Alek D. Epstein

                           Art Activism in the Putin Era.

                The Heirs of Moscow Conceptualism and

                            Sots Art in the 21st Century.


The development of actionism in post-Soviet Russia can be described simply as a chain with four main links, each of which to a certain degree is a continuation of the previous one, without which the next link most likely would not have appeared at all. If Anton Nikolaev had not grown up in the studio of Oleg Kulik, who had married his mother, the Bombily group, in which he played a central role, would probably not have emerged, and the Auto Rally of Dissent in April 2007, which was the first sign of the new wave of Russian street art actionism,[1] would not have happened. It might be going too far to maintain that without Anton Nikolaev there would be no Voina group (after all, he was never a member), but his important role in forming the group’s ethical and aesthetic principles and agenda in the first year of its existence cannot be questioned, nor can we forget that he gave the four activists of Voina, who had no place to live in Moscow, shelter in the cellar where Oleg Kulik’s studio was located.[2]

The ethos of passing ‘‘the torch of creativity’’ traditionally plays a large role in Russian cultural and social thought: Alexander Pushkin was ‘noticed and blessed’ personally by Gavrila Derzhavin; Fedor Dostoevsky is believed to have said ‘We all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’, and Vladimir Lenin assured everyone that ‘the Decembrists woke up Herzen’, who in turn, became the forerunner of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and then the People’s Will, followed by the Bolsheviks. The history of post-Soviet art-actionism corresponds with this model of succession much more than does the path sketched by Lenin and canonized by Soviet historiography and literary history. The art group Voina was first noticed and blessed at the very first stage of its existence by Oleg Kulik and the master of Moscow Conceptualism Dmitri Prigov (1940–2007), and then out of the Voina ‘overcoat’ came Pussy Riot in autumn 2011, the key activist of which, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, was one of the four founders of Voina, and another activist arrested after the action in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Ekaterina Samutsevich, was an active participant of a number of Voina actions.

Pussy Riot’s activity essentially lasted less than six months, but the arrest of three of its members in March 2012 was a catalyst of an unprecedented broad wave of artistic-political activity,[3] within which Petr Pavlensky performed his first action opposite the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg on 23 July 2012, holding a poster with a sign: ‘The Pussy Riot’ action was a replay of the famous action by Jesus Christ (Matthew 21: 12–13)’.

Thus, even though we are talking about a very brief time-span—less than twenty years—and almost all the key players of Russian art-actionism of the post-Soviet period are still alive (with the exception of Pavel Pukhov, the ‘Russian Banksy’ who died in April 2013, and Leonid Nikolaev, in 2010 was the most recognized ‘face of Voina,’[4] who died in September 2015), it would be correct to discuss this phenomenon as a process consisting of four stages, with each new stage directly flowing from the previous one, and the transition to the new stage moving the ‘centre of gravity’ of post-Soviet art-actionism to new people.

Petr Pavlensky’s emigration to France at the very end of 2016 put a full stop to the fourth stage which lasted for four years and in which he was a central figure, and the present when for the first time in the period under discussion—the torch of Russian art-activism has gone out, and has not been handed over—directly or symbolically—to anyone else. This naturally does not mean that the entire field of Russian art-activism and actionism has been turned into scorched earth—individual activists continue to perform with greater or lesser success, however their success and fame in Russia and abroad cannot be compared to what Oleg Kulik, Voina, Pussy Riot, and Petr Pavlensky had achieved at the most resonant periods of their work. In that sense, the year 2017 set Russian art-activism back a decade, when once again, as it was before the appearance of Bombily and especially Voina, there is no one who could be called the key actor in this field.

Beginning with the very first protest rallies after the falsified parliamentary elections in December 2011, and especially after the arrest in March 2012 of three members of Pussy Riot, it became clear that art-activism had changed significantly. In previous years, art almost never intersected with street protests, which had much more limited scale. It was not only due to the fact that many artists participated in the rallies and marches of 2011–2012; the most important fact was that there was an increasing number of art-works with an obvious sociopolitical context.[5] At the same time, street art-actionism expanded substantively, and sometimes (in Novosibirsk, where Monstration[6] was born in 2004, and also in Yekaterinburg, Krasnodar, Murmansk, and several other cities) artists became direct imitators and inspirers of protest actions that belonged to both politics and art.

