and the group’s signature.)

The actionist readymade (or “readydone”) and actionism of fact, unlike the classic artistic readymade, have no need of a special aesthetic space, such as a museum. Unlike literature of fact (if this literary project had actually been implemented in the twenties), actionism may well avoid the traps of language and representation.

Voina thus directly took on the issue of politically effective action. There is a certain actionist Platonism to it, but if we bypass Plato (no matter how we regard the violence of his gesture) we cannot ask ourselves about art’s attitude and access to politics.

In the Republic, Plato does not suggest banishing all poets for fobbing off the phantom of excellence (εἰδώλων ἀρετῆς) on citizens instead of virtue (i.e., the thought of action). He would let the non-mimetic poets, who glorify the gods and sing the praises of good men (ἐγκώμια τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς), stay in the city. Voina’s Petersburg faction non-mimetically sang the praises not of citizens themselves, but certain actions as such, simply by performing them. Their implicit message was something like: Look, this is up for grabs for everyone, and yet if you carry out this glorious deed, you will not be unoriginal and overshadowed by us, because this is basically something anyone could do. This is a kind of democratic and non-hierarchical political Platonism.

Voina did these performances before the May 6, 2012, clashes between protesters and police on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. They seemingly had offered the demos who took to the streets a possible repertoire of elementary actions. (Of course, the total number of such actions is much greater, and not all of them are either criminal or so primitive. What matters in this case is only the dimension itself.) But the demos did not heed their call, preferring to play at making witty posters, from the December 2011 rally on Sakharov Avenue to this day, and exchanging anti-regime memes in the social networks. (That is, the circumstances are in some way symmetrical to the exile of the poets. In this case, however, the demos itself has turned its back on genuinely political artists, immersing itself in the carnivalesque mimesis of the meme.) By rejecting the dimension of the glorious deed, however, the demos has refused to be itself, because it is eventful, rather than substantial, in contrast to the phantasm of the ethnos.

It took Pyotr Pavlensky half a dozen performances to get close to the place where Voina had arrived in the spring of 2011, that is, in order to torch the front door at FSB headquarters in Moscow. In many ways, the performance was a step backwards, for example, when it came to the question of withdrawal. The guerillas of Voina insisted on retreating in a well-conceived way and unexpectedly returning to strike again. (This is the only worthwhile “We’ll be back!” It is a far cry from Navalny and Co.) But Pavlensky, in many respects by way of accommodating an aesthetic impulse, stood his ground to the bitter end. He has thus proven to be a more direct follower of the National Bolsheviks than Voina when it comes to this issue.

So Voina is still waiting for its demos and valiant citizens back in the spring of 2011, scornfully gazing at rubber duckies, meme politics, and witty anti-Kremlin t-shirts.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Sergey Yermakov is a professional translator who was involved in several of Pyotr Pavlensky’s performances. My thanks to Mr. Yermakov for his kind permission to publish this essay here.

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The Body of Russia, Given to Thee

Center “E” Comes Looking For Performance Artist Who Changed Disabled Orphan’s Dressings Near Kremlin
Natalia Zotova
Novaya Gazeta
June 13, 2016

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Katrin Nenasheva and Dmitry Zhdanov. Photo: Viktor Novikov/Facebook

Center “E” (Center for Extremism Prevention) officers visited the dormitory room of performance artist Katrin Nenasheva at the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow on Sunday. Nenasheva reported this on Facebook, referring to the accounts of her dormitory roommates. Nenasheva was not in the dormitory at the time.

A few hours earlier, the artist had staged a performance in Moscow’s Alexander Garden. As passersby looked on, she changed the daily dressings of a former orphanage ward now confined to a wheelchair.

The young man who took part in the performance was Dmitry Zhdanov. He was disabled after jumping from the fifth floor of a building in despair and breaking his back. His brother had been beaten up by other former orphanage wards, who had not been punished for the crime. The criminal case against them fell apart altogether. The performance was dedicated to wards of orphanages and the punishments they suffer.

“It was an exhibition of the body, the real symbol of those very punishments,” Nenasheva explained to Novaya Gazeta.

“Why should I hide the wounds I got from living in this system? Such things must be shown. My body is Russia just as it is today,” Nenasheva quoted Zhdanov as saying.

“Many people avoided us and would not let their kids approach Dmitry. Some people turned away. There was a man who just ran off, clutching his head,” wrote the artist about the performance.

Police did not attempt to detain them. According to Nenasheva, they were confused and did not know what to do.

The performance was timed to coincide with Russia Day (June 12), but was part of the multiday action Punishment (Nakazanie), dedicated to wards of orphanages.

“One of the most common punishments is sending children to mental hospitals, where various methods are used to limit their mobility, for example, by tying them to the beds,” Nenasheva explained another performance in the action, in which she tied herself to a bed frame and carried it down the street. “Of course, the experience delineates their lives, and it remains with them in one shape or another, as a memory, symbol or just a metaphor.”

Nenasheva has done push-ups on the streets and stood on one leg during the action. These are all punishments meted out to orphans.

The action will last twenty-one days. It is the same number of days that children diagnosed with “mental retardation” at orphanages are sent to mental hospitals, explained Nenasheva, adding the diagnosis is often made for no objective reason.

“I think the topic was touched on too concretely, ” Nenasheva told Novaya Gazeta when asked to comment on law enforcement’s having shown up at her room. “When there are two people, an artist and a real, totally alive, and simultaneously scary character, the message is more assertive, and it really is not clear what to do with it.”

Last year, Nenasheva also staged a multiday performance. She walked around Moscow for a month dressed in a prison uniform, drawing attention to the stigmatization of ex-convicts, who find it hard to adjust to life on the outside. It was then that Nenasheva shaved herself bald on Red Square, for which she was sentenced to twenty-four hours in a special detention center.

Walk

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Walk, May 29, 2016, Saint Petersburg, Russia. The city’s famous Church on Spilled Blood is in the background. Photo by David Frenkel

Varya Mikhaylova
Vkontakte
May 29, 2016

Petersburg female activists have staged the performance Walk to call for a humane attitude towards women involved in the sex industry, the prosecution of pimps, and the decriminalization of prostitutes themselves.

Wearing dresses pasted over with advertising flyers for brothels, and sporting painted bruises and black eyes, the five female performers were marched by a “pimp” through downtown Petersburg.

The young women bore placards on their backs featuring such quotations from real interviews with prostitutes as “I have always been raped, now I’m getting raped for money,” and “We are not human beings to them.”

"My rate is 1,300 rubles an hour. I get paid a 100 rubles." // "We are not human beings to them."
“My rate is 1,300 rubles an hour. I get paid a 100 rubles.” // “We are not human beings to them.” Photo by David Frenkel

On Arts Square, the young women slipped away from the supervision of their “pimp.” They turned their placards arounds, revealing the inscriptions “Not a commodity,” “Not a thing,” “Not a criminal,” “Not a slave,” and “Human being.”

At this point, the other performers, depicting prosperous citizens who have a contemptuous attitude towards prostitutes and their problems, shouted angrily at the young women and pelted them with dirt.

Rapes, beatings, fear, constant threats to their lives, no protection from law enforcement, a lack of medical care, and endless public scorn: these are the real lives hidden by brightly colored flyers advertising “Masha,” “Sevinch,” “Girls,” “Relaxation,” and “Massages.”

