Russia's Art Revolution Voina Challenges Putin with Imagination

By in St. Petersburg

Part 2: A Bonnie and Clyde for the Art World


Vorotnikov and his wife, who also go by the names "Vor" (thief) and "Koza" (she-goat), are adding a touch of Bonnie-and-Clyde mystique to the classic image of the bohemian. While Sokol watches little Kasper playing with a toy gun, his father, unarmed, shoplifts in supermarkets and smaller stores to feed the family.

"We don't pay for our food. We take it," says Vorotnikov. "Food should be a basic right, not a privilege. Even if we had money, we would spend it on more important things." Only those who don't pay for what they need are truly free to engage in resistance, he adds. "Most people make excuses for doing nothing by saying that they have to survive or feed a family. This justification doesn't apply to us." But arrest warrants make it more difficult to break the law. "The awareness of not being able to make any mistakes is taxing."

With their bikes, backpacks and laptops, the Voina activists travel lightly. Instead of using mobile phones, they communicate via Gmail and Skype, through channels that Russia's domestic intelligence agency can hardly monitor. Voina activists sit in front of their computers in restaurants and bars for hours without ordering anything. In hotel lobbies, they help themselves to bowls of free candy. And after being invited to meals in restaurants, they sometimes collect the leftovers.

As the protests in St. Petersburg and other cities after the election showed, an underground movement that opposes the cosmos of Putin loyalists has taken shape. It includes serious members of the opposition, Spassguerillas (fun guerrillas), former dissidents and young anarchists, as well as rebellious young people from the clubs. One man who knows the underground scene well is photographer Vladimir Teleginm who, with his black and white photographs, offers x-ray images of the subculture.

A Radical Art Collective's Milieu

Telgin's pictures include vignettes of the life of the underground Voina leader, like an image of Vorotnikov at the beach with his wife and child, or sitting in boxer shorts in his hideout, in front of a bottle of cranberry vodka. He also illuminates the milieu of sympathizers with Vorotnikov's radical art collective: celebrities like the legendary Yuri Shevchuk, lead singer of DDT, a rock band that has been popular since the Soviet era; the actress Liya Akhedzhakova; or the activists of the banned National Bolshevik Party led by Maxim Gromov, who once stood under a monument to Lenin and sewed his mouth shut in protest against the lack of freedom of expression in Putin's realm, and who later spent three years in prison for tossing a portrait of Putin out of a window of the Health Ministry after it had been stormed by protesters.

Telegin's photos also show what life in the resistance movement does to people. Leonid Nikolayev, for example, one of Voina leader Vorotnikov's closest associates and constantly in the sights of investigators, is only 28 but no longer resembles the youthful person he was not too long ago. Nikolayev, trained as an engineer in nanotechnology and long a liberal partisan, has left his old life behind. Today he risks his freedom for what he calls art and conduct. He already spent four months in prison with Vorotnikov for upending police cars in downtown St. Petersburg.

An appearance Nikolayev made in Moscow is legendary among Voina supporters. Videos recorded on May 22, 2010 show Nikolayev, with a blue plastic bucket on his head, running across a busy intersection near the Kremlin wall, jumping onto the roof of a vehicle belonging to the intelligence service and then running away before the furious driver can catch him.

What looks like a Buster Keaton slapstick performance was in fact a carefully choreographed protest against the limousines, equipped with sirens and flashing blue lights, that are used to chauffeur pseudo-celebrities around Moscow and that shut down traffic in the process. This explains the blue plastic bucket on Nikolayev's head, and the decision to literally jump on top of the intelligence officer's vehicle, "on a corner where you supposedly can't take a step without being nabbed by special police," Nikolayev says proudly. "After that, I simply disappeared."

Exposing Hollow Gestures of the Powerful

The Voina principle is the principle used by the child in Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale "The Emperor's New Clothes" -- the child that describes what everyone sees but no one dares to express: "But he isn't wearing any clothes!" Voina cultivates the art of exposing the hollow gestures of the powerful and forcing their subjects to laugh in a way that is meant to be liberating.

What to do against a xenophobic and homophobic mayor? String up three men dressed as immigrant workers and two as homosexuals in the middle of a giant supermarket on the "Day of the City of Moscow" and declare that this piece of performance art is dedicated to the Decembrists, who advocated on behalf of libertarian values and resisted the czar more than 200 years ago.

Is this originality or eclecticism? A calculated "Slap in the Face of Public Taste," as Russia's Futurists dubbed their manifesto in 1912? With a few philosophical borrowings from Russia's anarchists, like Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin, thrown in for good measure?

"Oh yeah, anarchism, punk, postmodernism, conceptualism -- these things were important to us in the past," says Vorotnikov, referring to his student days the way a paleontologist talks about a fossil.

In the here and now, sitting in the Tan Zhen Chinese restaurant, Vorotnikov, pouring himself another glass of vodka, says: "Theory, now that's a thing of the past. We have changed Russia's political landscape. Since Voina has come into being, those who considered themselves radical leftists are finding themselves to the right of center, together with the establishment and the philistines."

'We Must Create a Revolution without Blood'

Voina believes that the resistance against the system is in the process of multiplying and shifting. "All kinds of brigades, gangs and militant groups are taking shape in the underground," says Nikolayev. "We are moving away from peaceful protest," says Vorotnikov, "but we must create a revolution without blood."

The St. Petersburg activists sense that it won't be easy to unhinge Putin's "vertical axis of power." But they have not failed to notice that cracks are forming in the columns on which the structure rests. In 2008, says Vorotnikov, all kinds of accusations were being hurled at him. "They wanted to castrate us, shove us in an oven or send us to prison for 12 years. And now? Now they admire us."

He empties his glass of vodka and gets up. He is almost outside before it occurs to him that he has forgotten something: that he hasn't sent a message on this particular evening. He promptly steps up to the slight owner of the Chinese restaurant, bows down in front of him and shouts: "Free Tibet! Free Ai Weiwei!"

The Chinese man looks horrified but says nothing, not even after Vorotnikov has disappeared into the St. Petersburg night.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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