However, not a single institution dealing with contemporary art (and there are many in Russia today) made art-activism a focus of its work. At first, there were hopes for the 2012 Mediaudar festival of activist art, but for a variety of reasons it never was very popular and in 2016 shut down.[7] Unfortunately, contemporary artists and especially actionists almost never have a satisfactory archive of their works and after just two or three years it is very difficult to find documentation of even very well-publicized actions.[8] Over the last few years, there was only one exhibition, called Performance in Russia, 1910–2010, which was held at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow and included documentation on the protest art-actions of Bombily, Voina, Pussy Riot, and Petr Pavlensky.[9] The great majority of works nominated for Russian prizes in contemporary art (and there are quite a few) do not have a political aspect; the Innovation Prize given to Voina over six years ago in April 2011 is the only exception. It is also important to mention here that this award was given to Voina before its mass street protests, through the efforts of Andrei Erofeev, Ekaterina Degot and some of their colleagues—so Voina won the prize when it was just a group of marginalized individuals.[10] After the public mood changed, the process of tightening the screws began and activist art could no longer hope to receive any prizes.

Like the recognized masters of Moscow Conceptualism, Andrei Monastyrsky, Dmitri Prigov, and partially Yuri Albert, the Voina and Pussy Riot groups and Petr Pavlensky were not ‘artists’ in the traditional sense of the word; they did not create paintings or drawings for museums and galleries, instead their art consisted of performances in public space. The young women of Pussy Riot even sang; of course, Moscow Conceptualism had its rock musicians, in particular, the Mukhomory [Toadstools] Group, who recorded an album, Golden Disk, in 1982; the artist Georgy (Gustav) Guryanov (1961–2013), a prominent representative of the New Academy in St. Petersburg, was drummer and back vocalist of Kino rock band for six years (1984–1990). The difference between the Putin-era actionists and their predecessors is that the latter completely erased the wall between themselves and the viewers.

The actionists of the 1970s and 1980s produced their performances, with rare exception, either in closed spaces or unpopulated outdoor areas, so the viewers could be only the guests of the participants of the action. The situation changed radically in the autumn of 1990, when Farid Bogdalov and Georgy Litichevsky held the performance From Cage to Cage (Penitential Art) at the Moscow Zoo, and the group E. T. I., founded by Anatoly Osmolovsky, held Price 2.20 right on the Red Square, across from the Lenin’s Mausoleum;[11] nine years later Against All was done right on the mausoleum tribune.[12]

It was there, on Red Square, early in the morning of 20 January 2012 that the eight members of Pussy Riot performed the song ‘Rebellion in Russia,’ which starts with the words ‘A rebellious column is headed for the Kremlin’; also there Oleg Basov and Yevgeny Avilov (who later left Russia) of Sinii Vsadnik [Blue Rider] Group held an action called Exorcising the Devil, with a goal of speaking on behalf of burying the leader of the revolution and of de-Sovietizing Russian sociopolitical life. Matvei Krylov (pseudonym of Dmitri Putinikhin) performed an action on the other side of the Kremlin with a different goal: protesting against the destruction of the obelisk in Alexandrovsky Garden memorializing socialist thinkers,[13] which was replaced with a monument celebrating the 300-years anniversary of the house of Romanov.

Petr Pavlensky, whose Carcass and Fixation were performed naked on the main squares of St. Petersburg and Moscow, continues the traditions of Moscow Conceptualism, combining the component of the naked body (which was used in Fertilizing the Soil and in many performances of Viacheslav Mizin and his colleagues from the Blue Noses and Oleg Kulik) with the use of the most symbolically saturated places in the urban space (as did E. T. I. and Radek in the 1990s).


