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?
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.
On February 23, female feminists spoke out—finally!—in defense of men.
“We think the very idea of ‘defenders’ is one of the pillars of oppression, whether ethnic, gender or whatever other kind. From the time they are babies, men are inculcated with the notion that they must be defenders. Actually, however, they are merely taught to behave aggressively and completely suppress their emotions. And they grow up as people prone to exercise violence and control. They become cogs used by those in power, dogs who have been taught a single command: ‘attack.’
“We believe society must change, that a more humane society is a sign of progress. Armies and armed conflicts must become things of the past, like human sacrifice and the bonfires of the Inquisition. Like the first winged chimeras, which had been built but still could not fly.”
This past Sunday, “Irina Yarovaya” shred the Russian Constitution on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg. The people’s deputy was joined by characters from her package of “anti-terrorist” laws, who had come to life for the occasion: a postal worker vetting packages, a secret policeman wiretapping a light-minded young lady’s telephone conversations, and an involved ordinary citizen encouraging passersby to write denunciations on their friends, neighbors, and coworkers.
The activists of the Spring Movement thus attempted to draw the attention of their fellow Petersburgers to the flagrantly repressive amendments to the Russian Criminal Code, tabled by a group of MPs led by Irina Yarovaya and now approved by both houses of the Russian parliament, the State Duma and the Federation Council.
The package of amendments will not only deal a blow to our country’s constitutional foundations but will also require huge financial subsidies during tough economic times. The screws will be tightened at our expense, at the price of impassable roads, hospitals and kindergartens that will never be built, and pension savings that the state has been confiscating once again. No scientific progress, no innovations, and no quality education are in the cards for our country: only Yarovaya and her hardcore approach to lawmaking.
If the president signs the Yarovaya package into law, “non-informing” will be criminalized, “inducing, recruiting or otherwise involving” others in the “organization of mass disturbances” will be punishable by prison terms, punishment for “extremist” posts on the web and monitoring of personal correspondence will become harsher, and postal workers will be obliged to vigorously vet parcels for prohibited items.
Translated by the Russian Reader. All photos by David Frenkel
Center “E” Comes Looking For Performance Artist Who Changed Disabled Orphan’s Dressings Near Kremlin
Natalia Zotova Novaya Gazeta
June 13, 2016
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 (Na–kazanie), 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.
Trampled by the Madding Herd
Darina Shevchenko 16-year-old Gleb Astafiev is being tortured in a psychiatric hospital because of his picket in support of Pyotr Pavlensky Radio Svoboda
June 11, 2016
In late May, Gleb Astafiev, a 16-year-old resident of the village of Ketovo in Kurgan Region, held a solo picket in defense of artist Pyotr Pavlensky, then on trial in Moscow for setting fire to the doors of FSB headquarters. The young man sewed his mouth shut, grabbed a placard on which he had written the inscription “Pyotr Pavlensky’s action was a replay of Varg Vikernes‘s famous gesture,” and stood next to a store in downtown Kurgan. This was a reference to Pyotr Pavlensky’s first action, Seam (July 23, 2012), in which the artist sewed his mouth shut and took to the streets of Petersburg with a placard that read, “Pussy Riot’s action was a replay of the famous action by Jesus Christ.”
Astafiev was taken to a police station, and then sent to the Kurgan Regional Neuropsychiatric Hospital.
On the day Pavlensky was released, Astafiev was able to access the Internet for the first time during the thirteen days of his incarceration at the mental hospital and contact the outside world. He told Radio Svoboda how he had wound up in the hospital and what was happening to him.
Gleb, who sent you to the psychiatric hospital?
After the police detained me when the picket was over, my mother talked for two hours with them. I think they did a number on Mom, because she came back for me accompanied by an ambulance crew, and I was hauled off to the looney bin. My mom thinks I am crazy. She is convinced that normal people don’t sew their mouths shut and take to the streets bearing placards. Mom is a simple woman, and she doesn’t understand my action was an artistic metaphor. The closed mouth is a symbol of the absence of freedom of speech in Russia. My mom watches TV too much, so her mind has been warped by propaganda. It’s very hard to explain the message of my action to her. Mother did not support my creative experiments, but after the action she got angry at me. She doesn’t even bring food to the hospital. Grandmother, on the contrary, has been treating me better since the action. Now she sympathizes with me. The relatives are not planning to spring me from the nuthouse for the time being. The doctors have not said anything to me about the subject.
You sound very calm and confident. How do you feel? Have you been forced to take meds?
They tried to vegetate me with pills, but I spit them out. The first five days I was held in the special supervision ward. They tossed me in with the worst crazies, but I was forbidden to leave the ward. I was in there with eight oldsters. Three of them rarely showed any signs of life. The other five screamed at night, beat the floor with their fists, and raved. They tried to force me to kowtow: to wash the floor and clean up. I refused. I am currently under routine supervision, but I cannot leave the wing.
Do you know that Pyotr Pavlensky has been released? Do you regret you wound up in the mental hospital because of your action in support of the artist?
Of course not. I am very glad for Pavlensky! Maybe it was thanks to the support of different people, including me, that he was released. The regime really doesn’t like people like Pavlensky, because a real actionist is a free spirit and openly declares it. I think I did my bit for free speech with my action, which was, of course, a reference to Pavlensky’s actions.
