Until we fail to put a halt to abortions, which, fortunately, annually do away with enough people to populate the city the size of Petersburg, there is no point in discussing or contemplating anything serious.
No wonder the stage of (para)political theater has recently been occupied by such figures: aborted embryos telling us they could have been soldiers, for example, and dead women and men, who worked to the grave, but did not live to see a single kopeck of their pensions.
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.
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 Snobto run.
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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.
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 doesthis “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.
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.
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? Canpowerbeagoodthing?
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.
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.Politicalart.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? Anarchyperhaps?
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.
Acity 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—
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, 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.
Artist Pyotr Pavlensky holding a petrol can in front of FSB headquarters in Moscow. Photograph: Reuters
Pyotr Pavlensky: “The FSB Has Hammered an Iron Curtain Around Itself”
Elena Kostyuchenko and Ekaterina Fomina
December 10, 2015 Novaya Gazeta
An exclusive interview with the arrested artist
He stands accused of vandalism for setting fire to the door of the FSB building. Pavlensky himself has requested he be tried as a terrorist as a gesture of solidarity with convicted terrorists Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko. Observing a vow of silence, Pyotr Pavlensky refused to answer the court’s questions. He did, however, answer Novaya Gazeta’s questions.
Pyotr Pavlensky’s Works
Seam, July 2012. Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut with a coarse thread and stood for an hour and a half in front of Saint Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral holding a placard that read, “Pussy Riot’s performance was a reenactment of Jesus Christ’s famous performance.”
Carcass, May 2013. Absolutely naked and not responding to anything, Pavlensky lay wrapped in barbed wired outside the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly. The artist attempted to show the new position Russian citizens had found themselves in after the adoption of repressive legislation.
Fixation, November 2013. Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to a cobblestone on Red Square and sat motionless looking at it. “It is a metaphor for the apathy and political indifference of Russian society,” the artist explained. Pavlensky timed his action to coinicide with Police Day.
Freedom, February 2014. Pavlensky and a group of activists burned around fifty tires on Malo-Konyushenny Bridge in Saint Bridge, thus reconstructing the Maidan in Kyiv.
Threat, November 9, 2015. Pavlensky set fire to the main entrance of the FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square. The artist stood before the burning door holding a fuel canister.
What is fear?
I think fear is an animal instinct. You find an example of how fear itself turns into an immediate threat to life in Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The question she returns to time and again there is, who was more to blame for the death to which a hundred concentration camp prisoners were led, the two guards who escorted them there or the prisoners themselves? Because they went willingly to their deaths, making no attempt to kill the guards or escape. Fear is dangerous because it suppresses free will. Without free will man becomes something like a domesticated beast of burden, which is not finished off and turned into food while there is the need to keep working it.
How and when did you conceive Threat?
[The answer has not been published in keeping with the requirements of Russian federal law.]
What did the preparation involve?
The choice of the site, the date, and time were the main things. When they have been determined, all that remains is the technical preparation, in which I try to do with the most minimal means.
Was Threat successful? What constitutes success? Were the other actions successful?
I find it difficult to talk about, because my access to information is limited. But the fact alone that I managed to do it could be considered a big success.
Is there a common theme running through your works? Have your stance and objectives changed?
Yes, in all my works I talk about the prison of everyday life and the possibility of release from this prison. Seam, Carcass, Fixation, and Segregation are the prison of everyday life. Freedom is the possibility of release. But Threat is the power of coercion in this prison, meaning that it is the main threat to free will.
In most of your actions you haven chosen your own body as the object. Why did you decide to choose an external object this time?
This is not true. I have used my body when talking about the prison of everyday life. The statement about emancipation was constructed completely differently. Freedom was implemented by a collective subject. Now I have discussed the threat hanging over every member of society. This is a direct threat to the manifestation of everyone’s free will. I never said I was doing performance art or body art. I work with the tools of power, and what I do is political art.
Freedom.Photo: Pyotr Kovalyov / Interpress / TASS
Whom are you addressing?
