Russian Protesters Use Art as Act of War

An art collective put a phallus on a bridge and burnt a police truck on New Year’s Eve. Can they truly call their protests art?


For a group of artists, academics, and philosophers from Moscow and St. Petersburg, the war against the Russian government started six years ago, when the group formed an underground art club called Voina (which means “the war”). Their aim: declare war against police abuse and the government’s highly publicized authoritarian methods.

On May 29, 2009, Voina’s members carried guitars, amplifiers, and microphones to a federal courtroom during the hearing of Andrei Yerofeyev, a Russian curator being prosecuted for his Forbidden Art exhibition. They then performed a song called “All Cops Are Bastards” in front of the judge. Later, they projected a 120-foot-high skull-and-crossbones symbol onto the Russian White House, in what they called a warning message for corrupt authorities. In the summer of 2010, Voina artists painted an enormous phallus on the 200-foot-tall Leteyny drawbridge in St. Petersburg a few minutes before it elevated—in full view of the headquarters of the FSB, the successor of the KGB Voina proclaimed that the phallus was aroused by the hierarchy of Putin’s power.

Voina sees its role as a bellwether for Russia’s mass conscience, and by all accounts, Russian hipsters have enjoyed the group’s radical freedom of expression, with other guerilla performance artists joining in the subversive protest mission. In fact, for the past six years, many members of Russia’s more mainstream political opposition groups have sympathized with Voina’s unconventional methods.

That changed on New Year’s Eve, when Voina’s activists dedicated what they called “a street performance” to the group’s imprisoned members and all Russian political prisoners. They burned a police truck in the courtyard of a St. Petersburg police station, devoting their “fire gift” to Russian political prisoners.

As with all the previous projects by the art guerillas, a detailed description, photos, and a video of the act (arson, in this case)—was uploaded to a Web page by one of Voina’s ideologues, Alex Plucer–Sandro. In an email interview with The Daily Beast, the underground artists confirmed that on New Year’s Eve, Voina’s leader, Oleg Vorotnikov, took his 9-months-pregnant wife, Natalya Sokol; their 2-year-old son, Kasper; and Voina activist Leonid Nikolayev, dressed in a Russian Santa Claus costume, to burn the police truck. These are the same types of trucks that have transported each of the protesters to jail at least once.

“What do people normally get for a New Year’s gift? Shampoo? Or a bottle of whisky? Imagine, you are powerless, locked up in jail, and somebody gives you a gorgeous, fiery present,” Vorotnikov explained. As many as 20 legal cases have been filed against Voina group activists, and yet, says Vorotnikov, “We are up for the war. The war begins right now.” If burning a police truck is art, one might ask, then what is war?

Russian opposition leaders and civil-society figures see Voina’s act of arson as damaging and disturbing to the current political situation. Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of Russian activists have taken to the streets in Moscow and other cities to protest against Putin’s domination of Russian politics. To Boris Nemtsov, one of the more conventional opposition leaders, Voina’s radical act has served to undermine the peaceful movement that has awakened in Russia since last month’s reportedly falsified election results.

“Half a year ago, when the country’s protest was deeply asleep, I would understand Voina,” Nemtsov says. “But today, when 100,000 people protest against the Kremlin on the streets, Voina gives Putin good reason to say, ‘See, they are nothing but criminals,’ about the opposition in general.”

One of the inspiring figures behind Moscow’s mass anti-Putin protests, theater critic and satirist Victor Shenderovich, long ago stopped seeing the antics by Voina as aesthetically attractive. “Voina’s latest performances—turning police cars upside down on Palace Square, spraying police with urine, or burning police trucks—look tasteless from an artistic point of view, unlike their previous art projects.” Shenderovich said that by burning the police truck, Voina performed an act of trivial hooliganism at a delicate historical moment for Russian opposition.

To Vorotnikov and his wife, aesthetics and diplomacy have long ceased being a part of the discussion. Since they take their 2-year-old son with them to each “action,” Kaspar has been detained by police three times; once, last spring, Kaspar was injured when a police officer grabbed him out of his father’s hands. Vorotnikov said that on Nov. 15, 2010, several police officers broke into the Moscow apartment where the Voina family was staying with friends and threatened to send Kaspar into social services. According to Sokol, police confiscated her passport, medical insurance document, driver’s license, and her Moscow State University employee’s certificate—leaving her without any legal documents or access to neonatal care when she gives birth later this month.

Despite the arrests and public outrage, Voina’s war goes on. The group deals selectively with unknown underground civil leaders and anti-fascist and anti-Kremlin Left Front–movement activists, sticking to its agenda of overturning Putin’s regime. It would seem that Voina should be happy about the mass rallies all across the country and opposition declaring the same goals as Voina. But that’s hardly the case. The group’s activists feel frustrated with the opposition. “The opposition leaders compromise with the Kremlin, they discredit the spirit of protest, people’s anger. The opposition’s goal is to become a part of the existing system and not to fight it,” Vorotnikov says, sarcastically complimenting the authorities for “allowing” the protests, so people’s anger “flies out of the chimney, like a puff of steam.”

Internationally, Voina’s ideology—defined by the group as “an anti-consumerist lifestyle marked by alternative living strategies, such as dumpster diving”—is publicized more significantly worldwide than it is at home. Giant “Voina Wanted” banners can be seen in the U.S., the U.K., and Germany. As German film director Artur Zmijewski, a Voina supporter at the Berlin Biennale, put it, “Art is free, and Voina activists are not just saying words, they act to prove the idea.”

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Last November, the Berlin Biennale appointed Voina’s activists, including Vorotnikov, Sokol, and their son, as the festival’s curators. That, of course, was before they burnt the police truck.