Prostitutes lead closed and stigmatized lives. Our prosperous society is irritated more by the flyers and ads that disfigure our beautiful city than by the slavery and human trafficking occurring behind its disfigured façades.

The recent raid by “defender of morals” Vyacheslav Datsik has returned the subject of sexual slavery, which society and the media persist in calling “sex work” to the public discourse and underscored the fact that society has no sympathy for these women. It only feels contempt for them. If Datsik had forced any other women to walk naked down the street, everyone would have been up in arms. But prostitutes are not people. No one cares about their misfortunes.

Datsik has even seemed like a savior to many people, because he liberated the residents of a building from a brothel. And indeed, although brothels operate outside the law, politicians and policemen are also involved in the profitable business of selling women. So complaints against brothels filed by ordinary people are ignored and drown in bureaucratic rigmarole. However, a new brothel will open to replace the one Datsik, allegedly, shut down. And it will be that way until there is the political will to denounce and prosecute the people who trick and force women into slavery and sell their customers the right to violence. People should realize that the last thing they should do is blame the prostitutes themselves. They should stop seeing these women as criminals.

Pay attention to the slaves who live invisibly in our midst. And don’t call them “workers.” But do call them human beings.

Walking past St. Catherine’s Catholic Church on Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main drag. Photo by David Frenkel
Walking past the Chamber Concert Hall of the Petersburgh Philharmonic (right) and a poster advertising a “gala concert” celebrating the 140th anniversary of the translation of the Russian Synodal Version of the Bible by the Russian Orthodox Church. Oddly, the concert was held on May 26 at nearby St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Photo by David Frenkel
Walking past the entrance to the city’s premier hotel, the Grand Hotel Europe. Photo by David Frenkel
Enraged “citizens” pelt the “prostitutes” with dirt.
“Human being.” // “Not a criminal.” // “Not a thing.” Photo by David Frenkel
“Not a commodity.” // “Not a slave.” Photo by David Frenkel
“Igor is married but goes to prostitutes because his wife is not willing to give him the humiliating, painful sex he likes, which one can only endure out of fear or for money.” // “Yulduz does not speak Russian and does not understand how to escape from the brothel. Human trafficking is a global problem.” // “Round-the-clock rape for money. Using another person’s body to masturbate while ignoring their needs is rape.” Flyers handed out to passersby during the performance Walk. Photo by Ksenia Chapkevich

Translated by the Russian Reader. For more on this subject, see my post “Let’s (Not) Talk about Sex,” from December 2014.

Darja Serenko’s Quiet Picket

Picketing the Everyday
Marina Simakova
OpenLeft.ru
May 7, 2016

Quiet Picket, a recent initiative by Darja Serenko, teeters on the verge of artistic intervention and protest action. Every day, Serenko boards public transport (often, the subway) bearing a new placard inscribed with an extensive message. Its purpose is to invite people to engage in a discussion. Serenko thus explores the space of communication itself: the distance between placard and recipient, and how potential interlocutors navigate the distance. So far she has produced fifty-four placards, gone through six markers, and directly communicated with ninety-three people. Marina Simakova spoke with Serenko about the background of the action and its effects.

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Darja Serenko: “I want to carry it myself.”

Tell us how and under what circumstances the idea for the action occurred to you. What was the occasion?

The action grows out of several occasions. On the one hand, the arrest of Ildar Dadin; on the other, the story with the itinerant exhibition {NE MIR}, when we artists were detained by police while carrying our artworks down the street. I had been contemplating a solo picket for quite a long time. I had a dream of doing an ordinary picket, holding a placard at chest level that would resemble the headings in children’s encyclopedias: “And did you know that…” But ultimately a kind of reformatting of the very principle happened in my head. My understanding of it changed.

And what defined its format?

I was riding the subway after the closing of a {NE MIR} exhibition. I had grabbed a small poster by the Lights of Eirene movement. It featured the famous photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their Bed-In for Peace, and next to it, a current photograph in which similar looking people were lying in approximately the same poses. I was carrying the poster unfolded so it would not be crumpled, and I noticed that everyone in the subway car was looking at it. It dawned on me then and there this was the perfect form of communication. It was completely unobtrusive.

Why did you decide to do it alone, without friends? Did you ask anyone else to join you?

I said from the get-go that the format was open. Two young women joined me, but each has changed the format to suit her. One of them, Sasha, joined about ten days ago. She has attached a placard to her backpack (it comes out more static), and she has been traveling with the same placard for a week. On the other hand, she usually prints it out, and it contains references. The second young woman, Valeria, has also been doing a quiet picket on public transport. She wrote me to ask my permission, and of course I agreed. I have asked the young women to share photos of their placards and stories about what happened as they are able. In no way do I want my action to smack of a manifestation where “I, the performance artist, march forth and educate people.” That is not how it is. Although I do conceive of it as an educational project.

So your action could go viral?

It is difficult to talk about a virus when there are only three young women. But this format really is networked, simple, and palatable. It also functions without me.

How has it been documented?

On VKontakte and Facebook, and a bit on Instagram.  I have a small public page on Vkontakte, and I post a written report on my personal page on Facebook every afternoon or evening, when I have a free minute. I try and describe the situations, the conversations, and the behavior, both my own and that of the people with whom I interact. I also post photographs of the placards.

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“#quietpicket is when you feel discouraged and your arms fall.” In Russian, the expression “[one’s] arms fall” means to “feel discouraged.”

And is someone watching and photographing you?

Yes, constantly. Stealthily, very politely. If people photograph at close range, they always ask my  permission. Actually, I have got used to thinking of my action as a tape. Today, something like two hundred people wrote me asking what the action was all about. They had not been following it, and I already find it hard to conceive it any other way and explain it all in a jiffy, because some things were improvised and then they caught on. The format of the action has been changing.

How has it changed?

Initially, I had planned to make a placard early in the morning or the night before, ride around with it for a day, and make a new one the next day. I could not imagine subsequent interventions into the placard. But then I sensed the need to alter it depending on the reactions, to write and draw something extra, to explain something on the back. First, the placards were one-sided, then they became two-sided, and then I started doing several narratives within a placard.

After hearing why I was doing this, one of my accidental interlocutors said, “Oh, I get it. You are making a social alphabet.”

Yes, you could say that as well, and so the alphabet format emerged in my action. I want to put together an entire alphabet. Yesterday, I traveled with Г, for gomoseksual’nost’ [homosexuality], and today it was Ш, for shovinizm [chauvinism].

There is also a storyline involving poems I write on the placards. They can be connected with the topic of the placard, as stated on the other side, or they might not be connected. For example, I have been riding around with texts by the poets of the Lianozovo School, the poems of Vsevolod Nekrasov and Igor Holin, and I have been telling people about poetry. And when people ask me whether I think they are poems, I say that of course they are.

Sometimes, the text on a placard is arranged like a dialogue. There is an enquirer of sorts and a respondent.  There was a photo stand-in placard with holes for the eyes and mouth on which I wrote about the social status of women. The allegory in this case was simple: almost any face could be placed on the placard. But, actually, each placard turns out different from the others.

The last few days I have been stitching the sheets of paper together with thread, because I have run out of tape. (I use A3 sheets, which I combine into one big sheet.) It is an excellent means of representing a placard, because while I am stitching it together, I can turn it over and still remain focused on some task.