Society. I do not address people in power. I use them as material for undermining the scenery of power. My objective is to call into question the entire façade concealing the ruthless mechanics of control and administration.
Do you identify with the the society you previously depicted (Fixation and Carcass)? If not, where are you?
Well, now I am actually in jail. But if we talk about how much I feel myself to be part of society, then to the extent that we all are part of the same regime. I travel on the same public transportation, I watch the same news, and I hear the same advertisements. The informational field is the same, and I have worked with elements of it. I take something from one context and transfer it to another context. The contexts collide and new meanings are produced. In this way I identify the discrepancy between the scenery and mechanics of power.
Do you know how people have responded to Threat? Can you follow events from jail? How do you get the idea across when discussion of the action itself (the scrotum, the door) becomes primary?
No, I know very little about the reactions. But I did find out about the most interesting reaction: the entrance to Lubyanka was covered in aluminum. I have been told that “Lubyanka behind the iron curtain” is what the authorities called their action. The regime is erecting this curtain around itself with its own hands. No, it is still not easy for me to keep track of what is happening. I am partly cut off from communications. I get letters, and my lawyers can tell me some things. Other prisoners also tell me things, but generally the information is very sketchy.
Segregation. Photo: Oksana Shalygina / Facebook
Some say that the action could have caused harm to employees who were inside the building. Did you think about this?
No, I had no such fears. We could discuss such a threat if I had employed heavy artillery instead of a fuel canister.
You have called the FSB a “terrorist organization.” You see no difference between a suicide bomber at Domodedovo Airport and an FSB employee?
The FSB [excised in keeping with the requirements of Russian federal law] is a militarized, well-equipped, armed organization. And it combats its competitors, people who would like to take its place but who simply lack the resources. I think any state is a political institution that has formed as an outcome of long-term political terror.
Whic actionist artists (past or present) do you like?
There are quite a few artists, and not necessarily actionists. They include the Dadaists, Malevich and Suprematism, the works of Caravaggio, and many others. Chris Burden was one of the few good performance artists. If we talk about actionists, I would include Alexander Brener and the Moscow actionists of the nineties. Voina made a huge breakthrough, followed by Pussy Riot, including their last performance at the Sochi Olympics.
Can art exist separately from politics nowadays?
No, it cannot. Art was forced to served ruling regimes for many centuries. It was an effective apparatus for inculcating ideological paradigms. Art was able to free itself from functional obligations in the twentieth century. But regimes continue to exist, and every year they require thousands of new personnel: they make a lot of effort to produce these units. The very existence of these institutions for producing service personnel is already sufficient demonstration of the link between art and politics.
Carcass. Photo: Sergei Yermokhin / Interpress / TASS
Investigators have on several occasions asked psychiatrists to examine you. Have you ever doubted your own mental competence?
No, I have not yet had any reason to doubt it.
How do you understand the holy fool? Some have called you a holy fool. Can you agree with them?
No, I cannot. I am an artist who does political art. Political art involves methodical research of social responses and sets of codes. Aside from the actions, the work involves dealing with the many tools of the regime: law enforcement, psychiatry, mass media, etc. I do not think you can just call this a way of life. In this sense, early punk culture, the residents of psychiatric hospitals, and hippies like Charles Mansion bore a much greater resemblance to holy fools.
What happened after your arrest?
Everything was fairly by the book: physical detention, handcuffs, searches, the first attempts at interrogation. Usually, during the first twenty-four hours, investigators try to get as much testimony as possible. That is exactly why you have to pay attention during the first twenty-four hours and say nothing at all. The same thing happens with psychiatrists, only they have more power. But much more important is what it means to me. For me, it is a process of defining the boundaries and forms of political art. And what the regimes calls arrest and paperwork procedures is nothing other than a bureaucratic ritual for producing criminals.
What are your conditions like now? Has pressure been brought to bear on you?
