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March to Smolny

Opposition Declares Dissenters’ March a Success
By Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
Issue #1650 (12), Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Also called the March to Smolny (City Hall), the march — spearheaded by Moscow-based oppositional politician and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov — was banned by the authorities, but protesters, whose number was estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000, managed to march most of the 4.5-kilometer route despite the police’s attempts to block them.The Dissenters’ March for the Dismissal of Governor Valentina Matviyenko that took place on Thursday was described by the opposition as one of the biggest and most successful protest events during the past three years, despite arrests and intimidation.

Many protesters were eventually stopped on Mytninskaya Ulitsa, where the most arrests were made. But a handful of marchers managed to reach the final destination near City Hall, and were able to chant some slogans before being surrounded and detained by the police.

According to the organizers, the police detained about 150 people near Gostiny Dvor department store on Nevsky Prospekt and alongside the march’s route, including Nemtsov, Moscow activist Ilya Yashin and the local Solidarity and United Civil Front (OGF) leader Olga Kurnosova. The police confirmed that “more than 100” were detained. More than 90 spent the night in police cells.

The authorities deployed a helicopter to follow the protesters and at one point hover over Nevsky Prospekt, drowning out slogans such as “Russia Will Be Free” and “Dismiss Matviyenko” and sending road dust and dirt into people’s faces.

One policeman was hospitalized, having been hit by a car after “trying to save a resident by pushing him off the road,” the police reported.

But a video made available on the Internet showed that the policeman was in fact hit by a passing car while dragging The Other Russia member Igor Chepkasov with two other policemen across Ligovsky Prospekt to a police bus. Fontanka.ru, which published the police report, later published a correction.

An estimated 500 people who arrived late at the march gathered near Gostiny Dvor, where arrests were also made.

At one point, a man in professional climbing gear descended from the roof of Gostiny Dvor and hung a banner from it that read “Free Khodorkovsky, Imprison Putin.” Oleg Ivashko, who does not belong to any political group, was detained and sentenced to three days in prison.

Four members of the Other Russia party who were detained near Gostiny Dvor — one of them, Maxim Gromov, while attempting to recite a poem — were also sentenced to three days in prison.

While most protesters marched along Nevsky Prospekt’s broad sidewalk, a group of anarchists carrying smoke bombs took to the road after the crowd passed the Anichkov Bridge, and when dispersed, were replaced by a group of The Other Russia activists carrying a banner reading “Dismiss Matviyenko!”

Members of art group Voina, two of whom have been released on bail after spending three months in a St. Petersburg prison for an art stunt that involved overturning police cars, marched with anarchists and carried plastic bottles containing urine to counter the police when attacked.

Speaking on Tuesday, Oleg Vorotnikov said he and other Voina activists were deliberately singled out and beaten, while Kasper, the toddler son of Vorotnikov and fellow Voina member Natalya Sokol, was taken from his parents and eventually sent to hospital with a suspected concussion.

Sokol, who is still breastfeeding her son, spent the night in a police cell but managed to escape when the police were preparing to drive her and other activists to court.

Vorotnikov said they took the bottles filled with urine exclusively for self-defense.

“We agreed to use them only if attacked,” he said.

“And we were attacked, but we didn’t use them until they attacked Kasper. When Kasper was attacked, the anarchists couldn’t stand it anymore and used our rather humble biological weapon — our own urine.”

Vorotnikov, who got Kasper back from the hospital with the help of his lawyer late Thursday, said that he, Sokol and their son had evidence of their injuries documented in a hospital. According to Vorotnikov, who described the police’s behavior as “senseless hysteria,” the activists were beaten both during detentions and at a police precinct.

“I am used to clashes with the police,” Vorotnikov said.

I was beaten on March 3; we have collided with them before. I have spent some time in prison, too, but even I did not expect to face such absurd, ungrounded cruelty on that day.”

