Power to the people
One of the people to ‘storm’ the Avrora last month discusses the message behind the stunt.
By Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
November 9, 2011
Yevgeny Schyotov recently spent seven hours on the mast of the Cruiser Avrora — one of St. Petersburg’s main tourist attractions and an iconic Soviet symbol — and 10 days in prison in the name of art and revolution.
Better known as Flor, Schyotov is a member of Narodnaya Dolya (The People’s Share), a new anarchist art group calling itself a party, which occupied the cruiser, now a museum, to protest against poverty, corrupt authorities and oligarchs.
While three activists climbed up a mast using mountaineering equipment to unfold a modified Jolly Roger (the logo of The People’s Share) and another fired a large firework from the Avrora’s cannon, (which in October 1917 fired a blank shot to signify the start of the Bolshevik Revolution), the anarchist movement Food Not Bombs distributed free vegan food to the homeless onshore.
Called “Memorable October, or the Resurrection of the Avrora,” the event took place on Oct. 16 to mark the International Day to Eradicate Poverty.
Television reports and videos show Avrora’s crew — consisting of naval conscripts — attacking the activists and trying to knock them off the mast with two high-pressure water hoses.
“The nozzle on one of the pressure hoses came free and the conscript operating it got water all over himself; they also sprayed some casual visitors,” Flor said.
“It looked ridiculous; they did a great job of adding more absurdity to what was happening.”
Flor, who was on the mast with two other activists, said they climbed down to be arrested seven hours later, after their demand was met that activists being held by sailors in the ship’s hold be brought out where they could be seen. Efforts by the crew, OMON special task police, a team from the Ministry of Emergency Situations and river police to talk the activists down from the mast proved futile, he said.
The police arrested 15 activists out of about 40, but two of them escaped from the police precinct, so only 13 ended up in court. Flor was sentenced to 10 days in prison, while three other activists were given five days each. Several others were fined and the rest had their hearings postponed due to the lack of a lawyer.
“The hearings were postponed to Oct. 20, but as far as I know, none of the activists turned up,” Flor said.
The police, who charged the activists with disorderly conduct, wrote in their reports that those arrested had been swearing and swinging their arms and refused to react to reprimands. Flor says he contested the charges but was overruled by the judge, who he believes was pressured to find the activists guilty.
One of the Avrora event’s more obvious references was to an infamous party held on the historic ship — which officially belongs to the Navy and is a branch of the Central Naval Museum — by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and attended by then St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2009.
Described by the media as “debauchery,” the glamorous party was attended by the forum’s VIP guests, who were entertained by performances from Leningrad frontman Sergei Shnurov, ballet dancers and suit-clad actors who jumped into the waters of the River Neva.
“We considered jumping into the water, but couldn’t get wetsuits due to a lack of funds,” Flor said. “We could only use the little money that we had.”
Before the Avrora event, Flor was known as a member of the Affinity Group, which was originally created to hold a May Day anarchist event as part of the official May 1, 2009 demos, which were broken up by the police, who arrested nearly 200 participants and charged them with crossing the road in the wrong place.
Flor was later seen participating in an artists’ hunger strike near City Hall calling for the release of imprisoned Novosibirsk anarchist artist Artyom Loskutov, and in a series of art exhibitions focusing on police lawlessness. More recently, he was involved in vandalizing “Media Strike,” an exhibit of protest art set up as part of the 4th Biennale of Contemporary Art in Moscow in September.
“We essentially buried the Affinity Group by vandalizing the Biennale’s opening in Moscow,” he says.
“[The exhibit] was ridiculous and idiotic, so we wrecked and ruined everything, and I think that the Affinity Group will never be invited anywhere again. The exhibit was absurd; you can’t institutionalize protest, which they were doing, with such a number of state sponsors.
“They threatened to call the police, and it’s a pity they didn’t, because it would have been the apotheosis of the absurd: To display art that opposes the law, and call the police at the same time! So it was the conclusion of a project that had grown rather institutionalized itself, to a certain degree.”
Forming the People’s Share as a party was an attempt to break out of the limitations of a small art group, according to Flor.