There was only one attempt to get me to sign a confession that I had not wanted to harm and threaten the lives of FSB employees. After an hour of back and forth conversation, they were unable to get what they wanted. I went to lockup to relax, and they left.
Why did you ask to be charged with terrorism?
I thought about the action I had carried out and came to the rather interesting conclusion that the action of setting fire to a door was quite similar to what ultimately led to terrorism charges against the s0-called Crimean terrorists and the ABTO group. Only in those cases, the FSB added to these groups people who had made deals with investigators, and as a result of this cooperation, ringerleaders of terrorist organizations and their accomplices emerged. So I decided to demand coherent logic from the court and justice from the judiciary and law enforcement.
Are you going to remain silent in the court?
Yes, I am going to maintain my silence until the lawlessness of the judiciary and law enforcement comes to an end.
Does an action begin when it is actually implemented or afterwards? Is the action still under way now? Do you recognize the state as a co-author?
An act begins during its implementation and ends when the law enforcement system or psychiatrists detain me. But cessation of the action per se marks the beginning of the process by which the boundaries and forms of political art are defined. So we could say that it is not the action that continues but the process of political art.
What do expect from the future? Are you willing to continue living in a stagnated Russia? Have you thought about applying your energies somewhere else? Are you struggling for a better life for yourself or for the country? (And is it a struggle?)
Each of us is responsible for the situation of stagnation. And for this reason alone I do not want to live somewhere else. As for me and my life, it is not a struggle, but the only possible form of existence under state terror. Everything else is personal responsibility for the life of society within the bounds of border and passport control.
P.S. On December 10, Pavlensky was transferred to St. Petersburg, where the case of setting fire to the tires is being examined.
Photo courtesy of the Guardian. Translated by the Russian Reader
“I Broke All the Laws I Could”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
Kristina Leko, an artist and teacher at the Berlin Institute of Art, opened the discussion. The organizers had invited her to comment on the forum and the exhibition of Russian “critical art.”
She wondered how much the objets d’art for Marat Guelman’s Perm project (documented at the forum) had cost, whether the money had come from the city’s budget, and if it had, whether the citizens for whose sake this monumental street art had allegedly been made had agreed with this. Leko noted that she had found it unpleasant to listen to the presentation of the project, during which it was stated that the residents of Perm were “insufficiently educated to understand art.” She also said that after carefully viewing the video documentation for MediaImpact, she could not understand where the audience for this sociopolitical art was. Did Russian “critical” artists even want to communicate with the general public? Leko asked whether it was possible to make “critical art” now without taking Russia’s aggression in Ukraine into account, and whether one could be a “critical artist” while ignoring gender and racial discrimination.
Her talk was suddenly interrupted by artist Alexander Brener, who burst into the circle of panelists and yelled, “All of this is shit! We must talk about what matters most!” Brener was not a forum participant. He had come every day to listen to the speakers and several times had expressed his dissatisfaction, but in much more acceptable form.
Brener had interrupted Leko’s talk and continued to shout about shit, but the panelists interpreted his stunt variously. One group sided with Brener, calling him a great Russian artist. This was a performance, a compliment to the forum’s organizer. The talk had been boring: let Brener have his say, they said. The moderator, sociologist Alexander Bikbov, demanded that Leko be allowed to finish her talk. He was backed up by cultural studies scholar Olga Reznikova, who told Brener that there had been many boring and offensive presentations over the past three days and asked him why he had not felt the urge to shout down a high-profile male who had been talking “shit.” The only Ukrainian participant in the forum, Vasily Cherepanin, director of the Visual Culture Research Center in Kyiv and editor of the Ukrainian edition of the journal Krytyka Polityczna, said he felt sorry for us, since we were accustomed to rudeness and could not tell the difference between it and art. As a manager of an institution, he himself kicks out such “performance artists,” no questions asked.
While this was happening, Leko’s hands were shaking. The German audience was shocked. One of the German participants asked perplexedly, “Why is there no solidarity among Russian artists?”
