When, during the course of an act of civil disobedience in September of this year, the art group Voina (“War”) overturned several police cars in Saint Petersburg, the Russian people’s unhappiness with the actions of law enforcement agencies acquired not only a verbal but also a visible expression.
Approximately two months later, on November 15, Voina activists Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev were seized by police in Moscow, transported to Petersburg, and tossed into a pre-trial detention facility. They have now been charged under Paragraph b, Part 1, Article 213 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code (“criminal mischief motivated by hatred or hostility toward a social group”).
The authorities are attempting to pin the motives of hatred or hostility towards a nonexistent social group (in this case, the police) on the two activists in order to increase the potential term of imprisonment to five years. The activists have been subjected to physical coercion while in detention. We thus see that the power of the law enforcement system is being used outside the limits and aims of the law; it is being used arbitrarily and in order to squash protest. Vorotnikov and Nikolyaev are charged with “criminal mischief” only because several of the Russian police’s innumerable cars were lightly damaged. The people who took part in the riot on Manege Square in Moscow on December 11, who fought with the OMON and beat up dozens of people in the Moscow subway, were released from police custody the very same day. Why, then, it is the two Voina activists, who caused no physical harm to any human being with their action, who have been charged with “criminal mischief”?
Today, the Russian state does not try to convince anyone that its laws apply equally to everyone. Notorious “cases” like the one against Voina should in fact prove that the reverse is true: they are meant to show everyone else not WHAT actions are unacceptable, but rather WHO is not permitted to commit such actions. To have the right to overturn cars or beat people, for example, one has to be a member of the group that Voina has now been charged with inciting hatred towards. Each case like the criminal case brought against Voina has nothing to do with obeying the laws: no one has given a damn about these laws for a long while, especially the people who draft them. The case against Voina is a battlefield where our freedoms are being fought over. If Voina is convicted and sent to prison, the space of THEIR freedom will become a little bit larger, while the space of OUR freedom will shrink. If this “case” falls apart, then it will be the other way round.
We appeal for solidarity with all those who have suffered in this battle: Seva Ostapov, who was given a one-year suspended sentence for being beaten up by police at the Sokolniki precinct station in Moscow; passerby Sergei Makhnatkin, who was sentenced to two and half years in prison because he defended a 72-year-old woman who was being roughed up by the police at a demonstration in Moscow; Left Front activist Grigory Torbeev, who is now threatened with ten years in prison for lighting a flare at the last Day of Rage protest in Moscow; artist Artem Loskutov, who “insulted” police officers in Novosibirsk by making critical remarks about their methods when they attempted to drag him and two female friends into a police truck; Belarusian anarchists, one of whom was practically kidnapped in Moscow and delivered to the Belarusian KGB, in violation of all extradition procedures; and the victims of police major Denis Yevsyukov and their loved ones.
1. We demand the immediate release of the Voina activists from pre-trial detention.
2. We demand that the court regard the act they committed not as criminal mischief, but as a public statement meant to draw society’s attention to the situation that has arisen around the country’s law enforcement agencies, as a desperate attempt to remind society of the police lawlessness that has become a fact of everyday life, lawlessness against which no one is safe.
3. We call for an open trial in this case and demand that it and all other cases involving lawlessness and violence committed by police officers be tried before juries.
By securing the freedom of the Voina activists, we secure our own freedom from this lawlessness!
At the demonstration anyone who wishes can join Voina!
We likewise invite everyone to bring along their own artworks on the theme of War – that very same War in which everyone is involved, even if everyone doesn’t admit it. In addition, we will be collecting money at the demonstration o support the arrested activists.
The officially permitted demonstration in support of Voina will take place at 3:00 p.m., December 18, on Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow.
Free Voina! Initiative Group
In this video, various well-known Russian cultural figures express their support for Voina. Here is a very concise summary of their remarks.
Artemy Troitsky (music critic, journalist). If the majority of young people in Russia joined Voina, then the most peaceful cultural revolution in human history would ensue. Even if you don’t join Voina, you can support them virtually, via the Internet, or by going to the demonstration in Moscow on December 18.
Andrei Erofeev (curator). Voina allowed themselves to commit minor acts of vandalism, but in fact society is filled with useful professions that involve “vandalism” as well: firefighter, policeman, forester, surgeon. All these professions involve a certain amount of destruction, but this destruction is useful to society, nature or the life of the individual. The profession of public artist also involves this sort of positive destruction, and the trial against the Voina activists should take this into account.
Alexander Ivanov (publisher). Voina should be released and reunited with their families. Only then can a discussion of the group’s artistic and other merits begin. Voina is reminiscent of the Belgrade students who brought down the regime of Slobodan Milošević in the nineties: an attempt to carnivalize political history in order to deal with painful social issues and show that the “king” (certain politicians and institutions) is naked. We live in a shell of words, and Voina’s carnivalization is a way of breaking through this verbal shell. The attempt made by many cultural commentators and art world figures to discuss whether what Voina does is contemporary art is quite unproductive because most of these people do not ask whether what they do themselves is art.
Boris Kuprianov (bookseller). When we talk about Voina, this discussion should not involve our own aesthetic preferences. The case of Voina is an important test for society: will it stand for such things (as the arrest of the group)? Everyone should go to the demonstration on December 18 because everyone is vulnerable to such persecution.
Andrei Kovalyov (art critic). Voina is one of the most progressive phenomena in contemporary Russian art, which to a large extent has given itself over to pseudo-formalist experiments. Voina, which has nothing to do with the market and art institutions, is thus a positive example. Most of the great art projects of the past also had nothing to do with commercial considerations.
Alexander Kosolapov (artist). Voina’s work is reminiscent of the work of American artist Chris Burden, who (despite obvious differences owing to geography and period) also used the artistic means at his disposal to protest social ills, in his case, the US war in Vietnam.
Andrei Loshak (journalist). Voina is not simply an art group; it is a civic resistance society. They are not the ones who declared war; it was the regime that declared war on us. It is not Voina who race down the roads in cars with flashing lights, killed peaceful, law-abiding citizens. It is not Voina who accepts bribes and protects criminals, like the Russian police do. Voina is simply an emotional reaction to injustice, but this emotionalism only speaks to the level of injustice in Russian society. Voina expresses the public’s indignation, as shown by the popularity enjoyed by videos of their recent actions on the Internet.
Sergei Pakhomov (artist). Remarks of a humorous nature that cannot be summarized, much less translated.
Oleg Kulik (artist). Real art is always a matter of individual responsibility, and Voina consciously bears full responsibility for their actions. These actions might seem infantile, but it is precisely this creative “infantilism” – this desire to match words with deeds, even in the most extreme and egoistic way – that Russian society lacks. In this sense, Voina might be the only honest people left in Russia. If the authorities want to make Voina famous, they should sentence them. If they want to make trouble for the rest of the art world, they should let them go.