City Hall refused to authorize the march organized by the OGF, Solidarity, The Other Russia, Rot Front, Oborona and Mikhail Kasyanov’s People’s Democratic Union (RNDS) on the grounds that building facades were being renovated along all of the five suggested routes. Instead, the authorities suggested the would-be marchers hold a standup meeting on Pionerskaya Ploshchad or a march in the remote Polyustrovo Park.

All photos by Sergey Chernov. They are used here with his permission.

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David Riff: Notes on Voina

David Riff
Notes on Voina

There are moments in life that make the fineries of art criticism seem inappropriate. Аesthetic differences are overshadowed by political choice: either yes or no, for or against. The arrest of two key artist-activists from the art group Voina is a case like that. On November 15, 2010, law enforcers detained Oleg Vorotnikov (aka “Vor” or “Thief”) and Leonid Nikolayev (aka “Lyonya the F*cknut”) for an action carried out two months before, in the course of which activists flipped a police car near the Mikhailovsky Castle in Petersburg, ostensibly to retrieve a child’s ball that was stuck under it, as a YouTube video – the actual artwork – shows. Though the damage was small, this was a step too far for the Petersburg police, who sent officers from Center “E” (a task force formed to combat “extremism”) on a special ops mission to Moscow to apprehend the culprits. They have been in custody ever since, on charges of aggravated criminal mischief. If they are convicted and given the maximum sentence, they face up to five years in jail.

No matter how skeptical one might be of Voina’s practices, it is impossible not to demand their immediate release. Russian law enforcers tasked with combating extremism go after artists who flip militia cars and paint phalli on bridges and charge them with hate crimes: “criminal mischief motivated by political, ideological, racist, nationalist or religious hatred or enmity against any social group whatsoever,” the social group, in this case, being the Petersburg police. This interpretation of the law stands in the same line as the application of Article 282 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code, a law designed to stop the “spread of national or religious discord,” but used to persecute curators and artists who broach Russian Orthodox religious taboos. And this while lethal right-wing extremism and national-religious fundamentalism go unchallenged, tolerated if not engineered by the state.

The perverse argument of victimization by representatives of the dominant culture will sound familiar; nationalists often construct their identitarian discourse on the “threat” by people from a “clashing civilization.” For example, when 5,000 neo-Nazi football hooligans held an unsanctioned demonstration in front of the Kremlin, their chief demand was for the state to protect them from people from Dagestan and other distant places, and law enforcers are inclined to concede to that demand to a point. Reviewing the footage of December 11, you can see Russian riot police holding back despite massive provocations and failing to protect migrants from getting beaten up, individual acts of heroism aside. According to one high-ranking law enforcement officer on TV, the police acted “loyally” until physically attacked. That is, they were “loyal” to the neo-Nazi football hooligans…

Another interesting slip of the tongue on the night of December 11 was when the head of the Interior Ministry, Rashid Nurgaliev, explained the violence as an eruption planned and inflamed by the radical left. Indeed, the so-called Centers “E” are known for harassing leftists of all ilk, including antifa activists, anarchists, and free trade unionists, as well as artists and intellectuals, simply because they are easy to raid, frame, and intimidate, though probably a little confusing to monitor. The chief instrument is that of any protection racket: undiscriminating, random violence. That is, masked Interior Ministry troops carrying automatic weapons and riot gear could bust down the door of a seminar held by leftist intellectuals, or confiscate editions of a newspaper where a libretto of a songspiel makes an unfavorable mention of Vladimir Putin. They could also randomly call in activists for questioning, and frame them with possession charges, if they prove uncooperative as in the case of Artem Loskutov in Novosibirsk, who was framed with marijuana possession charges and has been persecuted by law enforcers ever since.