It is important to remember that contemporary Russian art-activism includes not only actionists but also artists in the usual sense of the word. Anton Nikolaev is a rare example of a combination of actionist and artist: in September 2012 he gained public attention with his work Our Faith Must Be Blind, which was shown at the Zverev Centre of Contemporary Art in Moscow, and at the 2013 Mediaudar festival he presented the painting Invisible Man Dressed as Matriarch. However, most actionists do not draw and most painters do not do actions and performances. These artists are obviously on a different axis than Oleg Kulik—Voina—Pussy Riot—Petr Pavlensky; their work continues the path opened by the pioneers of (anti)Soviet Sots Art, Leonid Sokov, Alexander Kosolapov, Vagrich Bakhchanyan (1938–2009), Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, and later Mikhail Fedorov-Roshal (1956–2008), Alexander Savko, and others.

Despite the fact that exhibitions of Leonid Sokov’s work were held recently not only in the Moscow Museum of Modern Art but even in the Tretyakov Gallery, this movement was never legitimized in the Russian museum-gallery space. In July 2010 Yuri Samodurov, the former director of the Sakharov Museum and Public Centre, and curator Andrei Erofeev were found guilty and fined just for organizing an exhibition primarily of these artists in March 2007.[14] Yuri Samodurov who defended his programme, in which contemporary art was the ‘last bastion’ on the road to clericalisation of the state and society[15]— was tried for this twice. The drawing Sermon on the Mountain by Alexander Savko from his series Travels of Mickey Mouse through the History of Art, in the centre of which is the cartoon character instead of Jesus, in December 2011 was added to the Federal list of extremist materials by a court in Kaluga Oblast; the reproduction and demonstration of such works is not permitted in the Russian Federation.[16] (By the way, almost all the videos by Pussy Riot are also on this list.)

Lena Hades, whose career developed on the cusp of the twenty-first century, holds a special place in contemporary Sots Art. Unfortunately, her piercing installation devoted to Boris Yeltsin and his era has not survived, but a number of her paintings—Chimera of the Mysterious Russian Soul, Chimera of the State, Chimera of Law,[17] the Welcome to Russia series, and the exceptional Nietzsche cycle (especially Their Knees Are Always Bent and Everyone Strives for the Throne) created between 1996 and 2004 [18]—belong to those rare works of art that sensitively reflect and grotesquely rethink the very spirit of the first post-Soviet decades, in the same way as the vigour of the first post-Stalin years was expressed in the canvases of Oscar Rabine and Mikhail Roginsky in a way that no historians or sociologists have managed to better.

The trial of Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Erofeev unintentionally became the platform for demonstrating the succession of generations in protest art and art-actionism: activists from Voina, none of whom had even started school when Gorbachev came to power (and Verzilov and Tolokonnikova were not yet born), performed two actions of solidarity with the defendants, who were old enough to be their fathers: on 29 May 2009 (Concert at the Taganka Court) and 12 July 2010 (Down with the Cockroach Court!)[19]. After a few months, Viktoria Lomasko and Anton Nikolaev published an album in the genre of documentary comics called Forbidden Art, with sketches of the most striking moments from the lengthy trial.[20] At the time Lomasko developed her unique graphic style, which was later used in sketches of the trials of Pussy Riot and of demonstrators on 6 May 2012, when there was an unsuccessful attempt to spoil the inauguration of Vladimir Putin for what was in fact his fourth presidential term.

It is understandable that many people have a strongly negative attitude toward the work of these artists (both the older and the younger generation), but reaction of contemporaries to the anticlerical works of Nikolai Ge, Vasily Perov, Natalia Goncharova and other artists, who have long been recognized as classics of Russian culture, was the same in the lifetime The majority may reject these artists and their works, but we must try to see the present through the eyes of the next generation. Naturally we cannot know how our descendants will judge our times, but it is important to give them as much information as possible on how we lived and what was done by the artists of our generation. The concept of the ‘ecology of culture’ should include not only the legacy of our ancestors but works created by our contemporaries.

Art, obviously, should not be political: the outstanding paintings by the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Fauvists, which were considered rebellious at the time, were not political in any sense. However, political themes were on the mind of most artists, from Francisco Goya (recall his Execution of the Rebels Third of May 1808) to Pablo Picasso (Guernica,). Can’t Ilya Repin’s Refusal of Confession and Volga Boatmen be considered as political works? What about Valentin Serov’s Soldiers, Brave Fellows, Where Is Your Glory? executed after the so-called Bloody Sunday?[21] There is a multitude of such examples in the history of art, so any attempts to separate ‘real, eternal’ art from that which illustrates ‘the current events’ are not always productive, for there is no doubt that Goya, Picasso, Repin and Serov produced art for all times.