Sometimes, I also sew a new placard to an old one. This is a palimpsest placard, and the one is visible through the other. The placards thus form strange seams and montages.

I now always have a pile of posters in my bag.  If I see a person is reacting to the placard I am holding, and realize that I want to say something to them, I take another placard from my bag and sew it to the first. When I was riding around with the placard “Our government is fabricating [in Russian, “stitching up”] yet another case against yet another political prisoner,” I sewed it as well I could, in several rows, with rough stitches. By the way, I have been stitching the alphabet placards into a single notebook so later you can flip through it.

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Darja Serenko, Photo Stand-in Placard on Social Status of Women (Quiet Picket), 2016

How do you think up the texts for the placards? Do you take advantage of items in the news?

Everything is unstable when it comes to this, too. For May Day I made a topical placard, and after Pavlensky’s action [when the artist summoned sex workers to his court hearing as witnesses—OpenLeft] I made a placard about prostitution. But there are issues I simply have to cover, so I conceive of Quiet Picket as an educational project, albeit semi-ironically and semi-seriously.  Although it happens that I see my action as a kind of monstration. I ride in the subway, look at people, and think I would like to cheer them up.

Besides the fact that the project is educational, how do you define it for yourself? As a series of political art performances or as a civic initiative?

I see it as a continuation of my own work as a poet. In the poetry I have been doing, I spent a long time trying to achieve some kind of interaction: I took readymades and inserted them into poems. I think this know-how has influenced Quiet Picket. I am not saying that Picket is a purely poetic endeavor, but thanks to poetry the placard itself has greater opportunities for communicating. And the aspect I cannot keep track of in poetry, the aspect of reading [meaning the reader and her interaction with the poetic text—OpenLeft] is a process I can observe in this case. I see the person’s eyes running over the text, and at the same time she can address me, while I observe how her interpretative mechanisms function, and I can influence them. Quiet Picket takes place in this gap, in the distance between the person and the placard.

Have you thought about urban studies? After all, your action is nothing less than an intervention in one of the most important urban infrastructural spaces, an intervention that would let you get a feel for certain problems, study the behavior of passengers, do work on communications, and so on.

I might prove insufficiently competent as a researcher in this field. I have been trying to document everything I do, and perhaps the outcome will be an article or essay I write. I have not drawn any conclusions for the time being. My research involves collecting information and gaining the know-how of conversing with people on pointed topics that many of them find painful.

There is a rather glaring contradiction in your action. On the one hand, it lays claim to a certain intimacy. It summons a man in the crowd to have a private conversation; it invites him to a politicized discussion. On the other hand, it is very public and open to multiple counter-statements. Could you comment on this?

I don’t see a contradiction here. The fact is that the star of my action is the person who has brought herself to engage in reciprocal communication. She is the master of the situation, not me. She defines her own borders. She can approach me and whisper something in my ear, or she can holler at me from the other end of the subway car, aware that everyone will hear her and thus let other people get involved. It has also happened that a person has asked me to exit the car and have a chat. In that case, I obediently go with him and talk.

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Darja Serenko in the midst of Quiet Picket on the Moscow subway

If we shift the focus from the action itself to its subject, meaning you, we can detect yet another problem. At first glance, you appear as a naïve angel in this action. Eyes downcast, silently but persistently, you broadcast your appeal to people. Prepared for any reaction, you throw yourself at the mercy of angry, tired subway passengers. There is a certain victimhood about all this, almost evoking associations with the holy apostles. At the same time, we can look at you in a different way, as an artist working in the aftermath of Situationism and rationally exploiting the temporal distance. So you are protected from the man in the crowd by theory and your own stance, which have found their own places on your placards, while your potential interlocutor, the so-called man in the street, simply has nothing to oppose to you. You thus possess a certain power from the outset.

First, the image of me as meek silent angel is not true. It has been conjured from a photograph of me that has become quite popular. Usually, I don’t look that way. Second, yes, I have a background in culture, a knowledge of manipulative devices, and a set of readymade arguments. There is no getting away from it, but in the process of communicating I still feel unarmed and naked. The things people say, their experience, and the situations they reference have often stumped me. It has happened that I have nothing ready to say to them.

You assumed this experience would change you, pose new questions, and, perhaps, even force you to undergo a kind of metanoia.  Or am I wrong?

I haven’t had the time to keep track of what has been happening to me. But as a woman and feminist, I do think about my own feminine subjectivity (and objectivity). The placard is an amazing agent. When I use the placard to broadcast a feminist agenda, which I do quite often, I am simultaneously the subject and author of the placard and its object.  When I have to dialogue with someone on the topic, I have to act as a subject. So I balance between these points like a pendulum, and this affects me. Of course, I know about the experiments of artists whose bodies, including social bodies, have become sacrificial bodies. But I am faced primarily by the task of a cultural worker. I really wanted and still want to tell people about certain facts. It pains me these facts are hushed up, many people don’t have access to them, etc.

And why should people believe what you tell them? The legitimacy of your claim to know the facts is supported by what? Are you appealing to the status of cultural worker?

Since my format is encyclopedic, I appeal to sources. You will have noticed the references on my placards. People and I often google something: they verify the information on the Internet. I realize that the informational field is infinite, and for various reasons people often deal with only a fragment of this field. I offer them an alternative.

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Darja Serenko, “This is how our government has been fabricating yet another case against yet another political prisoner” (Quiet Picket, 2016)

The action has been running for five weeks, and you certainly have managed to collect the most incredible textured. Could you tell us about the most memorable, unexpected or personally important incidents during the picket? I will phrase my question even more openly. Tell us about whatever you would like.

For example, an elderly woman read my placard about political prisoners and thanked me. We were sitting opposite each other in the subway, and she told me about her life. She was a medical worker who helped athletes recover after injuries. On the back of my poster was an old poster, the May Day poster, on which the phrase “Thank you for your hard work” had been written.  She then asked me to exit the subway with her and offered to reward me for my work by having a look at my back and spine.

How long are you planning to continue the action?

For a year. I have a palpable dream that one day I will hit on the right phrasing, the right interactive possibility, and a person will want to make a placard in response right in front of me—as a creative act, as a statement, as an expression of contempt for me or, on the contrary, out of a desire to express agreement or disagreement.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of OpenLeft.

Pyotr Pavlensky: We Live between Fascism and Anarchy

Pyotr Pavlensky: We Live between Fascism and Anarchy
afoniya.wordpress.com
February 19, 2016

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With the news that actionist artist Pyotr Pavlensky was sent to the notorious Serbsky Institute of Psychiatry in a clear case of punitive psychiatry (for more on the case and its context, read Gabriel Levy’s excellent blog post), there is obviously a need to highlight and protest this fact but also a need to listen to Pavlensky’s own ideas and concepts. Here is a small excerpt, published in a Russian online magazine, which will be part of a forthcoming book on the artist in the context of Russian actionism. 

The original interview with Anastasia Belyayeva was posted on the website Snob on February 16, 2016.

—Giuliano Vivaldi

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It was recently announced the organizers of the Innovation Contemporary Art Prize had disqualified Pyotr Pavlensky’s performance Threat, in which he set fire to the doors of the FSB building in Moscow. This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, Pyotr Pavlensky in Russian Actionism, which publisher Ilya Danishevsky has kindly allowed Snob to run.

* * * * *

Let’s talk about your audience. I am curious about this. In an interview with a Ukrainian television channel you stated that art should articulate, because it is rather difficult for people themselves to articulate why the state is crushing them. Your mission is to articulate?