What were your feelings when you were standing there alone holding a placard, surrounded by strangers who were probably aggressive to you? Did anyone support you during the action?
I thought up and did the whole thing myself. My action was entitled F.P.P. (an abbreviation for “Free Peter Pavlensky”). Passersby reacted differently. Mainly, people were surprised. There were lots of riffraff there. One creep swore at me at the top of his lungs for twenty minutes. Some people came up to me and had their pictures taken. There was an old couple who stood next to me the whole time. Once, the old woman came up to me and said, “You’re a fool. One man does not make an army.” The old man periodically yelled loudly, “Look, people! He is holding opposition placards!” I ignored all of it.
Around thirty minutes after I started the action, two grown louts in black vests (security guards, apparently) came out of the Pushkin Shopping and Entertainment Center. One of them jumped me and tried to grab the placard. I wouldn’t give it up. A dude who was around twenty saw the scene from the window of his car. The fellow jumped out of his ride and told the guard to leave me alone. It’s a pity that many people don’t understand the difference between art and hooliganism and madness. Actionism is lovely! I really love actionism, especially Viennese actionism.
Why are you able to see the difference?
Hard to say. I’m an ordinary schoolboy from a simple family. I read a lot, especially science fiction. I think a lot about what’s going on with my own head. I want to have a vivid, interesting life, not a life like the majority’s: home, work, and television. I can’t talk anymore. I see the medical staff coming.
Gleb Astafiev’s action has sparked a fierce debate among Kurgan Region residents on social media. Some Internet users have admired the young actionist’s audacity and honesty. Others have written that Astafiev is as abnormal as Pavlensky. Astafiev has said he is uninterested in the negative feedback of philistines. He is suffering from a lack of communication most of all now. A girlfriend has been visiting Gleb at the hospital. She asked that her name not be printed, because she did not want to attract any public attention.
“That hospital is a hellish place: closed, stuffy, and miserable. Gleb is now all alone there. He is very depressed: almost no one comes to visit him. He doesn’t even have anything to read. Gleb asked me to buy him science fiction books. Gleb’s pupils are dilated: apparently, they are medicating him. I don’t know Gleb that well. Before his incarceration in the hospital, we had seen each other only five times. We met by chance at a concert by a local band. He wanted to have his picture taken with me and my ex-boyfriend. Then Gleb seemed like a cheerful, carefree, very dear and open boy, a young idealist with a dream. He and my ex-boyfriend then traveled to a Krovostok concert. A bit later, I realized that Gleb was very independent and intelligent, and had a very strong spirit for his age. Even today at the hospital he didn’t complain and didn’t ask for anything special except a couple of books and a bit of food. I know nothing about Pavlensky, but Gleb had the right to support him. I am surprised his mother sent Gleb to the hospital, but he is definitely not a whacko, as the majority thinks. The opinion of the herd is often wrong.”
Pyotr Pavlensky is not the only artist whom Astafiev has tried to support. In November of last year, the team at the news website Mediazona shot a documentary film about Astafiev. The reporters there were touched by the story of a young man who had borrowed money to travel from his village to the trial of the band Krovostok. In November 2015, Yaroslavl Regional Court considered rescinding a district court’s decision to ban the group’s songs and block its website. The trial resembled a comedy with a happy ending: the court took the side of the musicians. The members of Krovostok liked Astafiev so much that when the trial was over they took him along with them to Moscow for a big concert.
Margarita Filippova, photo and video editor, Mediazona:
“We were making a series of documentaries about the Krovostok trial. I noticed a long commentary by Gleb on Instagram. He wanted to know when the next hearing was and whether he could come to Yaroslavl to get the autographs of the guys in Krovostok. The photographs in Instagram initially made him look too eccentric. But when we saw him at the train station, we realized he was a very modest, friendly guy. That was when it occurred to me to show this absurd trial through the eyes of a touching 16-year-old boy who made the long trip from Kurgan to support his idols. Gleb is like a kid from another world, a world distant from our reality where we lazily follow insane trials on our iPhones, sighing and voicing our dissent, at best, on Twitter.
“Gleb sees the world like an artist, but at the same time he has a very rational attitude to reality. He has a good sense of the country in which he lives, and he really wants to change his life. I’m sure it will work out for him. Gleb feels responsible and concerned about other people. When I was sixteen I wasn’t worried about protesting artists, and I sure didn’t know what a court trial was.”
Zarina Kodzayeva, camera woman, Mediazona:
“Gleb is a very independent and open person. It seemed to me that Gleb didn’t have a drop of the infantilism you would expect from a teenager. He argues things sensibly and behaves like an adult. He and I chatted a lot when we were shooting the film. I found it very interesting to listen to him. Gleb writes things himself. When he speaks, you can tell he loves the Russian language. I got the sense this kid believed in the power of deeds. It really was important to him to support Krovostok and Pavlensky. One of the most important questions in documentary filmmaking is who can be a main character, the hero, and who cannot. Aside from the context, which might turn into a story, there is always an intuitive understanding that probably has to do with a person’s energy. I think Gleb is an absolute hero. And now he continues to prove it with his actions.”
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AM for the heads-up. Photos courtesy of Radio Svoboda
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.”
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.
“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.