When Banksy offered to pay $133,000 US to get artists Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev out of a Russian jail, the local court said “nyet!”. But Russians charged with murder are routinely released for a fraction of that amount. Oleg and Leonid belong to the artist group VOINA (which means “war”), and they have upset some very powerful people in Russia.
Without international support, their members face life threatening conditions in custody, a corrupt legal system, lengthy sentences if convicted, and the continuing harassment and intimidation of VOINA’s members many of whom have gone into hiding.
The story of VOINA is as remarkable as it is little known. The artist collective was founded in 2007 by Oleg (the group’s main ideologist) and Natalia Sokol (its chief coordinator). A bit later Alexei Plutser-Sarno (Voina’s main media artist), Yana Sarna (the group’s photographer) and Leonid (the group’s President) joined. There are others, but for reasons that will be become clear, they do not want their names of faces published.
VOINA’s art is a symbolic attack on corruption, complacency and oppression wherever it manifests in Russia. The art world, consumerism, the police, politicians, the KGB are all targets for VOINA’s artistic war. Their actions are clever, disturbing and at times very funny.
One of their earliest acts was to throw live homeless cats into a Moscow McDonald’s restaurant chanting “Death to fast food!” and “No to global facism!”.
At the Moscow Art Fair in 2007, they staged It’s Time to Whip Russian Art, inviting members of the public to participate in a public flogging of a man dressed in white lying on a white sheet with an S&M whip dipped in red paint, a protest against elitism and conformism in Russian contemporary art.
During the 2007 Russian election, VOINA performed The Plan of Putin at a book-fair opening in Moscow. In the main lobby of the Central House of Artists, members of VOINA slid live sheep down an impromptu slide made from an election banner that read “Moscow Votes Putin”.
They staged Fuck for the Heir – Medvedev’s Little Bear! (see performance photos) for the 2008 presidential elections (that saw Dmitry Medvedev elected into what many have described as a puppet position under Putin’s control). Five couples had sex in Moscow’s State Museum of Biology (Medved means “bear” in Russian).
After the election and the day before Dmitry Medvedev was inaugurated as President, VOINA entered police stations around the Moscow area with cakes and posters of the new president chanting “Hello, policemen! VOINA congratulates you on the Inauguration Day of the Russia’s President Medvezhonok. It doesn’t matter that Medvezhonok is young and inexperienced — you gonna teach him your simple tricks!”
The group also staged a mock public hanging of two gay men and three immigrant workers in a busy supermarket for the installation In Memory of the Decemberists — A Present to Yuri Luzhkov (see photo above and video of the performance below under ‘A Symbolic War Against State Terror’). Luzhkov is the current mayor of Moscow who has been criticized for homophobic and racist comments, and for doing little to prevent the high number of murders of immigrant workers in the Russian capital.
Cop cars, big penises and trouble
Last September the VOINA crew carried out one of their most provocative stunts to date — an art installation with overturned police cars in the center of St. Petersberg. They called it appropriately enough Palace Revolution (see video below).
“It was a demand to reform the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is full of bandits,” Alexei explained.
The Ministry was not impressed. But an earlier action had already put VOINA artists on the radar of local security agencies. VOINA spray-painted a 65 meter penis on the surface of the Liteyiny drawbridge in St. Petersburg. When the drawbridge went up so too did the line drawing of junk. “A dick weighing 4000 tonnes,” Alexei explained, “menacingly erected opposite the headquarters of the successors to the KGB”.
There’s nothing like a 4000 tonne penis to get the attention of the authorities. And nothing like flipping a few of their cars over to make them see red. After Dick and Palace Revolution, the hunt was on.
In November, Oleg and Leonid were arrested in Moscow. Natalie described what happened: “At 7 AM ten plainclothes police agents broke into the apartment where the group was staying. They didn’t show IDs or an arrest warrant. The cops laid the artists face down, tied their hands behind their backs and told everyone to stay down as they had the right to use weapons.
“Being captured, the artists with handcuffs on their hands and plastic bags on their heads were thrown into a minibus and were carried from Moscow to St. Petersburg on the iron floor for ten hours. During this trip, cops kicked Oleg, the ideologist of the art group, in the kidneys and head. Two weeks later the human right defenders and the medics, who visited the arrested artists in prison, found hematomas on Oleg’s body in the kidney area and handcuff marks. Leonid had serious bruises.”