A kind of diffusion has been taking place. We all find ourselves in a similar situation politically. Certain controversial things are happening to us, fairly unpleasant things. The issue is what is happening and how. Everyone senses it one way or another. But the problem is articulating what the authorities are doing, for they diffuse everything. A persons reads the news, goes to a shop, goes outside or has to go to work, and he sees that for some reason everything is bad, but this badness is somehow diffused.

You articulate this for your audience?

Well yes, for those who can see and hear it. 

When you articulate, if you want your message to be heard, you have to correct for the stereotypes people have, their cultural code, what they are ready for and what they are not ready for. It seems to me that, as a consequence, the people who need an explanation are simply unable to interpret your message, while those who are able, do not need an explanation. So the outcome is somehow nonsensical.

Those who are able do not need an explanation and those who are unable—

The audience of the national TV channels experience, at most, certain negative emotions when they see your actions. It is unpleasant and repulsive to them. Then they are told why you have done this. And this “unpleasantness and repulsion” get mixed up with the reason you did it.

That is exactly what I work for. These temporary gaps are intentional. The precedent remains, and then something happens, and a person comes back to it. One social network user wrote to me that, at one point, he was very much opposed to everything I did. I wrote something to him in response. And he told me in a letter that in the past he had written a lot against the actions, but then he was faced with certain situations in life. It seems the state apparatus had ground him down somewhere along the way. Now he supported this mode of action and apologized.

[…] 

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I have encountered many situations, and I have a rough idea as to how people react to my actions. An excessively emotional response usually can be found in abundance only on the Internet. In real life, when I meet people, I usually see they understand things quite well. Only once in the subway was there an altercation with someone, not even an altercation, but a guy simply went hysterical when he recognized me. A rather young guy recognized me in a subway car. He double-checked my image on the Internet and then began running round the car. We were all riding the subway, the train was moving, and he was running round this car calling on people to rise up against me, to join forces against me. Not a single person supported him. He stuck his phone in people’s faces, but they just brushed him aside as a crazy, hysterical individual. I observed how people reacted. Not having garnered any support, he accused me of humiliating our country, of humiliating him, [Red Square], and so on. It was clear from people’s glances that even if they had recognized me, I didn’t detect any incomprehension towards me or any aggressiveness amongst them. People are rather more understanding than not.

As for that social media user who wrote to you, was it pleasant to get such a reaction?

Of course, he supports some of my ideas.

Is this a rather unique case or does this “I have finally understood you” happen periodically?

Yes, it does happen now and again. There is a whole range of human responses. Sometimes, I feel the force of this whole range of reactions. When I prepare myself for an action, different public reactions flash through my mind at the moments of greatest tension. When you abstract yourself from it somehow, there is understanding to a certain extent. Why can I see this reaction even in my mind? Because we have the same sources: the Internet, maybe television, newspapers, and other things. We all feed on the same sources of information. I confront this range of responses afterwards, after the action has been carried out. Naturally, there are both positive and negative responses.

In the meantime, it remains somewhere in the same—

It will always stay like that, you were starting to say, this issue that some understand, while some do not. The thing is that if I begin to think in these terms so as to make the actions more understandable, and that in this case I need to do them such-and-such a way, it will end up as populism. I will end up trying to please people. That is not my objective.

That is not the objective. The objective is to get your message across in a minimum amount of time, straight away, in clear symbols.

A body wound up in barbed wire, what could be clearer? You understand that here there is no way you could be clearer.

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It seems to me there is a kind of clear reaction when people see a man nailing his scrotum on Red Square, and the first unfounded response is that people call you an exhibitionist or homosexual. That is the initial Russian response: he is not right in the head. In Russia, abnormality is associated with homosexuality, and if you are homosexual that means you are a pervert. Regarding such reactions, don’t you think the essential point is somehow diluted?

If you are talking about how the media tries to influence the response, then of course they are endlessly attempting to make the pendulum of reactions swing between regarding it as a criminal act and insanity, and so one can always expect a certain incomprehension. But it is another question how this influence affects people who actually see an action. During Fixation, one woman was constantly asking, “What’s wrong with him? Is he sick?” Of course, it is rather sad that the cult of psychiatry has such power over public consciousness. However, if a genuine conversation about psychiatric norms does start, that is just wonderful. That is a field that needs to be worked through. That is my first point. Second. About this gesture . . . I am not trying so much to invent or concoct something. The gesture of nailing one’s scrotum down is quite rooted in the culture. It is a gesture employed by prisoners.

Why do they make this gesture?

They do it in different situations.

As a protest?

Yes. They take their lack of freedom, the impossibility of movement, to an extreme. Often, there are wooden floors in prisons, and they nail themselves down. How are you going to move them then? A person is already imprisoned, and he has nailed himself to the floor. This is fixation. And you know, when I talk in my text about the way the country has been turned into a prison camp, about a police state, I am not talking about this lightly. November 10 was Police Day. Each year, banners hang everywhere in the city: November tenth, long live our beloved police! All these signs on the surface. I work with these signs because they are part of the culture. It is important where all this is drawn from if one talks about working with contexts. Without this, the gesture of prisoners would remain behind these fences, doors, and yet more fences. With this large number of barriers, information just does not get to us. You cannot even find photographs of this, because no one in the prisons would be prepared take them. Everyone knows this is happening somewhere behind a large number of doors. But here it is happening at the very center. However, if truth be told, a very conditional border was removed. November 10, banners, the memoirs of dissidents and prisoners: these are markers that link everything in a single statement. If this does not exist, then a passerby will start to think: Red Square, naked, I don’t know . . . I could argue that maybe he is a naked exhibitionist . . . I don’t know the degree to which it works. A naked man: why is he naked? A naked man is a man deprived of everything, even his clothes. It is a degree of impoverishment, an indicator of absence.

Of vulnerability?

No, not of vulnerability. That is not part of the message. The naked man is an expression of a condition, stripped, denuded, and deprived of everything. It is, on the other hand, the body as such. It is what can be found under everyone’s clothes. In any case, clothes always mark you, they are clothes of some kind; they build up an identity. While the body is simply the body. All bodies are similar in one way or another.

To what extent are the police part of your actions?

They are a very important part. To a large extent, they do it all themselves, they engineer everything. Everything changes places [during the action].

In the sense that they arrest you?

No, in the sense of how they react to it. It is not my body that turns out to be the victim. Everything is based on the fact that the authority figures are, in fact, victims of the situation, because they find themselves in the most subordinate situation. They have to obey regulations. I am working with subject-object relations. Above all, law enforcement officials are afraid, but they are obliged to exercise their authority.

They are obliged to free you.

To do something or free me.

Does the fact they are the authorities and are obliged to free you a revolution or something else?

They become the objects of the situation. That is, they . . . I think this is an important aspect: the state objectifies people, compels them to subordinate themselves to regulations, to move within the range of the permitted and the impermissible, to stay in this corridor. A person who submits is an object. When an action is carried out, they become objects, objects raised to a certain power perhaps. Besides the fact they are objects in the first place, performing certain functions, they also become art objects. They want to neutralize: their authority obliges them to do it. They are tasked with neutralizing and eliminating events, with mopping up streets or squares. But this compels them to serve an opposing end. They begin to engineer events. They become characters, actors. Everything is based on them. My own action is kept to a minimum. I simply sit there and do nothing. Or I just stand there. 