The rich background of the Russian political graphic art provides a good context for the work of the Moscow-based artists Viktoria Lomasko, Alexey Iorsh, Sergei Elkin, Vasya Lozhkin (pseudonym of Alexei Kudelin), as well as Viktor Bogorad from St. Petersburg and Alexander Khots who lives and works in Tula. Some of their works, while not exhibited in museums, have spread widely in social media and are quite well known. For example, Alexey Iorsh’s Happy Cosmonaut Day! is built around the twist in the meaning of the phrase which used to refer to pilots who had been in space and is now used to designate the police special forces that break up protest meetings. Just as well known is Vasya Lozhkin,[22] whose Footsteps of Cats in the Night and other works reflect the spiritual world of the nucleus of the Vladimir Putin’s electorate, which some observers describe with historian Yuri Afanasyev’s phrase ‘the aggressively obedient majority.’ Clearly the names Viktoria Lomasko, Alexey Iorsh, and Vasya Lozhkin are much less known in the West than Oleg Vorotnikov, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Petr Pavlensky, yet their activities, taking place at the same time as political activism of their more famous fellow artists, should be viewed as two communicating vessels, analogous to the way cultural historians today make parallels between the works of Sots Art and the actions of Moscow Conceptualism of the 1970s and 1980s.

Another significant aspect is that these artists demonstrate the ethics of mutual support and solidarity, which is very important in a situation of unceasing persecution. Obviously the most outstanding support was given by the art activist community to Pussy Riot when its members were arrested in 2012. Since no museum or art gallery dared to hold a solidarity action, Denis Mustafin and Tatiana Volkova organized on 31 March 2012 a mobile ‘Bus Exhibition’,[23] which reminded many of the so-called ‘Bulldozer Exhibition’, which was organized by Oskar Rabin and his colleagues in Belyaevo on 15 September 1974 and became a major landmark in Russian nonconformist art.[24] On the initiative and with the support of Victor Bondarenko, an artist from Izhevsk, Evgeniya Maltceva, held an exhibition called Spiritual Profanity in Marat Guelman’s gallery in September 2012, which included a portrait of the arrested members of the Pussy Riot depicted as a famous Trinity icon. Needless to say that the opening of the show was disrupted by hooligans who pretended to defend the Orthodox faith.[25] However, solidarity was manifested in a number of other incidents, as a result some striking and unique works were created —for example, the work by Alexander Khots, produced in September 2013 as a reaction to the removal of the works by Konstantin Altunin from St. Petersburg’s Museum of Power.[26] Following the seizure of his works by police Altunin fled Russia, seeking political asylum in France. In February 2016 the street artist from Perm Alexander Zhunev created a work on top of the traffic controller’s booth on Lubyanka Square dedicated to the recently arrested Petr Pavlensky. Rather like Zhunev’s most famous anticlerical drawing Gagarin. Crucifixion, which was glued to the wall of one of the houses in his native Perm on 12 April 2015 and destroyed by the authorities the next day, his work dedicated to Pavlensky disappeared almost straightaway.


The Russian historical consciousness, at least from the Soviet period onwards, was structured very hierarchically: there was space for only one most prominent poet (Alexander Pushkin), one most prominent theatre director (Konstantin Stanislavsky), and the fact that there were two most prominent writers, Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevsky, was perceived almost as an anomaly. The dissident consciousness, while anti-Soviet in content, remained just as hierarchical in form, where the top of the pedestal was occupied by Andrei Sakharov for some (so-called ‘liberals’) and by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for others (so-called ‘patriots’); the Nobel Prize, which both men received at different times, underlined their equal greatness, but each stood on top of very different personal pyramids and their related values.

