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Some praise group's imaginative approach, others criticize recent destructive turn
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.”