Over the last years, such random violence has had a great effect, bringing home the overall securitization of Russian society (sometimes it seems like more than half of the male population work as security guards) to the art scene; it has produced a top-to-bottom system of self-censorship that runs all the way from printers and technicians, via editors, copywriters, PR specialists, and journalists to curators, critics, and artists, who collectively begin to enforce a system of taboos, if not to pander directly to those “silent majorities” that might potentially feel persecuted. Though there are not so many artists who seek permission from the Moscow Patriarchate to exhibit works with religious themes yet, the majority of Russian art professionals shies away from any politics beyond harmless spectacle, opting instead for a defense of “free art” and “autonomy,” which, under present conditions, can and should be understood as autonomy in a heavily guarded luxury ghetto (if the artist is lucky) or autonomy below the horizon of visibility or on the margins of society (if she or he is not lucky or really lucky, depending on how you see it). The right of artists to “live by their own laws” is predicated on the vast privileges of their patrons, and disappears once artists operate in the outer world in any visible manner.

Thus, it seems very tempting to defend Voina by demanding the impossible and asserting artistically motivated hooliganism’s right to offend. Andrei Erofeev, one of the defendants in the “Forbidden Art” trial and Voina’s principle supporter, makes such an argument, likening the group to firemen who break down the doors of burning buildings. This line of argumentation claims that artists should have a certain immunity from prosecution because they follow their own law, which includes the right to exercise satire and provocation, designed for minimal material damages and maximal social effect. In this argumentation, the action is obviously not motivated by political, social, national or religious hatred but by the experimental drive of the artist (in this case, the collective artist Voina); outrage and material violence (more of a threat and a taunt than a reality) are artistic devices, actor’s ploys, justifiable means subordinated to positive aesthetic and political ends. That is, Voina lays claim to a specific type of aesthetic violence that redefines art from outside its normative shell; it’s an old Dadaist method redeployed again and again throughout the twentieth century, and it only works when the transgression of aesthetic law coincides with that of administrative law, when the threat of violence and sanction are real and become self-evident, when the apparatus reacts with all its overwhelming stupidity. The apparatus’s reaction is a part of the artwork, in other words; the arrest becomes an aesthetic device, not so much a means as an ending.

What disappears, unfortunately, is the possibility to criticize Voina’s actions as art or to see them as art at all; solidarity with political prisoners requires that any discussion of their work be reduced to the level of supportive political commentary. They don’t need analysis, as long as it doesn’t directly serve the cause of vindicating them. As Ilya Budraitskis, one of the organizers of the rally held in support of Voina in Moscow on December 18, put it, “The time for aesthetic discussion about Voina was over once the activists were put in jail,” arguing that any aesthetic criticisms would, at this point, add to their predicament. Artist and theorist Anatoly Osmolovsky takes a diametrically opposed position: he writes that Voina was uninteresting to him until the arrest, and then launches into an attack on the group’s actions as a rehash of actionist strategies that he himself helped to pioneer. Osmolovsky’s article expresses a widespread sentiment that curator Oxana Sarkissian sums up: “I can’t support Voina’s artistic strategies, because they are inappropriate to our time.” Meaning: ten years of “normalization” under Putin have made radical public art impossible, and Voina, effectively, proves it yet again.

Art can only be “political” when it is criticized, attacked and/or endorsed by an art community and a broader audience, but it can only be art when the audience can appreciate, discuss, and criticize it without being held to a question like “do you want them to go to jail or not?” The point is that in the nineties, this was possible: Osmolovsky’s performance of laying out the word khui (“dick”) in human letters could be interpreted precisely because its then-still anonymous authors could successfully evade any punishment, because politics had not been silenced, but, on the contrary, was going up in flames. Moscow Actionism, one could see, was predicated on a strange power vacuum in the period of shock privatization and its political failures, a theater that unfolded in failed pubic space and an as yet uncontrolled no man’s land: it famously took the police over an hour to respond in any way to the barricade Osmolovsky built in 1998 down the road from the Kremlin. The early 2000s changed all that, redefining all the fields of visibility in Russian society, and effectively banishing artists to their autonomy zones.