Russian art-activism of the post-Soviet period was no less hierarchical and even though the people at the top changed rather frequently, they always stood there in proud solitude: Voina wanted to surpass Oleg Kulik and shoved him off[27], Pussy Riot squeezed out Voina[28], and Petr Pavlensky remained the central figure for over four years, despite the fact that Pussy Riot released four videos at the same time. Putin Lighting the Bonfires of Revolution and Like in a Red Prison were recorded by activists who maintained their anonymity, while Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, released from prison, starred in Putin Will Teach You To Love the Homeland and Seagull. The videos attracted substantially less attention than Pavlensky’s actions Carcass, Fixation, Freedom, and especially Threat, when he set fire to one of the doors of the FSB on Lubyanka.

But one should remember that Russian actionism of the last ten years must not be reduced to its most famous representatives. On the contrary, starting from 2011, a rather broad field formed and was not limited geographically to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where Voina, Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky worked, as well as other actionists and artists whose names should not be forgotten. These actions touched on a range of subjects: from defending arrested political activists (in particular, the installation 6 Years for 6 May—It Doesn’t Matter? by Artem Loskutov in Moscow on 2 February 2014) to the protest against the unchanging supreme power in Russia (Artem Loskutov’s action-installation That One Died, So Will This One, which took place opposite the Paveletsky Train Station in Moscow on the anniversary of Stalin’s death on 5 March 2016), and the outrage over the use of historical events in justification of the regime’s political needs (the installation by Liza Savolainen and the Siniy Vsadnik [Blue Rider] group, We Won, presented at the exhibition on 8 May 2015, which was shut down by the authorities the day it opened[29]). Other subjects include solidarity with the LGBT community, suffering from discrimination by the state and by Russian society. There were several actions of this kind, including the ones staged in front of the President’s Administration Building and in front of the lower house of the Russian Parliament in 2012–2013 by a group of five people, including Niks Nemeni, whose informal leader was Alexei Davydov (1977–2013), who died prematurely, and several others.

It is important to point out that despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, it would be fair to say that all post-Soviet art-actionism is a single field: the work of the group Femen, Alexander Volodarsky (Icon of Stalin in Kiev in October 2010 symbolized ‘the caricature on today’s politicized Orthodoxy, yearning for totalitarianism’[30]), David Chichkan (who created in 2014 a series of works Who Needs War with the subtitle Patriotisms Give Rise to Fascism), Sergei Zakharov (who was almost killed in Donetsk in August 2014 when he was arrested for his writings on the walls, some of which called on Igor Strelkov, the ideologue of the ‘Russian spring’ in the Donbas, to commit suicide[31]), and Darya Marchenko (who made a portrait of Putin out of 5,000 cartridges called The Face of War in summer 2015 [32]) in the Ukraine,[33] or the works of the young Kazakhstan artist Pasha Kas. They are all an integral part of the same field in which Voina, Pussy Riot, Petr Pavlensky, Siniy Vsadnik [Blue Rider], Viktoria Lomasko, and Anton Nikolaev made their name. The nationalistic ‘parade of sovereignties’ of the post-Soviet states damaged the single cultural space that was united in the vast territory of the Soviet Union, however it is still cherished by the majority and as a result the social and cultural ties are maintained.

Rather paradoxically, while acting against the present Russian regime (which is present in almost all post-Soviet actionism), the activists from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other regions of a recently single state, still made their contribution toward preserving a single ‘Russian world’ as a common civilizational and cultural identification space. The rhetoric of the authorities about ‘fraternal nations’ was echoed in protest art-activism, which does not recognize the appearance of new borders and nationalistic separation. Petr Verzilov and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova came from Moscow to Kiev in November 2009 to help organize what became the most famous action of Alexander Volodarsky,[34] born in Lugansk, and Pasha Kas, the street artist from Alma-Aty, who attracted attention with his work We’re Dancing! painted in April 2016 in Temirtau, Kazakhstan, on a building wall.[35] Important contributions to this single post-Soviet activism are also made by émigré artists, particularly Dmitri Vrubel, who lives and works in Germany[36], and Aidar Bekchintaev, who lives in Austria, and whose graphic works On the Banks of the River of Black Times, Pushkin Shot It Out with an OMON Squad and The Department of War Against Contemporary Art were produced in 2015. The latter became the most vivid depiction of the sixth-years long period of suppression conducted by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation under Minister Vladimir Medinsky.