“In activist art, it’s activism that should be at the forefront, rather than art; it should draw attention to social problems,” he says.
“There are too many art groups that have become institutionalized, and I don’t think this is right.”
The People’s Share party was formed at a congress in Moscow on Sept. 1 and held its first event the same day, bringing six live piglets to the Ministry of Education as protest against educational reform. The piglets had the names of state corporations such as Gazprom, Aeroflot and Sberbank written on their backs.
“[The piglets] defecated all over the place, and got a lot of coverage, so that the Minister of Education [Andrei] Fursenko had to comment on the event,” Flor says.
The group’s name is a reference to Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will, or The People’s Freedom), the late 19th-century illegal revolutionary organization responsible for killing Tsar Alexander II with a bomb on March 1, 1881, and for a series of other attacks and assassinations of state officials. Five members of the People’s Will were hanged and many imprisoned.
The logo of The People’s Share is a skull and bones, but the skull has its frontal lobe removed, while the motto calls for the people’s freedom from tyrants and for the people to get their share of oil and gas profits.
“The flag with our logo was mistaken for the Jolly Roger, but we didn’t even try to point that out, because the aspect of piracy was also apparent in the Avrora event,” Flor says.
The activists also hung a sign with the word “Restoration” on it as a comment on the changed political situation, after President Dmitry Medvedev announced in late September that he would not run for presidency in 2012 and invited Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to return to the post.
“Of course, Putin helped us a lot, because Medvedev declared modernization, but Putin forced him to drop his claims to the presidency,” Flor says.
“The modernization epoch has ended and been substituted by the post-modernization epoch. Real postmodern!”
According to Flor, the media reaction to the Avrora event surpassed the group’s expectations.
“I didn’t expect that we would be shown on Channel One,” he says.
NTV Television’s report showed St. Petersburg police chief Mikhail Sukhodolsky criticizing the activists, saying that while they were fighting “for freedom and rights, the rights of other citizens who wanted to visit the Avrora were infringed.”
In reality, the group boarded the Avrora several minutes before entrance to the ship closes at 4 p.m., Flor said. “They also claimed that the Avrora lost money, which is also not true, because entrance is free.”
Although many media reports described the activists as “hooligans,” Flor says that exposure probably made people read the group’s original materials on the Internet, adding that a blog entry about the event made No. 4 in a Russian blog rating last week.
“Even policemen say that television lies, so people should want to have independent information,” he says.
“We described in great detail how drastically living standards have dropped in Russia, while the number of billionaires has increased. People understand this on the level of class feelings, but exact figures are seldom available.”
While preparing for the event, the activists agreed not to use violence, which, Flor says, they later regretted, because the sailors behaved aggressively, attacking and beating activists.
“One activist tried to defend himself with a large plush cat,” Flor said. “We tried to bring the situation to the totally absurd. Our speaker wore a black ski-mask — like an aggressive radical — but with a red pompom.”
The detention center Flor was put in was, symbolically, a 19th-century political prison on Zakharievskaya Ulitsa, where Vladimir Lenin and members of the People’s Will were once held.
“On the first day, the guards who were on duty called me in and said, ‘Tell us how it was in reality, because we know that what they are reporting on television is all lies,’ so I spent the whole day giving political classes to them,” Flor said.
Flor believes that the authorities and oligarchs may underestimate the people’s potential.
“The Russian people keep silent and endure as they are bent further and further, but when they find themselves with their faces in the dirt completely, they will snap up all of a sudden,” he says.
“In January 1917, Lenin said that only the youth of that era would live to see the coming revolution. He couldn’t even imagine what would happen in February.”
While the People’s Will made bombs, the new art group works with the media and information, Flor said.
“I am not going to get involved in terrorism of any sort, except for the informational kind. In our times, bombs are different. There’s no point in blowing up anybody. We should blow up information space; it’s more effective.”
On Monday, Interfax reported that individual visitors were temporarily unable to visit the Avrora, which was only open to guided groups. The restrictions were explained as being “winter measures.”
Photos by Sergey Chernov and The People’s Share.