I am certain that the majority of men in Russia who identify themselves as “leftists” are incapable of uniting with women on an equal footing and dealing with our professional work appropriately, without loutishness. Personally, I have no desire to identify with those “leftists” or liberals who try talking down to me or do the same thing with other women. I had had enough of that at the Feminist Pencil show at MediaImpact.
I said that sexism was one of the causes that prevented people from uniting.
Hearing the word sexism, some of the Russian participants began laughing and making faces. They then pointedly left the room altogether when the topic of gender was picked up by Olga Reznikova, Heinrich Böll Foundation coordinator Nuria Fatykhova, and the German audience.
Vasily Cherepanin raised the next topic. He spoke about the war in Ukraine, stressing it was a war of aggression on Russia’s part. At the same time, many Russian socially and politically engaged artists have preferred to remain apolitical on this matter and not make anti-war statements. One of the Germans asked why the Russians were trying to depoliticize the discussion of sexism and the war in Ukraine. After this question, another third of the Russians dashed from the room, while the artist Brener, who had been sitting quietly in the corner, again broke into the circle of panelists, screaming at Cherepanin, “Fuck off!”
Moderator Alexander Bikbov summarized the discussion by noting that too few “critical” artists had stayed for its final part. As soon as the conversation had turned to the things that mattered most—politics within the art scene and the war in Ukraine—many were not prepared to discuss them.
But then at the farewell dinner, the participants who had left the discussion early continued giggling among themselves about gender and feminism.
Russia vs. Russia: From Censorship to Self-Censorship New Russian laws—from a ban on swearing to protections for the feelings of religious believers—have made life difficult for artists. But the main obstacle to freedom of creativity has become self-censorship.
Yekaterina Kryzhanovskaya | Berlin
April 13, 2015 Deutsche Welle
Victoria Lomasko, Prisoners of May 6, from the Drawing Trials project
For several years, Victoria Lomasko has been doing socially engaged graphic art, producing graphic reportages from court hearings and political rallies, and drawing the real stories of juvenile prisoners, migrant workers, rural teachers, and Orthodox activists. But the Russian woman can now longer speak openly about what concerns her through her drawings: now her black-and-white “comics” could be subject to the articles of the Russian Federal Criminal Code.
“My work Cannibal State, in support of political prisoners, today could be regarded as insulting state symbols. Liberate Russia from Putin clearly rocks the boat; it’s a call for rebellion, for revolution, and this is ‘extremism.’ A work from the Pussy Riot trial, Free the Prisoners! Shame on the Russian Orthodox Church!, featuring Patriarch Kirill, no doubt insults the feelings of believers,” the artist recounts.
Could she now, as she did earlier, freely post her political posters in social networks or show them at exhibitions?
“Hardly. But just two years ago several of them were even published in magazines,” notes Lomasko.
At the forum Russia vs. Russia: Cultural Conflicts, held April 10–12 in Berlin, Lomasko was not the only one bewildered about the prospects of protest art.
“In Russia nowadays you cannot do anything,” states Artyom Loskutov, an artist and organizer of the annual May Day Monstration marches in Novosibirsk.
In 2014, the Monstrators took to the streets of Novosibirsk holding a banner that read, “Hell is ours.” When the Russian media were excitedly talking about the virtues of federalizing Ukraine, Loskutov and his allies announced they would be holding a March for the Federalization of Siberia.
“If people in Russia hear every day that separatism in Ukraine turns out to be a good thing, that cannot slip through the cracks. We have simply hastened the next stage, when separatism will be seen as good for our country as well,” Loskutov emphasizes.
Russian federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor responded by sending fourteen letters to various media, including Ukrainian publications and even the BBC, demanding that they delete even mentions of this protest.
According to many forum participants, however, censorship was not the worst that was happening to them today.
“The worst thing that infiltrates our heads is self-censorship. It is impossible to know about the new laws and not to think about the consequences if you make a work about something that really concerns you,” argues Lomasko.