Yet the most significant are the actions performed in Russia, especially on the periphery (Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, Krasnodar, Murmansk, Perm and other more or less remote cities), where there had been no tradition of art-actionism. Thematically, these works are close to the ones listed above which appeared in Moscow and St. Petersburg, - they also reflect the human rights issues rather than just a local regional agenda. A number of works created in various regions were a response to the events in Moscow: for example, the action-installation by Artem Loskutov and Maria Kiseleva The Miraculous Discovery of the Pussy Riot Icon, presented in Novosibirsk on 12 March 2012 [37] (later it was called ‘extremist’ by a local court[38]), the installation by Lusine Djanyan and Alexei Knedlyakovsky, White Ring, created in Krasnodar in May 2012 (and not allowed to be included in the exhibition in Kiev[39]), or the work of Arch Genius (the pseudonym of Leonid Danilov) From God to Violence Is a Single Step, created in Murmansk on 8 June 2013. This took place a day after the lower chamber of the Russian parliament passed a law against offending the religious feelings of the faithful, which many perceived as a law on banning the freedom of atheists and agnostics to express themselves. ‘I wanted to show that today’s ‘vigilantes of morality’ are former inquisitors,’ the artist remarked, describing his work. ‘Even though you might argue about ‘former,’ bearing in mind the aggressive behavior of Orthodox activists.’[40]

Two action-installations by Timofei Radya in Yekaterinburg had especially great resonance: Stability and Letter to Vladimir. The first was held in December 2012, when the artist created an installation which consisted of 55 special forces’ shields which were made to look like a house of cards, with a lonely throne at the top. Like performances of the groups Collective Actions and Mukhomory [Toadstools] in the second half of the 1970s, this action was unimaginable in the city with doubled police presence and instead it had to be held in an empty field with a minimum of viewers; it became famous through the photographic documentation on the Internet.[41] The second action took place on 3 March 2014, just a few days after the start of the process of the removal of the Independent Republic of Crimea from Ukraine. On a large advertising board placed next to the office of the representative of the President of Russia in the Ural region, Timofei Radya posted a message to Vladimir Putin regarding the arrival of Russian troops in the Ukraine: ‘All the bullets directed by Russians and Ukrainians at each other are on a special time frame: they will fly through years. Girls and boys will grow up and will no longer remember you and me, but the bullets will land in their hearts and heads, and they will shoot at each other, with the special bullets that will fly through the years. No one will stop those bullets, since it is much harder than shooting, therefore you, Vladimir, should re-consider this one more time, since one must love one’s Motherland.’[42] This appeal was not heard and the poster was taken down the same day: it is not known if it has been saved.

The attempt to introduce uncensored protest art into the museum and gallery world, which led to a trial of Andrei Erofeev and Yuri Samodurov in Moscow, also failed in the regions. After the cycle of works by the Krasnoyarsk artist Vasily Slonov, Welcome! Sochi 2014 was shown in June 2013 at the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art, the director and creator of this museum, Marat Guelman, who made an incredible contribution to the development and legitimization of contemporary art in Russia, was fired. After the coup in Ukraine in early 2014, the annexation of Crimea, and the start of a new loop in the spiral of the Cold War between the government of Russia and countries of the West, there was an obvious increase in the state’s ideological pressure on civil rights, which in turn led to a significant narrowing of the borders of what is accepted as ‘legitimate’ self-expression in public spaces, and protest where art-activism does not fit in at all.[43]

Let’s try to do a preliminary summary. One of the main problems is that art-activists in today’s Russia have absolutely no place to show their works, they have absolutely no hope of finding state support (and everyone has to have some income), there are no publishing houses ready to publish albums of works by contemporary artists and political actionists—and this on top of the fact that every action (including absolutely peaceful ones with no vandalism involved) is fraught with the danger of criminal and administrative prosecution.

