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The art of revolution

by Rose Griffin, RussiaProfile.org at 06/12/2010 19:09

Russian guerrilla 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 last month when two of its number were charged over a September anti-police protest in St. Petersburg. Another Voina member is in hiding in Estonia. With little support from their fellow artists in Russia, does this spell the end for the anarchic collective?

The Voina coalition was founded in 2007 around a core group of philosophy students from Moscow State University. Their actions – sometimes violent or obscene but always explicit – have targeted President Dmitry Medvedev, former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the Orthodox Church as well as the police, making it surprising, perhaps, that members of the group were not arrested earlier.

Group protests have featured couples having sex publicly (among them a heavily pregnant woman); a staged hanging of two homosexuals and three central Asian guest workers in an attack on Luzhkov for alleged homophobia and the dangerous living conditions of migrant workers in Moscow; and the overturning of police cars.

Voina ideologist Alexei Plucer-Sarno spoke to Russia Profile about the group after the arrest of members Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev and before fleeing Russia for Estonia. Although he has not been in contact with the two since their arrest, Plucer-Sarno noted that Russian pre-trial detention centres are a “hellish nightmare” today – and that his comrades are, in any case, “still alive”.  

The group’s “Palace Revolution” action in September, at which seven police cars were upended, has led, according to Plucer-Sarno, to “prosecution under Article 213 – ‘hooliganism, carried out on motives of political or ideological hatred or animosity toward a social group’.” In effect, “the group is being accused of ideological hatred against a ‘social group’: the police” said Plucer-Sarno.

He went on to bemoan “not getting any help or support from the Russian art community,” which “doesn’t give a damn about anything except its own glamorous-conformist art business [and] is as corrupt and mercenary as the whole Russian system overall.” Fellow artist Lena Hades, who was convicted of inciting hatred in two works last summer, seemed to agree in part, pointing out that “it is rare for artists to support each other in such cases...[since] each artist sees [in the protestor] a rival, a competitor for attention, not a fellow artist”.

The Voina group’s actions oppose the strongest institutions in Russia, which raises the question of whether mere artists’ protests, however explicit and attention-getting, can change anything in Russian society. Plucer-Sarno thinks in incremental terms: “Changes always begin in people’s minds, in their consciousness, at the level of ideas. And we are trying to paint a portrait of the nightmarish monster that the Russian power structure has turned into today…And the fact that this monstrous vampire-werewolf has thrown itself at some artists, to devour them, is also part of that terrifying portrait.” 

Asked if he has particular plans for the future, Plucer-Sarno sounded a note of resolution: “To get Oleg and Lenya out at any price, and continue our work.”

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