And if they had not come, would you have still sat on Red Square?

Yes. It is unclear how an event is going to develop until it actually takes place. It is enough to posit a figure of silence, and the situation is then constructed around the silence. Because the police, ambulance crew or just plain people who would attack me or do something else are simply part of the social body. Something happens: rejection is also a kind of interaction. A senselessly airtight situation: I came, I left. Another important fact is that I speak with everyone in the same way. I communicate with journalists, psychiatrists, and police investigators in the same way. There exist definite rules as to how everything is engineered. If one keeps to the rule of the figure of silence and does not react to the authorities, there should be no interaction. I remain static, but when the action phase ends, when the doors have closed, I start talking, and I talk with everyone in the same way. I make no distinction between journalists whom I am going tell all and, for example, a police investigator. I can, of course, mock the investigator as it were, but it is not mockery really. It is me who involves him in the art process. What has become of these dialogues? Who has achieved their goals in this situation, art or the bureaucratic apparatus? And with my cause I . . .

If everything in the country were fine, what would you have done?

I don’t know.

So you could say that the worse the situation is in the country, the more work you will have?

I understand. The situation is what? It is an unrealizable utopia. There will never be such an ideal society and state. It seems to me that there are certain defining things in people’s nature: subject-object relations and the concept of power. These things dominate all others.

You don’t particularly like the concept of power, do you? I take it that, roughly speaking, you believe it cannot be a good thing, something reasonable? Can power be a good thing?

I believe it cannot, because power’s objective is to create a fully predictable individual. Because an unpredictable individual is a dangerous individual. The closer a person gets to the condition of a subject, the more he goes beyond borders. He looks for something new, and this is dangerous for the powers that be, because he becomes ungovernable.

Would you have protested in any country in the world?

Not in the same way. You must understand there are different contexts. I’m not a professional protester.

Protest art?

Political art. I am not involved in protest art. Political art and protest art are far from one and the same thing. Protest art is when you take to the streets with a placard. There is a NO there, and here there is a YES. That would be a generalization. I take it as a premise that political art involves working with mechanisms of control.

Fine. Political art. Would you have done political art anywhere?

I don’t know. If I lived in another country, maybe I wouldn’t have done political art. Given how I think now, I would probably have found something to do. But maybe it would be something formally similar, because different countries and different control systems generate different ways of suppressing the human imagination. 

Is there a model or regime you find ideal? Anarchy perhaps?

Probably anarchy is an ideal model. I am aware its ideal rests on its impracticability. It is unlikely that humankind will decide to sacrifice the benefits of scientific and technological progress to utopian anarchy. Anarchy is liberation from certain paradigms, it is resistance, a rejection of certain impossible rules. Anarchy involves working with the concept of power.

Anarchy is what you find most congenial? Or is it something else?

Yes, I probably find it congenial in some way. There is insurrectionary anarchism, and there are other kinds of anarchism. Anarcho-communism is a contradictory delusion: the dictatorship of equality versus the dictatorship of freedom. Either there is the one or the other. It is difficult to imagine the emergence of punk culture in a dictatorial regime of universal equality.

Would you like to live in a state where anarchy ruled?

There can be no state where anarchy rules.

A city where everything takes shape in this way. There is anarchy, but something takes shape all the same.

Undoubtedly. That is why I say it is anarchy. The individual’s life is spent in permanent struggle for subjectivation and self-assertion, because all possible resources, forces, interests and, ultimately, other people or groups of people work towards objectivation, towards subjugation. Even if a pseudo-anarchist structure was to take shape, groups or structures would still emerge that would turn it all

Systematize it.

Yes, turn it into an ossified mass. And it is better to reject these dogmas before they have managed to become political disenchantment. History persuades us that the lessons of the twentieth century did not prevent the kibbutzim from reconciling the beautiful idea of communal property with the defense of the growing and sacred borders of the state of Israel. This constant self-assertion has to be rejected. It is like a never-ending process.

Is there an ideal model for individual existence? Is it possible the way you see it: that nobody usurps you, and you do not intersect with anyone? 

It’s difficult for me to say. It all depends on the person. A person must overcome the [rules] imposed on him—

Globally.

Globally, there is a movement towards the anarchist model.

Then everything will circle round again?

Without a doubt. There is a certain range or continuum, of course. As in the [Grazhdanskaya Oborona] song: “Everything that is not anarchy is fascism.” We are situated between these two poles. Fascism not in terms of the Italian model or some other model, obviously, but as a kind of generic term. Fascism as absolute diktat, absolute and total control. And there is the other pole: anarchy as a certain absolute freedom. In fact, all the oscillation occurs between them.

And in the middle, between these two extremes, normality rolls along?

I have never thought about what is in the middle. I don’t know what is in between. In between there is dull liberalism with its shoddy political correctness.

I am just trying to understand your goal in this essentially vicious circle. You understand that things will never be wonderful?

What actually changes society and generally produces transformation? Certainly not any political templates or schemes, because working with cultural codes is the most important thing. Semantic precedents influence how a person relates to what happens around him. They are his reflexes, developed vis-à-vis different situations. Which of his associative models are activated, and what kind of situational response does he make? He may give a quick response, or he may, upon reflection, make a decision. This is the field where the struggle takes place. Regimes change, of course. There was the Soviet regime. Before that there was the monarchy, the Russian Empire, and now there is this regime. In any regime, the siloviki [military and security services] are in power. In 1917, there was a revolution, there were changes, and there were significant changes in culture, art, and how people related to each other. Things were in motion for fifteen years, and then there was a reaction. The Bolsheviks suffocated everything, and things were rolled way back.

Do you have an overarching idea about you are doing? Where are you taking all this? What point between fascism and anarchy seems to you the most appropriate?

You undoubtedly need to push everything in the direction of anarchy because

Because something budges at least a little bit?

Even for things to remain as they are, you already need a certain effort. If you make a great effort you can move things a little further. On the other hand, there is a very strong force moving us in the other direction, towards fascism and absolute subjugation. The state apparatus with its huge resources, an entire system of agencies, is working towards this. It is a constant clash. It never stops. For me, the head-on collision takes place on this stretch of road. It is ridiculous to dream those forces that are a hindrance will eventually dissolve and disappear, and we will suddenly find ourselves in anarchy and living under a different model. I think this is a more realistic perspective on things. But speaking theoretically, of course, when you loosen frameworks and push back borders, you really help others, the people who come after you.

Translated by Giuliano Vivaldi and reprinted here with his kind permission. See my previous posts on Pyotr Pavlensky.

{NE MIR} Dialogues (Riga)

Vadim F. Lurie
Facebook
February 21, 2016

The exhibition {NE MIR} (NO PEACE), a sequel to and an elaboration on the itinerant exhibition/performance that recently took place in Petersburg, opens today in Riga. I sent my photographs of Antiwar Weekend, a walk around the city made by Ekaterina Nenasheva. She strolled around Petersburg in a blood-stained, camouflage uniform. We looked for places in one way or another connected with war, aggression, the army or the memory of them. Actually, we didn’t have to love for them: they were everywhere. Our city is traumatized. Aggression and the memory of wars are offered to tourists as souvenirs, and I see this as an attempt not only at self-assertion but also at conveying this feeling to everyone. As we walked round the city, passersby paid no special attention to the young woman in camouflage. She had become yet another military artifact, a customary sight here. Thirteen photographs, Petersburg, a sunny day in 2015.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Ekaterina Nenasheva, Antiwar Weekend, 2015. Photograph by Vadim F. Lurie. Items for sale in the far right of the kiosk include “Cities of Military Glory,” “Russia’s Naval Glory,” and “The Battle for Vyborg.”
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Ekaterina Nenasheva, Antiwar Weekend, 2015. Photograph by Vadim F. Lurie.
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Ekaterina Nenasheva, Antiwar Weekend, 2015. Photograph by Vadim F. Lurie.