Despite Banksy’s generous attempt to help the artists, they remain in custody in appalling conditions. “Russian prison is hell,” Alexei explained. “In mass cells they keep criminals, drug addicts and people infected by contagious diseases such as T.B., HIV, and hepatitis. Sometimes in pre-trial detention more than 60 people are kept in a 20-places cell. There is neither medical treatment, nor normal food, nor fresh air. There is nothing there for life.”
A symbolic war against state terror
VOINA, in the words of Natalia, “is at war with the right-wing radical regime in Russia”. And a radical regime it is — as the growing death toll of dissidents and human rights advocates can attest. VOINA’s targets are symbols and institutions of state force, authority and violence, and their gestures must rise to the occasion of confronting such powerful and dangerous entities. As Natalia puts it, “We have already fucked the Federal Security Service with our 65-metres-long Dick. We trampled on the Federal Security Guard Service. Corrupted judges and cops have got our Cock in their assess.”
But VOINA’s work is more than just politics. Their grand semiotic interventions mess with the cultural foundations of Russia’s security state. They challenge the deep roots of oppression within public imagination long established through a culture of intimidation and fear. VOINA’s artistic revolution undermines both public and elite expectations about who has power and how it is maintained. Their battleground is where public imagination and the apparatus of state security meet.
“We work on the thin line between activism and art,” says Alexei. “This means that we don’t visit geriatric homes and don’t help the poor and weak, like the real activists do. We don’t propagandize Marxism and don’t have long talks about the hard lot of the labour class. Because we are from labour class ourselves. We are unqualified hardworking people, annihilating obscurantism, outdated symbols and repressive-patriarchal ideologies by means of laughter and contemporary art.
“All our actions have political underlying messages, but we use art language only. We speak in images, symbols, which are mostly visual. We don’t use the language of political journalism. Politics is just a main theme of our works. In the current socio-political situation in Russia, an honest artist can’t be mute and make glamorous “masterpieces” for oligarchs, who decorate their “brilliant” dachas.”
Infiltrators and fear
Russian security apparatchik are unnerved enough by these public works of art that they have attempted to infiltrate the group. Pyotr Verzilov was recently expelled from VOINA for betraying one of their members to local police. And after his expulsion he made public threats against Vladamir Putin, a crime that if wrongly attributed to Voina could put jailed members Oleg and Leonid at great peril.
“He is a plagiarist, who discredits VOINA,” explained Yana. “Recently using his fake Twitter account ‘gruppa_voina’ he published a statement on behalf of the group which called for Vladimir Putin’s assassination. And you have to understand that this gives the prosecution grounds to charge the arrested VOINA activists Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev under article 277 of the criminal code. If convicted under that article (which is quoted verbatim in the tweet) they could face life in prison.”
VOINA’s artwork definitely touches a nerve. But touching nerves in Russia is a decidedly dangerous game. How do the artists cope with fear?
In a communication from prison, Leonid and Oleg explained. “We are not afraid,” Leonid wrote. “We are outraged by the lawlessness and cynicism of the authorities. We feel anger because of the free Russian state being destroyed. Russia has no future with the people who currently hold power.” Added Oleg, “Being protestful against a bloody monster, a free person can’t shrink in the face of danger.”
Natalia put it this way: “Dirty-dealing werewolves in uniform have seized power in the country and drag us all to the medieval-like ghastly past.”
“In 1825,” added Alexei, ”Russian Decembrists bravely came out against slavery in the country. They didn’t fear. After their rebel colonel Pavel Pestel, who never bend down under bullets in the battles, was executed through hanging. Before the execution when he was standing with a rope around his neck, his last words were calm and courageous: “Don’t we deserve a more noble death?”
Indeed. But for those of us watching events unfold from afar, we’d also like to see the members of VOINA have the opportunity to live long, comfortable noble lives.
International support needed
Despite attracting the support of “free-thinking” Russians across the country, VOINA and its supporters remain in a marginalized cultural position. The general public is often confused by their work (as Oleg writes: they are “usually either astounded, stare mute and stroke dumb, or very disturbed”). Not surprisingly, Russia’s cultural institutions have reacted with outright hostility to Voina.
