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The Arrest of Two St. Petersburg-based Artists Raises Fresh Concerns about Freedom of Expression in Russia
Russian guerilla art group Voina (War) have caused controversy over the last two years with a number of shocking and often grotesque actions aimed at the Russian establishment. But the group suffered a setback this month, when two members were charged over a protest against the police that took place in St. Petersburg in September. Another member of the group is now reportedly hiding in Estonia. With little support from their fellow artists in Russia, does this spell the end for the anarchic collective?
On November 15 Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev, both members of Voina, were arrested in connection with the “Palace Revolution” action staged by the group two months earlier. The project involved turning seven police cars upside down in the center of St. Petersburg as a protest against malpractice in the police force.
On November 26 the Web portal Russian News Service reported that Alexei Plucer-Sarno, one of Voina’s ideologists, had fled Russia for Estonia, quoting Plucer-Sarno as saying that he was under threat of investigation by the authorities. “Yes I’m in Tallinn, practically without documents. Some influential Estonian friends got me across the border,” Plucer-Sarno said.
This is a major blow to the coalition, which was founded in 2007 around a core group of philosophy students from Moscow State University. Their sometimes explicit actions have targeted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, as well as institutions such as the police and the Orthodox Church. It is, therefore, perhaps surprising that members of the group were not arrested earlier. Voina’s anti-Medvedev protest “F**k for the heir, Puppy Bear!” took place on the eve of President Dmitry Medvedev’s election and featured couples, including a heavily pregnant woman, having sex publicly in the Timiryazev Biology Museum in Moscow. “In Memory of the Decembrists – A Present to Yuri Luzhkov,” featured a staged hanging of two homosexuals and three central Asian guest workers, attacking the mayor for his homophobic stance and the dangerous living conditions for migrant workers in the capital.
“Palace Revolution” was not the first time the group attacked the police. In their “Cop in a Priest’s Robe” project, Vorotnikov, dressed in a priest’s cassock and a police hat, went into up-market grocery chain Sedmoy Kontinent, helped himself to food and alcohol, and left without paying, thus protesting against the church and police being above the law.
But although the group has built up a strong reputation and some support for exposing flaws in contemporary Russian society, it has received little help from the artistic community in the last two weeks. This is something which another Russian artist, Lena Hades, is familiar with. “It is rare for artists to support each other in such cases, although there are a few exceptions,” Hades said. “Since the arrests, we have seen nothing like the show of support that Oleg Kashin, for example, received from the journalistic community.” She puts this down to competitiveness and a lack of solidarity. “Each artist sees a rival, a competitor for attention, not a fellow artist,” Hades said.
Hades was convicted in summer of inciting hatred with two of her works, “The Chimera of the Mysterious Russian Soul,” which mocked several Russian institutions, and “Our Russia,” which featured an Orthodox prayer alongside obscenities.
There is a degree of solidarity between Hades and Plucer, however, and she said that when she was on trial, Plucer supported her by writing about her case. Hades is hopeful that the group will continue to operate, but stressed that the arrests and Plucer’s exile will take a huge toll. “At the moment, the group is really without a head, maybe they’ll get a new leader. I hope they’ll be able to continue,” she said.
Voina Ideologist Alexei Plucer-Sarno spoke to Russia Profile about the group, after the arrest of Vorotnikov and Nikolaev and before fleeing Russia.
RP: Are Leonid Nikolayev and Oleg Vorotnikov still in pre-trial detention? Have you had any contact with them? How are they bearing up?
APS: Artists Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev, members of the Voina art group, are currently in the pre-trial detention center at 6 Zakharevskaya Street in St. Petersburg. They may be transferred to the Kresty prison in the next few days. They were detained in Moscow on November 15, at around 7 a.m. Obviously, I have not been in contact with Oleg and Leonid in the pre-trial detention center. It is very difficult to get into a Russian pre-trial detention center. For the first week they did not allow any of their relatives, or even lawyers to visit the imprisoned artists. And before this, at the Begovaya police station in Moscow, where they were taken immediately after their arrest and thrown behind bars, they denied that they were there at all. Lawyers, attorneys and rights activists went there. They told them barefaced lies; they said that they were not in the police station. You should also understand what a hellish nightmare a Russian pre-trial detention center is today. At times you have 60 people, criminals, in there, in stuffy cells. People suffering from tuberculosis, AIDS, hepatitis and other horrible infectious diseases are all in there together. Being held in pre-trial detention is more terrible than being tortured on a rack. And people wait in there to go to court for months. And people rarely leave there to be freed. So, asking if they are in there and how they are doing is not quite right. It’s better to ask whether they are alive or not. Yes, they are still alive.
RP: Do you expect them to be given a jail term?
APS: After the “Palace Revolution” action a representative of the police officially announced that damage to the tune of 500 rubles was done. Now this sum has increased to $3,000 and it’s still growing. It’s as if the mirror of a police Lada was made of gold. The administrative punishment has already turned into prosecution under Article 213 – “hooliganism, carried out on motives of political or ideological hatred or animosity toward a social group.” And so, Oleg Vorotnikov and Lenya Nikolayev demanded a court action against the werewolves in epaulettes. In response to this demand, the Interior Ministry decided to put the artists behind bars for seven years. In this way the group is being accused of ideological hatred against a “social group,” the police. Despite the fact that such a social group simply doesn’t exist. It is a completely false accusation. Really the offense carries at most a large fine.
RP: Have you received any support – from artists or activists since the arrest of Nikolayev and Vorotnikov?
APS: Of course we are not getting any help or support from the Russian art community. It doesn’t give a damn about anything except its own glamorous-conformist art business. The Russian art community is as corrupt and mercenary as the whole Russian system overall.
RP: You work in Petersburg and Moscow – how do the conditions in which you work differ in each city?
APS: For the last year the group has worked only in St. Petersburg. Last year in Moscow, Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the group who was thrown out a long time ago, a provocateur and a traitor, organized some clownery in front of television cameras. For a long time the whole of the Voina group has thought that he was trying to turn in activists from the Voina group to the police.
RP: Your actions oppose the strongest institutions in Russia – do you think that you have changed anything in Russian society?
APS: Changes always begin in people’s minds, in their consciousness, at the level of ideas. And we are trying to paint a portrait of the nightmarish monster that the Russian power structure has turned into today. We are doing this so that millions of people in Russia see that portrait. And the fact that this monstrous vampire-werewolf has thrown itself at some artists, to devour them, is also part of that terrifying portrait. This is a portrait of the system from the “brushes” of the Voina Group artists.
RP: What plans do you have for the future?
APS: To get Oleg and Lenya out at any price, and continue our work.
Photos: Voina Art Group
Material about the Voina actions in English is available on Plucer Sarno's blog
You may place this material on your blog by copying the link.