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{NE MIR}: Dialogues in Riga
Opening: February 21, 2016, 7 p.m.
BOLDERĀJA, AVOTU, 29, RIGA

{NE MIR} is a series of antiwar street exhibitions launched by a group of artists from Moscow and Petersburg. The project’s objective is to discuss war in its different forms, make a collective artistic statement on the relationship between the individual and the state, and investigate the borders of street art in today’s Russia.

The first {NE MIR} exhibition took place in Petersburg on December 27, 2015.

In Russia, there is a law prohibiting marches and rallies (in fact, any political or public gathering of more than two people) without obtaining permission from the authorities ten days beforehand. Moreover, these rallies can be held only in specific places, which are usually situated on the outskirts of cities or are difficult for the public to access. The Russian authorities have the right to prohibit any rally, and in that case it will be considered illegal.

Since their request was turned down three times by local authorities, the artists who launched {NE MIR} had no other choice than to make mobile banners and wander the city under the watchful eye of regular police and riot police.

The urban environment, which dictated the form of protest (wandering round the city), thus functioned as the exhibition’s curator.

This interactive format raised many questions both in terms of art and civic involvement.

How should Russian artists act in the current situation when any statement is deemed disorderly conduct or even a crime? What is the visual code used by police and random passersby, and what are the circumstances under which dialogue is possible? How are absolutely defenseless artists regarded by viewers when they display their artworks in such an aggressive environment?

We intend to look for answers to these questions both inside and outside Russia.

{NE MIR}: Dialogues is a series of itinerant exhibitions and discussions held outside Russia in free art spaces and galleries. It is an attempt to promote dialogue among citizens, artists, and activists, and spark cultural and social interaction between people from different societies and countries.

The exhibition of the {NE MIR} project in Riga will include paintings, graphic art, installations, photographs, and video works by artists from Russia, Ukraine, Denmark, and Chile.

A discussion entitled “The Image of War: The Mass Image and the Private Image” will be held at 7 p.m. on February 21 at Bolderāja Bookshop and Cafe (Avotu 29, Riga), with the exhibition opening to follow at 8 p.m.

Adapted and edited from the original event notice in English on Bolderāja’s Facebook page

“I Broke All the Laws I Could” (Leonid Nikolayev, 1984-2015)

“I Broke All the Laws I Could”
Juliana Lizer
October 2, 2015
Takiedela.ru

Leonid Nikolayev, the legendary activist Crazy Lyonya from the radical art group Voina, was buried this week. Juliana Lizer reports about a man who gave up the routine of office work for the life of an underground revolutionary.

leonid nikolayev
Leonid Nikolayev

We Don’t Need a Chairman
Leonid Nikolayev grew up in a bedroom district in Moscow beyond the Moscow Ring Road, a place dotted with identical, shabby blocks of flats built in the eighties and nineties, skinny trees in vast, empty yards, rows of shell-like garages scribbled with blue and black markers, kiosks offering beer and chocolate bars in the most unexpected spots, and a market, the main source of produce and clothing. The entertainment and cultural offerings were minimal. It was half an hour by bus to the two nearest cinemas, which featured standard Russian and Hollywood fare. There were two cafés in the entire neighborhood. A McDonald’s, built in the early noughties, was a universal boon and a new place to hang out besides the stairwells, yards, and the plastic-bottle-and-bag-littered woods.

According to Nikolayev’s mother Svetlana, the range of his interests was defined in the upper classes at school: the hard sciences and history. So, after graduating, he enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Fine Chemical Technology. At first, he was very passionate about his studies. He was at the top of his class, and pursued good grades.

“I majored in materials science and even worked for a year in a nanotechnology-related field, at a research institute. I was very much impressed when there was talk of allocating money for developing nanotechnologies, and researchers in all fields thought about how to squeeze the word ‘nano’ into their research, because that was the only way to get funding,” Nikolayev told journalists.

Nikolayev lost interest in his studies while doing his master’s degree. He became bored. After some thought, he went to work on a construction site, then got a job at a private holiday resort in the Moscow Region. He shoveled snow, supervised equipment repair, helped with household chores, and chatted with the holidaymakers. After a while, this “sensible” fellow was noticed and invited to try himself in a new role. Nikolayev began successfully selling sauna stoves.

In September 2008, Nikolayev went to his first protest rally, 100 Pickets in Defense of 2×2.

The Prosecutor General’s Office had found “signs of extremism” in several programs broadcast on the Russian cartoon channel 2×2. The channel had received a warning and was threatened with having its broadcasting license revoked.

“I really liked the way the people who did this chose to defend [the channel],” recalled Nikolayev.

“One hundred or so picketers lined both sides of Tverskaya holding different placards. Lyonya stood next to the monument to Yuri Dolgorukiy. He was quite self-confident. He fought off the cops ably and correctly: he had carefully listened to the instructions we gave before the rally. He had a cool placard on a wooden base he had made himself. It was obvious right off the bat he was an office worker. He was dressed like one and was carrying a briefcase,” recounted Julia Bashinova, a co-organizer of the rally.

After the rally, Nikolayev decided to join the movement We (My), which had been organized in the wake of the euphoria generated by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. As his comrades remembered, Nikolayev found out about the movement when he saw the absurdist protest action Send the Leaders to the Mausoleum, in which activists had rallied for construction of a double mausoleum for Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, chanting slogans such as “Riot police in every home,” “All power to the Chekists,” and “Putin lived, Putin lives, Putin will live.” They also sang the Soviet national anthem, inserting “Putin,” “Putinism,” and “Putin’s party” in the appropriate places.

“Lyonya came himself to the movement. He signed up and came to our meeting. He said, ‘When I saw a protest action happening in this way, I immediately realized this was for me.’ I thought then that here is this simple fellow who sells sauna ovens and has no idea what he has got himself into. Soon, however, he was one of the movement’s most active and productive members,” recalled We founder Roman Dobrokhotov.

Along with We, Nikolayev was actively involved in organizing the Solidarity movement, where he fought against leaderism, as well as for the movement’s compliance with its own principles.

“In 2009, when the entire We movement joined Solidarity, and the issue of a single chairman was raised, Lyonya drew a placard featuring the slogan ‘We don’t need a chairman,” and we chanted this slogan. You would think it was a lot of fuss about nothing, but Lyonya took democracy very seriously. Within the movement, he always reconciled everyone and acted as an arbiter,” said journalist and former activist Alexander Artemyev.

In the late noughties, Nikolayev probably lived the same way as the majority of those who took to the streets in 2011–2012 with white ribbons. On weekdays, he woke up at the same time, went to the office, had lunch, left the office, met with comrades, and attended rallies and pickets.