Writes Oleg, “VOINA makes protest political street action art. It is not supported by any of Russian curators, nor gallerists. The group doesn’t cooperate with state or private institutions. During the winter 2008 the group lived in the nonheated automobile garage on the outskirts of Moscow.”
Their website and blog have attracted support, especially after the high-profile penis on Liteyniy drawbridge, but VOINA needs support. Oleg and Leonid have been in custody for more than two months, and in Russia those awaiting trial often wait 2-3 years for a trial.
The members of VOINA have been charged with “hooliganism” under article 213, part 2 of the Russian criminal code and face up to 7 years in prison. Alexei, who has gone into hiding, is accused of violating article 210, which is “organizing and leading a criminal community” — namely, the Voina art group. This accusation implies a term of imprisonment of between 12 and 20 years.
Other VOINA members are facing threats and intimidation. Natalia said that “during the raid [when Oleg and Leonid were arrested], the Center for Extremism Prevention agents told me that I was a very bad mother, that people like me deserved to “lose custody of their children”, or, alternatively, to “be executed”. As they were leaving, they offered me to have a talk with them “without a transcript” (informally) in order to “ease my fate and help the future of my child”. They said we would meet again and they also seized all my IDs.”
Natalia has also gone into hiding. “Shadowing, interrogations, arrests are being intensified towards the group activists,” she explained. “Investigators and district policemen are trying to figure out my whereabouts. Even the judges at the hearing on the 21st of January asked about my place of staying, though it’s illegal. This means that cops won’t stop trying to put me and Alexei in prison.” (For more information about how to help VOINA go here.)
Extreme art in extreme circumstances
The art actions of VOINA might strike some observers in the West as extreme. But the social and political context they work in is also extreme. In recent years, numerous human rights advocates and critics of the government have been assassinated. As Johann Hari wrote in The Independent last February: “The critics of Vladimir Putin – Russia’s Prime Minister and former KGB agent – have a strange habit of being found shot or stabbed or poisoned.”
In July 2009, Natalia Estemirova, one of the leading members of the Russian human rights NGO Memorial in Grozny, Chechnya, was abducted and murdered ostensibly for documenting torture, abductions, intimidation and extrajudicial executions in Chechnya. Stanislav Markelov (and a young journalist who was with him at the time), a prominent human rights lawyer, was gunned down in Moscow in January 2009. Journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya‘s was also murdered in Moscow in 2006. In 2003, Sergei Yushenkov, a fierce critic of the government and prominent member of Russia’s parliament and was shot and killed at his home.
Sergei Magnitsky was a corporate lawyer who launched an official complaint alleging fraud against certain members of the Moscow police who had conducted a raid on the Hermitage. He died after being tortured while in custody. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a wealthy and successful businessman and leading philanthropist who promoted civil society and fought against corruption. He was arrested on what many consider trumped up charges, sentenced and is serving 8 years in jail.
In 2009, Zurab Tsechoev, a human rights activist with Peace (Mashr) in Ingushetia, was abducted, threatened and injured by men thought to be federal law enforcement officials. And human rights defender and anti-racism campaigner Dmitrii Kraiukhin in Orel had his home burned down in an arson attack. Russian officials refused to investigate.
Numerous dissidents living abroad have also been poisoned in recent years, including Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent who spoke out against human rights abuses he witnessed in Chechnya. Litvinenko had fled Russia and was living in London (UK) where he was poisoned with nuclear material that was traced back to Moscow.
The Russian justice system is considered corrupt by Russians and international organizations alike including by Amnesty International.
VOINA has taken a stand against dangerous and corrupt state apparatus at great personal risk and they have chosen art as their means of confrontation. Says Yana, “Human rights and freedoms are annihilated in Russia. Even the right for life is gone. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Especially for those who protest against corrupted Mafioso-like luxuriating authorities.
“That’s why most of those who protested and struggled are either dead now (like Litvinenko, Politkovskaya or Magnitsky), or put in prison (like Khodorkovskiy, Vorotnikov and Nikolayev). Natalia Sokol and her little son Kasper don’t have IDs to leave the country – passports were illegally confiscated by the Center for Extremism Prevention during the arrest.”
VOINA is a courageous group of young artists taking on some of the most powerful and dangerous entities in Russia today. They need our support.
“We are very grateful for every effort to help us,” says Yana.
For more information about how to help VOINA, go here.