Home About Russia Culture & History Russian artists anger authorities with daring works
Last update on February 17, 2020

The street art scene in western culture might be on the verge of mainstream and sell outs, but Russia’s modern art scene still saturate their work with intense activism.

Picture: The Atlant foot near the Hermitage Fine Art Museum entrance in Saint Petersburg. In a radical group called Voina, or War, artists have exploded any notion that Russia’s modern art scene is dry or conservative. But their provocative installations have also left them exposed to legal action

Saint Petersburg — The artists have overturned police cars on one of Russia’s most famous squares with dozing officers inside and painted a giant penis on a drawbridge in front of the ex-KGB headquarters.

In a radical group called Voina, or War, they have exploded any notion that Russia’s modern art scene is dry or conservative. But their provocative installations have also left them exposed to legal action.

The Saint Petersburg-based group’s name means that “we have declared war on triviality and injustice,” said artist Oleg Vorotnikov, 32, a philosophy graduate from Moscow State University.

He and another member, Leonid Nikolayev, 27, were recently freed on bail after spending three months in pre-trial detention as police investigate last September’s car-tipping performance.

Voina in action: The Art of Kissing a Cop

In a single night they turned over three police cars — with sleeping policemen inside — in the centre of the city to protest against police abuses of power and corruption.

The artists were released from pre-trial detention at the end of February after the renowned British street artist Banksy contributed money to cover their bail of 300,000 rubles (USD 10,562) each.

They could still be jailed for up to seven years on the charge of hooliganism over the performance, which was titled “Palace Coup” because it took place on Saint Petersburg’s central Palace Square.

The pair and Vorotnikov’s wife, fellow artist Natalya Sokol, 30, were again detained at an unsanctioned opposition rally in Saint Petersburg earlier this month. Vorotnikov said all three were beaten by police.

Ironically the artists are in the running for Russia’s top contemporary art prize with the performance in which they painted an enormous phallus on one of the city’s landmark lift-up bridges.

They hastily painted the work last summer on the Liteiny Bridge, just before it was due to be raised to allow ships to pass through.

When the bridge lifted, the phallus directly faced the local headquarters of the FSB security service where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a Saint Petersburg native, began his career as an agent for the then-KGB.

The work, titled “A cock captured by the FSB”, was nominated for the Russia’s prestigious Innovation prize to be awarded this month by the State Centre for Contemporary Art in Moscow.

Some art experts are in no doubt the radical stunts deserve to be seen as art.

“What Voina does is art. Artists are always working at the edge. It’s the level of the jester who shows that the emperor has no clothes,” said Dmitry Ozerkov, the head of the contemporary art section of the Hermitage.

The group films and photographs its eye-catching performances and posts them online on its website https://free-voina.org.

One of their first outrageous performances was in February 2008, on the eve of the presidential election that saw Dmitry Medvedev succeed his older mentor Putin.

Around a dozen activists had sex in the Moscow Biological Museum next to a stuffed bear and a banner saying “Fuck for the Bearcub Heir”, a play on Medvedev’s name which derives from the word “medved”, or bear.

“We expressed the voice of the people. Amid the total silence that prevailed in our country, we showed people what was being done to them with these elections,” Vorotnikov said.

“Our performances change people,” said Nikolayev, who used to work as a manager in Moscow.

The performances play a vital role in breathing life into grass-roots politics, he said.

“People are used to the authorities doing whatever they like with them. So we show them that in fact everything is in our hands, that first you need to act and then the world will change,” he said.

Sokol stressed the serious ideas behind the witty protests.

“I am definitely a political activist. Our performances are the expression of a protest against the state. Other people would like to do the same thing as us but they are afraid,” said Sokol.

But the artists say they are not afraid of anything.

“In the end history will remember us, not those who are in power,” Vorotnikov said.

Marina Koreneva / AFP / Expatica