Voina: Protest Art in Russia’s “Snow Revolution”

by Sarah Swong:

On the eve of antigovernment protests scheduled for February 4th in St. Petersburg, political activist Philip Kostenko was beaten on his way to work. While the evidence remains unclear, Human Rights First has held the police responsible for the attack.

The episode exemplifies how law enforcement and prosecutorial officials have exploited anti-extremism legislation to target nonviolent government critics, including journalists, independent media, human rights organizations, and artists. Kostenko is also an affiliate of the radical street-art collective Voina, which has been prosecuted in the past for its protest art.

One of Russia’s most high profile artistic protest groups, Voina most recently acted earlier in the protests. On December 31, the artists broke into a police station, placed Molotov cocktails near the tires of a police vehicle, and set it on fire, as recorded in their released video. The destruction of the tank-like vehicle, which had been used to transport prisoners, was their proclaimed “gift to all political prisoners in Russia.” The official police statement denied Voina’s involvement in the fire, saying the source was unknown and damage minimal.

A Voina activist dresses up as a cop for a protest in Voina's basement hideout. (Fred S./Flickr Creative Commons)

Voina, meaning “war” in Russian, has long stood as the symbol of the avant-garde and for the artistic resistance against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The group supports anarchy, renounces money, and ignores law. Founded in 2005 by Moscow philosophy student Oleg Vorotnikov (“Vor”) and his wife Natalia Sokol (“Kozlyenok”), the group has branches in most major Russian cities and supports a network of international activist artists such as Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei and those of Occupy Wall Street.

Political figures were the main targets of their earlier works. In one of their first public works, five members, including a pregnant woman four days from giving birth, had public sex in Moscow’s Timirayzev State Museum of Biology. The performance, called “Fuck for the heir Medved`s little Bear!”, protested the 2008 election of President Medvedev. Their other 2008 work, “In Memory of the Decemberists – A Present to Yuri Luzhkov,” staged a hanging of two homosexual men and three Central Asian guest workers. The work reflected the alleged homophobia and racism of Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow by drawing inspiration from the libertarian Decembrists, who protested against the czar over 200 years ago.

Their recent art has attacked corruption of the cops. In 2010, they spray painted a 250-foot tall penis on a St. Petersburg bridge. The looming phallus, which pointed at the F.S.B., the state security service, represented the “unconquerable Russian phallus.” Their next project, “Palace Revolution,” involved flipping over parked police cars in protest of police corruption. The alleged hooliganism of their leaders led to their arrests, from which they were release on bail only last spring with the help of British street artist Banksy.

Is it art? Is there beauty in the way the flame consumed what Voina calls “a symbol of today’s repressions and human rights and freedoms”? When does activist art simply descend into vandalism or chaos? Unless the art begins to attack the apolitical, perhaps the answer depends on legally defined boundaries. But even that is questionable amidst rampant corruption.

When does revolutionary art lose its coherence? Look at the art’s fidelity to the broader ideology: Voina’s explicit artistic-intellectual goals mix tradition with radicalism in an unclear way. They want to resurrect the Romantic artist-intellectual hero who triumphs over evil, yet reject “outmodedness and provincialism,” or the deeply romantic cultural trope of the Russian peasant that represented a rich countryside folk tradition and defined a distinctly Eastern European Romanticism. They wish for an “innovative topical art language” that can accurately talk about the “new epoch” and has “no analogues in the past,” but also draw inspiration from the old Russian laughing culture of absurdity and sarcasm as well as the 1920’s futurists.

The Voina certainly names precise goals and sources of inspiration, but the most resonant common thread is the celebration of the visceral: the direct grittiness of the carnival-street, the aggressive innovation that cuts off the past, a “lively” art, and the activist artist. Above all, they exalt an ideology of spirit. Whether a mere attitude can qualify as the basis of a coherent ideology can be questioned, but there’s something to be said about the way such radicalism can jolt the public into thought or action. “If an activist secretly burns a cop truck at night, it won’t be art. It will be the revenge of an activist,” Voina representative Plutser-Sarno wrote to online publication ARTINFO. “But to burn it openly and proclaim to the entire country: ‘I am an artist. I burned down your prison, symbol of totalitarianism. This autodafe is our art action,’ then it becomes a piece of art. We made people discuss it as an artistic action.”

Sarah Swong ’15 is in Pierson College. She is a Globalist Notebook beat blogger on topics of international art and politics. Contact her at sarah.swong@yale.edu.