“Lyonya himself told me that the boring life of a stove salesman did not suit him, so he not only expressed his values in protesting but also was having fun to the max by being involved in the most audacious protest actions. The Voina group’s craziness attracted him,” recounted Dobrokhotov.

At that point, the art group, which included Oleg Vorotnikov (Vor), Natalia Sokol (Koza), Pyotr Verzilov, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and other members with the most unimaginable nicknames, was a huge success among the politicized public, primarily for the action Fuck for the Teddy Bear Heir! In an action dedicated to Putin’s designated successor Dmitry Medvedev, Voina activists had collectively copulated at the Biology Museum in Moscow.

Nikolayev met the founders of the controversial art group at a New Year’s party. It was 2010.

Our President
In 2010, the Blue Buckets movement emerged. Its members fought against the rudeness and total impunity of officials who sped through traffic with flashing lights on their roofs. Movement members wrote on their own cars that they yielded “only to 01, 02, and 03” [i.e., law enforcement and emergency vehicles], and they fastened little blue buckets, resembling flashing lights, to their roofs.

In late May 2010, a video quickly made the rounds of the media and social media showing a pedestrian in a red t-shirt and a blue bucket on his head deftly dashing atop the roof of a black car equipped with a flashing light. The scene is near the Kremlin Wall. A character in a suit jumps out of the car and tries to catch the bucket man. The bucket flies to the ground, only to reveal yet another, light blue bucket beneath it. The pedestrian in the red t-shirt runs out of the frame, followed by the suit in his car.

Voina claimed responsibility for the incident, and the name of the action’s hero was revealed: Crazy Lyonya Is Our President.

“I broke all the laws I could. I acted like a flashing light,” the newly minted president commented. It was then that Nikolayev got pinned with the obscene nickname Yobnutyi (“Crazy”).

“Certain castes have now taken shape in our society. Security officials and prosecutors have risen above other people. We see they can break the law, run people over with their cars, do whatever they want, violate traffic laws, and they are not punished for this in any way. […] I   just spoke to them on an equal footing,” Nikolayev explained to journalists.

From that moment, middle manager, liberal opposition activist, and frequent attendee of the Marches of Dissenters Leonid Nikolayev ceased to exist.

“Crazy [Lyonya] is a call to all the passive crazies in the country (of whom, we know, there are millions) to reexamine their stance and finally become active crazies,” Voina explained in an interview with the website Salt.

Nikolayev decided to leave Moscow with his new artist friends and gradually dropped off the radars of his old liberal friends.

“I was at a get-together right before their departure for Petersburg, on the veranda of some café on the Arbat, right after Lyonya was arrested for the flashing lights action, then released. Vor was saying then that Lyonya had to abandon his ‘normal life.’ Vor was persuading him fairly vigorously,” recalled ex-Voina activist Gray Violet.

In his own words, in Petersburg, Nikolayev turned his own life into a political statement.

“I no longer wake up in the morning to drive through traffic jams to get to the office. I sleep until noon in order to spend the night in the company of crazy friends rehearsing audacious actions. The things that used to be in the background—a trip on public transport, an outing to the store—have now, without money, turned into an adventure, into a quest you have to go through every day,” Nikolayev told the site BesTToday in an interview. “I have traded noisy, dusty Moscow for calm and beautiful Petersburg, and I am not just saying that.”

Hello, Right Ball
On the night of June 14, 2010, a sixty-five-meter-high penis, drawn in thick white lines on the roadway of the Liteiny Bridge, rose over the Neva, exactly opposite the windows of the so-called Big House, FSB headquarters in Saint Petersburg.

“After the action Dick Captured by the FSB, when Lyonya saved one of the female participants and spent the night at a police station, he became an example for us to follow, an example of self-sacrifice. After that night, we started doing this little thing: we greeted each other by saying, “Hello, Right Ball!” and “Hello, Left Ball!” Incidentally, there was a point to how we divided the balls. Despite the half year he had spent with Voina, who were totally extreme in their political views, Lyonya continued to consider himself a liberal. Well, and I got the anarchist left ball,” recalled Lyubov Belyatskaya, who was involved in the action.

Voina’s next action was Palace Coup. The activists overturned several police cars, and this cost Vorotnikov and Nikolayev their freedom. Some time after the action, both men were detained at a safe house in Moscow, transported to Petersburg, and locked up for three months in a remand prison.

In his own words, Nikolayev was treated quite tolerably in prison. The conditions were even insultingly pleasant: his cell was not overcrowded, there were no conflicts, the floor was wooden, the windows were double-glazed, and the staff was friendly. Nikolayev was bored in prison, but he regarded it as an interesting experience. He exercised, tried to help his cellmates, and asked friends to put vegetables and herbs in care packages.

“The convicts, the underworld, turned out to be quite pleasant, interesting people to talk to,” Nikolayev recalled after his release.

Vorotnikov and Nikolayev finally got out of prison on a cold evening in February 2011. Relatives, friends, and journalists had been waiting for them all outside the remand prison in minus twenty degree weather: prison staff could not manage to draw up the necessary release documents.

“Everyone thought that now we would go to someone’s house. But instead we drove to Palace Square, and they skated there on the ice and snow. The square was absolutely deserted. It was night and twenty degrees below zero. Some cops walked up. I told them, ‘Look, they just got out of prison. You had better leave.’ And they left,” remembered activist Elena Kostylyova.

“Our goal is winding people up, convincing them they should not be afraid of anything, that they should act. If they are not yet smashing up and changing everything, I think this will happen. I am ashamed to look at these conditions, at the way we live, at the regime in power in Russia. It is just shameful to put up with it,” Nikolayev explained Voina’s actions and his own actions.

Fame had come to Voina. The days passed in endless interviews, and people recognized the group’s members on the street. According to friends, Nikolayev was not happy about this. He was mainly silent, smiled or sat with a blank expression on his face.

“Voina hung out at my place for a long time, and at some point I got fucking annoyed with their posturing and irresponsibility. But Lyonya was completely different. I never associated with him the Voina crowd at all. He was super kind, super responsive, super calm, and unbelievably sincere, and my sense was they took advantage of this,” recalled leftist activist Leonid Gegen about Voina in Petersburg.

“In November 2011, he came home thin, bearded, shaggy, and dirty. I was terrified. But I knew it was useless to forbid him to do anything. He would have left all the same; only he would have stopped communicating with the family. He was very grateful I respected his choice. He really appreciated it,” recalled Nikolayev’s mother Svetlana.

They saw each other for the last time in the summer of 2012. Not wanting to expose them to danger, Nikolayev would communicate with his loved ones by Skype.

After the incident with the torched paddy wagon on New Year’s, a kind of holiday postcard to all political prisoners, Nikolayev disappeared from the media. The art group would continue for a time to roam from one safe house to another in Russia, but in the spring of 2013, several media reported Voina’s entire lineup now lived in Europe.

Whereas news about other group members periodically appeared in the press, Nikolayev vanished, and the most unbelievable rumors about him were soon circulating. According to one story, Nikolayev had received political asylum in Europe, settled down, and was leading the boring life of an emigrant.

Vasya
“Look, Vasya, you’re an electrician. What have you seen besides your wires? You have to wise up or get the heck out of this country,” confidently said the drunken landlord who had agreed to settle the modest thirty-year-old Vasily in his flat. He would live under the same roof with Vasya for a year and a half, but would learn his real name only from an obituary.