Voina has flaunted those new conventions, but its actions were only art for as long as they created and exploited those new vacuums that have been arising within what outwardly seems quite forbidding and total, for as long as they evaded arrest. Of course, the risk of arrest was always part of the game; in fact, in one YouTube video, Vorotnikov taunts an employee of Center “E” and admonishes him for shaking down another activist. But arrest does not necessarily mean a cold New Year’s in prison, with the prospect of broken families. Voina was actually famous for caution, for “smart activism,” for flaunting the law without ever actually risking more than a misdemeanor. Many of my students dismiss their work not because it is risky or breaks taboos, but because it seems too calculated, planned as a spectacle with actors playing clearly defined theatrical roles, too close for comfort to the spectacular nature of football hooligan politics under Putin. One student actually said that his contacts on the radical right were big fans of Voina and saw them as brave allies in the battle against the police, obsessed with protecting its own interests (as a minority), instead of the interests of the (equally persecuted) Russian majority.

Such interpretations underscore the importance of art criticism, which suddenly seems more than appropriate, simply to avoid confusion and to keep Russian neo-Nazis from claiming Voina for themselves. Once they are released, we can discuss what might be wrong with Voina’s general pose, whether it is romantic or cynical or crazy or all of the above. We can talk about why the political motives are intentionally vague. We can wonder why Voina (and everyone else) is so clear about anti-authoritarianism but not much else. Why this obsession with the state and the elite? Isn’t it Bakuninist? Power, imagined in overly abstract terms, and countered with overly abstract means? This is typical for post-communist politics, and one of the reasons why Voina’s actions resonate so broadly. There is also a counter-tendency in Voina that seems more promising: one that addresses the dispersed violence in the everyday, as present in a nightclub frequented by neocons as in your average megamall. This could be one point to begin the discussion; another is that a lot of Voina’s work is conscious trash and camped-up kitsch, briefly captivating, but very much calculated for intermedial scandalizing effect. The rather traditional transgressive image of the romantic bohemian commune, having pregnant group sex in a zoological museum, does little to hold up the spread of fascism through the everyday, just as releasing roaches in a courtroom cannot stop yet another biased court from reading its verdict. The court can, however, stop us from ever discussing any of those topics and from seeing Voina’s actions as art, simply because it is unethical to attack them while they are in jail. In Russia, verdicts take a long time to read, and even longer to write.

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Editor’s Note. To find out more about the work and history of the Voina group, the story of their arrest and updates in this case, and how you can help the arrested activists with their legal defense and in spreading the word, go to Free Voina.

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Free Voina!

FREE VOINA!

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

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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.

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To find out more about the work and history of the Voina group, the story of their arrest and updates in this case, and how you can help the arrested activists with their legal defense and in spreading the word, go to Free Voina.

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It’s a War on War (The Persecution of Voina)

To find out more about the work and history of the Voina group, the story of their arrest and updates in this case, and how you can help the arrested activists with their legal defense and in spreading the word about this case, go to Free Voina.

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http://vpered.org.ru/index.php?id=690&category=2

Free Voina!

At 3:00 p.m. on December 18, a demonstration entitled “Free Voina!” will take place on Pushkinskaya Square in central Moscow.

On November 15, Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev, activists of the Voina group, were captured in Moscow, transported to Petersburg, and thrown into prison. At present, they have 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” – in this case, that “social group” is the police). The police continue to apply pressure on Vorotnikov and Nikolayev, including physical coercion.

Over the past two years, the actions of the Voina group have sparked a wide variety of public reactions. Some have admired their audacity and wit; others have doubted whether they what to do rightfully belongs to the realm of art; still others have condemned them for disturbing the peace. One thing cannot be denied: Voina has confronted society with the problem of its own powerlessness in the face of state tyranny and done this in a maximally poignant fashion.

Vorotnikov and Nikolayev are accused of “criminal mischief,” which consisted in causing minor damage to one of the Russian police’s numerous patrol cars. The reaction on their part was not long in coming: an assault team from Petersburg carried out a genuine special-forces operation in Moscow.

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. It is no accident that such an important role in Russian repressive practice is played by various emergency “anti-extremist” laws and “aggravating circumstances” in ordinary cases of disorderly conduct: the exclusivity of such legal practice manifests our society’s formal inequality and stratification.

