Russian police have creative new foe: Voina arts group

Two leading members of one of Russia’s most radical group of activist artists were arrested last month and are now on trial in St. Petersburg.  The performance art group Voina (“War”) has been a thorn in the side of Russian authorities since 2007. Oleg “Thief” Vorotnikov and Leonid “Leo the F**knut” Nikolaev now face charges and up to fourteen years of imprisonment on two counts of “hooliganism motivated by hatred or antagonism towards any social group.”

Voina’s actions have been aimed at the humiliation of law enforcement officials and were conceived to criticize corruption and injustice in the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Voina’s last action, “Palace Overthrow” (video and photos), consisted of the systematic flipping of seven police cars in front of the Mikhailovsky Palace in the center of St. Petersburg and in other locations over one night last September. 

On the night of Nov. 15, 10 members of the Department for the Counteraction of Extremism of the Ministry of the Internal Affairs stormed the lodging of Voina activists Kozlenok (“Baby goat”), Vorotnikov and Nikolaev in Moscow. All equipment containing information was seized.

The alleged use of force and the alleged beating of Vorotnikov during the arrest attracted the attention of human rights defenders. The law firm of Iosif Gabuniya , which specializes in cases involving human rights violations, now represents the defendants.

In a recent interview with Radio Svoboda, Gabunia stated that the photos and video of “Palace Overthrow” would not be enough to convict the activists. “It cannot be proven that they were the ones who committed the crime,” he said.

Although the city’s human rights defenders are united in seeking the fair and dignified treatment of the arrested activists, they have split on Voina’s actions.  

Lenonid Romankov, a member of the Human Rights Council of St. Petersburg, told Radio Svoboda: “I like all that is youthful and mischievous. Every time has its own methods of resistance.  The dissidents signed letters and held meetings. Now there are installations, concerts, and actions … Of course, it is better that the damage be minimal.  I generally side with humanitarian methods of protest.”

His colleague, Yuri Vdovin, has been far less supportive of the group. “To be honest, I don’t know why they flipped the cars and what they were trying to say. I don’t like ‘Autoinspection’ either, but I never got any ideas about flipping their cars. Hooliganism needs to be punished; surely they don’t think they will be rewarded with flowers for this?” 

However, Vdovin insisted that the criminality of Voina’s actions is no excuse for any abuse.  “There was a rumor that they were tortured … This is a strange story.  In prisons, there are many people who are accused of insignificant crimes and who need to be defended very seriously, who do not receive any publicity. This particular story has become widely known, a very large number of people are worried over the fates of these young people.”

Kozlenok states that there are more than 200 Voina activists across the country, but the leadership of the group is a small circle of secretive and eccentric self-proclaimed “kamikazes.”   

Kozlenok, the only group leader not in jail and the mother of one-and-a-half-year-old “Kasper the Striking,” had her passport and driver’s license seized in the November police raid. If the state takes away custody of her son, she may subsequently be arrested herself. 

Close friends and allies of Voina have started a website to report the progress of the cases against Vorotnikov and Nikolaev, as well as a Twitter account.

“The method of punishment used by the special services against Voina is disproportional to the damage caused by the action,” Kozlenok said in an interview with GlobalPost.

The human rights defenders interviewed by Radio Svoboda also stated that they are under the impression that the St. Petersburg police are going to try to “pay Voina back in full, creating the impression of getting their job done but blowing the case out of proportion.”

Indeed, in an interview on the newscast of Rossiya 2 television channel back in September, Uliya Tomashevskaya, the press secretary of the Main Directorate of Internal Affairs in St. Petersburg, stated that “the damage to the vehicle was not significant and it is now back on its patrol route”

Today, however, the damage estimate figures have soared from 500 Russian rubles (about $16) that was originally mentioned by the police in September to over $3,000 (indicated on the arrest warrant). Of note is the fact that a criminal investigation into “Palace Overthrow” was not opened until five days after the event when photos and videos of the action had been posted on the Internet.

“The things happening in Russia are ludicrous,” said Kozlenok.

“The werewolves in shoulder straps themselves enact such cruelties against people that a large part of the population despises and is deathly afraid of them,” said Kozlenok. “The action was a harsh demand by Voina for the immediate reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs which the government itself has called for.”

In July of 2007, a group of Moscow State University students and friends were organizing an action on campus with famed dissident poet Dmitri Prigov.  He was supposed to have been carried up 22 flights of stairs while reading poetry inside a wardrobe. 

After the university issued a ban on the poet’s work and the action was forbidden by the rector’s office, Prigov suffered a heart attack and died in a coma several days later.

At midnight on the day of Prigov’s death, the group staged a wake called “PIR” (video and photos) in a car of the Moscow metro, eating and drinking to the memory of their friend and mentor.

“Since then, all of our actions have been strictly illegal," Kozlenok told GlobalPost. “We do not ask anyone’s permission or advice. This is how we became kamikazes and we are unstoppable. We give out air so that the public can breathe freely.”

“A D*ck Captive of the FSB” (video and photos) was carried out last June in Saint Petersburg when a 65-meter phallus was painted on the Liteini bridge which, when opened at night, faced the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (former KGB). Though it took days to remove, officials reported that the drawing did not impede the functioning of the bridge and so no vandalism charges were pressed. 

Other actions have included: “The Humiliation of the Cop in His Own House” (Voina invaded a police station to “celebrate” the inauguration of Dmitri Medvedev — video and photos) and “Shutting of Clubs” (Voina welded shut the doors of a restaurant full of high-placed Moscow functionaries — video and photos). No one was injured during the actions; no legal charges were pressed or arrests made.

Voina members pride themselves on carrying out projects with speed and precision. The phallus was drawn in a matter of twenty-three seconds and the flipping of one police car took nine seconds for five people, according to Voina. To prepare, the group spends months training and drilling.

“The more radical the action, the fewer performers there should be," Kozlenok said. “There should not be any extra, unnecessary roles. We are responsible for making sure no one gets arrested.”

News of Voina’s actions is usually disseminated through the Internet and as a result the group’s leaders say they have attracted new activists from across the country.

“Any office desk monkey can become a hero of Russia, if he is capable of going out on the street and taking back his city,” Kozlenok said.

Despite the recent arrests and the further legal complications facing the group, they remain undeterred.

“We’re not in the artistic sphere by accident,” he said. “In Russian oppositional work, people always publicly complain: ‘Oh look at us! Look at how seriously we are victimized by the criminal regime!’ They cry and pretend to be helpless. This is contrary to the spirit of art. There is no reason for an artist to be ashamed. Art works from an idealist position. We are winning, and this is why we are artists.”