A year in Petersburg and a year and a half in Moscow under an assumed name, physical labor, and rare encounters with friends from his past life: Crazy Lyonya was now Vasya at crash pads, at work, and among his new acquaintances.

“I met him on Nevsky, in a crowd of people, and then several months later at a friend’s house, only I was surprised his name was Vasya. Well, Vasya was as good a name as any other, and I called him Vasya. The funniest thing was that I realized who he was only a little over a year ago, when I looked at Voina’s website. I saw a photo of him and understand why he was Vasya. Well, Semyon Semyonovich [the name of a central character in the popular 1969 Soviet comedy film The Diamond Arm], I thought,” recalled a female acquaintance of Nikolayev’s from Petersburg.

“I harshly criticized certain of his ideological kinks like rejecting money, shoplifting, and that sort of thing. For starters I got him a job as a helper with builder friends of mine. He quickly learned from them and within six months he was taking on his own jobs to earn money for himself and the revolution,” said an anonymous source.

“It’s groovy when you’re chatting with people who—”

“Who don’t know you who are?”

“Who don’t know who I am,” the newly minted Vasily told journalist Marina Akhmedova in an interview.

Photographer Julia Lisnyak recalled the particulars of that interview.

“He often ate anything whatsoever, and it was unclear where he lived, so Marina and I decided to go and feed him. We told him a little fib that we were famished and ordered a bunch of sushi, which he happily wolfed down. Marina asked, ‘Lyonya, where do you live? Where do you get clothes?’ He said, ‘Look, these shoes are hand-me-downs. You see what nice shoes they are? They’re the shoes of a dead linguist! Well, and what of it? The man died, and I was given his shoes. He was a linguist.’”

In December 2013, Nikolayev took a piece of cardboard, wrote “Moscow” on it, and went hitchhiking.

On January 6, 2014, he arrived at a flat recommended by a friend and asked, “Do I understand correctly that I can sleep here for two or three days?”

The tipsy director Nikolai, landlord of the potential crash pad, asked the new tenant to bring him two bottles of cranberry liqueur. The tenant coped with the task and would ultimately stay a long time.

“Somewhere after six months, I realized I was faced with a radical phenomenon, that this was not just some dude who had come to find a place to crash, but a man with a long-established destiny. I found out he was no Vasya, that he had not been telling me his real name,” recounted Nikolai.

In the summer of 2014, Nikolayev ran into Lena, a friend since his days with We, in Kamergersky Lane in Moscow.

“He was wearing a hoodie, had a bicycle, and was listening to street musicians. He told me he had been in Moscow several months, was in hiding, worked in construction, and his housemates knew him as Vasya. He used forged documents and could not meet with relatives and friends for fear he could be arrested. He asked me to call him Homeless Vasya instead of Crazy Lyonya.”

Lyonya-Vasya would also meet another old friend accidentally. He noticed her in a café and went up to say hello, asking she not say his name out loud.

“He had hipster glasses, a red beard, and a diamond-patterned sweater. I didn’t recognize him right away,” recounted Anastasia. “Later, he shaved his head and showed up in a black leather jacket. ‘Vasya! Where are your damned glasses? Put them on now, you look like yourself,” she remembered being later exasperated at Lyonya-Vasya’s next change of image.

“I spoke to him like Don Quixote to Sancho Panza. He was like my errand boy, in the literal sense of the word. He completely humbly and calmly accepted the job, like a White Army officer’s orderly. ‘Why is my underwear not washed? Where is the bread? Have you me bought me a subway pass or not? How am I going to travel tomorrow? By the way, go and buy me a sex doll: I need it for rehearsal.’ When I found out who he was, I flipped out. I had lorded it over one of the central figures of the radical anti-Putinist left, a star of the Russian counterculture, and made him run errands,” the director Nikolai confessed.

But it was probably Nikolai who helped Nikolayev get into the character of Vasya the electrician. The director had believed in this act to the last.

The hard work exhausted Nikolayev. He could be bothered in the middle of the night to unload a truck or dig a hole. However, Vasya the electrician was optimistic, followed the political situation closely, read a lot about science and art, and attended cultural events. Despite the difficulties and poverty, he was pleased with the fact that he was thin, pumped up, and had become tougher. He tried to eat healthy food, drank kefir, and cooked lentils. There was the most protein in them, he explained to everyone. As in Petersburg, he lived very ascetically. He slept on the floor, had no relations with women, and did not drink. This surprised his acquaintances, but they did not pester him with questions.

“If I had come in and saw him sleeping on a bed of nails like Rakhmetov [a revolutionary in Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done?], I wouldn’t have been surprised. He became my tutor on political issues. He told me everything: how democracy in Russia differed from democracy in America, who the ultra-leftists and ultra-rightists were, how French communism differed from Russian communism, what mistakes Lenin and Stalin had made, what had happened in Paris in 1968, and who the Red Army Faction in Germany were. Later, I watched all the films about the RAF and found out that Fassbinder had done work on them. It was an amazing brainwashing,” said the director Nikolai admiringly.

Once, when Vasya was strolling in downtown Moscow with a female friend, the police asked him to show his documents.

“Young man, have you washed your passport or what?”

“Yeah, I washed it. Ha-ha!”

“Oh, I’m also from the Tula Region!”

“You’re kidding? What district you from?”

Vasya named a nonexistent district in the Tula Region, but the policeman who was “also from the Tula Region” did not notice this. According to Dmitry Dinze, Nikolayev’s lawyer, his client had not been on the wanted list.

“In 2012, they had been looking for him, but the investigator worked on the case in such a way it was clear he could have cared less about Leonid Nikolayev. But the case has not been closed, the statute of limitations has not yet run out.”

“He had the idea of creating his own underground. Although he admitted himself he would be unlikely to find ‘hotheads’ willing to be involved in bold, provocative actions, since a lot had changed since they had overturned the cop cars, and the dudes in prison for the Bolotnaya Square case had literally done nothing, but had got hefty sentences. He understood that there were really few risky actionists. ‘It is unreal even to find someone to act as lookout,’ Lyonya would say sadly. But he really wanted to whip up something big, to stage a sensational performance. He worried that nobody had heard anything about Voina for over three years. He joked about stealing a tank on May 9 [Victory Day] or setting fire to an FSB building,” said Lena.

In conversation, Nikolayev described his plan as grandiose and quite absurd.

“It will be really funny, unbelievably funny. But the cops and FSB guys will be royally angry!” he assured his listeners.

However, he kept postponing implementation of his plan. Too many people whom he had asked for help had turned him down, he was unable to find a photographer and cameraman, and he lacked money for props. It was this, according to an acquaintance who wished to remain anonymous, that had forced Nikolayev to go to work for the Beryozki Noncommercial Gardening Cooperative. He lacked exactly thirty thousand rubles for implementing his venture.

On the afternoon of September 22, Nikolayev was sawing branches from a felled tree. At the same time, a workmate set to cutting down another tree. The falling trunk struck Nikolayev on the back of the head. He suffered a basal skull fracture and brain swelling, and went into a coma. The documents in Nikolayev’s pockets were made out in someone else’s name, so it was not easy to figure out who exactly had been admitted to hospital, then sent to the morgue. According to the doctor, there was no chance he could have survived.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of e-flux. Check out the poignant photographs of Leonid Nikolayev by Julia Lisnyak, as published in the original article, and read about the other face of Takie Dela, its work as a charity foundation (in Russian).