A congress of ultra-rightist nationalists was held in March in Petersburg, completely legally. And yet the media could not publish photographs of congress participants in clothes featuring swastikas because they would be fined for extremism.
“I really want to speak out on this subject. But if I were to draw something, I could be accused of spreading fascist ideas. And if I put it on the Web, everyone who reposts the picture automatically becomes my accomplice,” explains Lomasko.
Consequently, she said, there have been almost no artworks openly criticizing the annexation of Crimea or the war in Ukraine. Doubts about the legitimacy of Moscow’s actions are now also subject to the Criminal Code. A rare exception is the graffiti piece Broads Will Give Birth to New Ones, in which a pregnant woman holding a Molotov cocktail is depicted with an infant soldier in her belly. But it was produced anonymously by members of the Petersburg group Gandhi.
On the other hand, you can express your joy over the actions of Russian politicians without the sanction of officials. Thus, on the eve of the referendum in Crimea, a monumental graffiti proclaiming “Crimea and Russia: Together Forever” suddenly appeared on the wall of a house in Moscow’s Taganka Square where an officially authorized map of the Tagansky District was supposed have been painted.
“The contractor himself decided that the Crimean agenda was more topical and interesting, and he willfully painted what he did, not the map he had been commissioned to paint,” explains Anna Nistratova, an independent curator, researcher, and artist.
Later, such monumental propaganda began to appear all over the country, both as commissioned by the authorities, and at the behest of the population, including activist artists, many of whom also believe, according to Lomasko, “Crimea is ours, Donbass is ours, and Ukraine basically doesn’t exist.”
“In matters of propaganda, orders from the top are not obligatory. Our citizens themselves are capable to taking the initiative,” notes Nistratova.
“Memory” (P = Pamiat’), one of a series of “graffiti” murals produced by the pro-Kremlin youth group Set (“Network”) to celebrate Vladimir Putin’s birthday in October 2014. The five murals, which appeared in different cities, each featured a different letter from the president’s surname; each letter was associated, children’s primer-style, with a different “patriotic” virtue (e.g., such as “memory” of the war). This mural was painted on an apartment block on Petersburg’s Obvodny Canal. Photograph by The Russian Reader
Nistratov points out that there are very few artists involved in political art in Russia. Besides, neither exhibitions nor the very best artworks nor inscriptions on the streets have any effect on society, in her opinion.
“The artist in Russia today is a strange, marginal subject. His status as an intellectual, as a moral exemplar, which existed earlier, has been completely forfeited,” says Nistratova.
Confusion is, perhaps, the feeling that is prevalent throughout the talks given by the participants of the forum Russia vs. Russia: Cultural Conflicts. By and large, the activist artists have no clear strategies for operating under new conditions.
“The only thing that seems to me worthwhile is maintaining one’s own little environment, a bubble inside the shit. Because if this nightmare ever ends, we have to make sure we are not faced with a scorched, absolutely bare field, bereft of political and social art, activism, and civic consciousness,” argues Lomasko.
This is a real courtyard in my neighborhood, near a playground. Parents stroll around the yard with their children, discussing the news from “fascist” Ukraine.
Do I have the right to draw and show you this landscape featuring a swastika, a landscape that is fairly typical in Russia? During the recent trial of the Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists (BORN), their lawyer argued that the anti-fascists are just another street gang like the fascists. So why not label any denunciation of fascism “propaganda” of fascism itself?
Nationalists freely held an international congress in Petersburg in March. The only people the police arrested were the anti-fascists who protested the congress. Nationalists can walk around sporting neo-fascist symbols, but the authorities will prosecute publications that dare to publish photos of them. Juvenile prisons are filled with skinheads, but nationalist ideas are fomented on television.
Attn: Center “E”. I am opposed to fascism.
This yard is not in Ukraine. There are many swastikas in Russia, too. But if Russian citizens try to expose fascism, they can be charged with “extremism.” Inscription on wall: “Russ [sic] is ours!”