Law in this case forfeits all signs of universality and becomes the subjective right of a particular group to commit certain acts. 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.

The legal defense of Voina should thus begin with self-determination on the part of each person: what group, community and class you belong to, and what rights you want to receive as a member of that group. Rich people, bureaucrats, and the police have special rights: they have the means to defend these rights and get the message out to everyone else that their rights must be respected. The activists of Voina, the farmers of Kushchevskaya, and the residents of Khimki are part of the huge majority, a majority deprived of any rights whatsoever, even the most elementary. Each of these rights – the right to strike, the right to a clean environment, the right to assemble freely – has to be fought and won. These rights even include the right to offend the police, if there are grounds for giving such offense: in Russia, there is more than sufficient cause to want to do this.

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 rights are being fought over. At the end of the day, one of these rights is the right to speak ever more openly and loudly about our rights without fear of punishment. If Voina is convicted and sent to prison, the space of THEIR rights will become a little bit larger, while the space of OUR rights will shrink by the same amount. If this case falls apart, then it will be the other way round.

The case against Voina concerns each and every one of us.

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The St. Petersburg Times
Issue #1634 (95), Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Banksy, Human Rights Activists Back Voina
By Sergey Chernov, The St. Petersburg Times

Human rights activists have criticized the imprisonment of two members of the radical art group Voina [“War”] as illegal, while British graffiti artist Banksy has joined the international campaign demanding the release of the artists.

Banksy pledged to donate the proceeds from the sale of a limited series of his prints to Voina. The 175 prints in the “Choose Your Weapon” series were sold Monday via the web site Picturesonwalls.com, reportedly generating 4.5 million rubles ($147,000) for the artists and their families.

Artists Leonid Nikolayev and Oleg Vorotnikov were arrested in Moscow last month and taken to St. Petersburg, where they were placed in a pretrial detention center.

Nikolayev and Vorotnikov reportedly took part in a stunt that involved overturning several police cars at night — some of which had police officers inside — and have been charged with criminal mischief motivated by political, racial, national or religious hatred or hostility, or motivated by hatred or hostility toward a particular social group. The offence is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Called “Palace Revolution,” the stunt was meant to demand, “metaphorically, the reform of the Interior Ministry and an end to police arbitrariness,” art critic and philologist Alexei Plutser-Sarno, described as Voina’s “ideologist,” told The St. Petersburg Times late last month. Within days, he fled to Tallinn, Estonia for fear of arrest.

The artists’ lawyer, Anastasia Yekimovskaya, said at a press conference Monday that the charges cannot be proven because the police lack credible sources of information, with the charges mainly based on a video that Voina uploaded onto the Internet.

The imprisoned artists, who have been in custody for more than three weeks, are refusing to speak to investigators, citing the constitutional right of suspects not to give evidence against themselves, Yekimovskaya said.

Analysis presented by the Moscow-based watchdog group Sova Center at the press conference argued that the law being used against Nikolayev and Vorotnikov is poorly formulated and being incorrectly applied, a fact that poses a threat to society.

According to Sova, Voina’s members did not commit a crime that could be qualified as criminal mischief or anything for which they could be persecuted under anti-extremist laws. It also argued that the imprisonment of the artists is not proportionate to their danger to society, pointing out that a suspect in the beating of a Cameroon citizen in St. Petersburg was released earlier this year after pledging not to leave the city before the court hearing.

Stefania Kulayeva of the Memorial rights group described Voina’s case as “political.”

“They expressed their protest — whether artistically or not — and they have been accused of committing a crime for this protest,” Kulayeva said. “It’s a political case. If they are sentenced to prison terms, we will all be guilty and pay with not only their freedom, but with ours too.”

Voina also hit the headlines earlier this year when they painted a giant penis on Liteiny bridge opposite the FSB headquarters in St. Petersburg back in June.

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December 2, 2010
The Art of War
Rose Griffin
Russia Profile
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.

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