Based on one of his trials, Matvei Krylov created an autobiographical collage in 2010 called One-Way Ticket. At the time he was released with a suspended sentence. ‘His artistic and activist approach to everything is more than an aesthetic form of a civic position, it is a lifestyle,’ wrote his friend and colleague in art-activism Denis Mustafin.[44] This lifestyle led to his subsequent arrest on 29 October 2011 and a seven-month term in prison. Bearing in mind that two activists of Voina—Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev—three members of Pussy Riot—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich—as well as Petr Pavlensky were considered to be extremely dangerous, and were placed under arrest. Indeed they do not exhaust the list of art actionist political prisoners: others include Artem Loskutov in Russia and Alexander Volodarsky in Ukraine. The current situation is an unquestionable success for the regime in its struggle against political and civil actionism.

In October 2016 the European Court of Human Rights obliged Russia to pay compensation to the mother of the Voina activist Leonid Nikolaev for his illegal arrest in 2010. However ‘justice’ came a year after his death, too late for Nikolaev, who feared an arrest and spent his last years under a false name and in terrible poverty. Petr Pavlensky and his companion and comrade-in-arms Oksana Shalygina noted without surprise ‘how much attention the ideological apparatus pays to the events in the field of art and the resources it allocates to the control and introduction of agents who directly or obliquely influence the collapse of nascent solidarity.’[45] And in fact, the regime’s struggle against protest actionism was amazingly long and persistent; it cost the authorities, especially during the trial of Pussy Riot, much damage to their image, but in the end, the authorities won.

Today there are no art-activists in prison, so the authorities no longer need to face the pressure from the West to free actionists arrested for ‘hooliganism.’ However, there are no more art-activists and actionists working productively, who could have a significant public resonance; some have gone silent, others have emigrated, replacing their intentions of overthrowing the regime with concerns on how to survive in foreign countries. Still some continue trying, without any opportunity to discuss their work anywhere. In the last ten years Russian art-activism had gone through an unprecedented takeoff, following prediction of Tatiana Volkova who said five years ago that , ‘Art-activism will only flourish now.’[46] In retrospective, it is clear that the authorities crushed the ascent of political actionism quite successfully; 2012 was the peak of post-Soviet art-activism, after which the vector changed direction, and the virgin soil became scorched earth. We do not know if something meaningful awaits us—or when.

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


[1] See Lia Adashevsky’s interview of Anton Nikolaev ‘‘Ob artivisme, provintsii i politiki [About Artivism, the Provinces, and Politics]’’ in Dialog iskusstv, no. 5, September–October 2011, pp. 86–88.

[2] See Alek D. Epstein, Total’naia ‘Voina’: Art-aktivizm epokhi tandemokratii [Total ‘War’: Art Activism in the Age of the Tandemocracy] (Moscow–Riga: Umlyaut Network, 2012), pp. 16–34.

[3] See Alek D. Epstein, ‘Arest uchastnits gruppy Pussy Riot kak katalizator khudozhestvenno-grazhdanskogo aktivizma [The Arrest of Pussy Riot Members as Catalyst of Civic and Art Activism]’ // Neprikosnovennyi zapas [NZ: Debates on Politics and Culture], No. 4 (84), July–August 2012, pp. 104–119.

[4] For all the frequent references in the press stating that Leonid Nikolaev ‘headed the group’ see, for example: Konstantin Makarsky, ‘Uchastnik art-gruppy ‘Voina’ Leonid Nikolaev pogib v Podmoskov’e [Member of ‘Voina’ Art Group Leonid Nikolaev Died Outside Moscow]’ in MK, 24 September 2015).

[5] The culturologist Alexei Krizhevsky expressed an alternative view. In his words, ‘cultural figures did not remain on the sidelines in the protests of 2011–2012, however the protest element did not form a new cultural stratum and did not give rise to new cultural heroes.’ Citing: Alexei Krizhevsky, ‘Protest bez geroia [Protest Without a Hero]’ // portal, 13 December 2012.

[6] See, for example, Grigory Kronikh’s interview with Artem Loskutov, ‘Ia postroil kommunizm dlia sebia [I Built Communism for Myself]’ //portal RIA Novosti, 27 June 2013.

[7] Letter from Tatiana Volkova to the participants of the Mediaudar Festival, 25 August 2016.

[8] See: Alek D. Epstein and Nika Maksimyuk, ‘Problemy dokumentirovaniia i izucheniia art-aktsionizma v strane vozrozhdaushchegosia samoderzhaviia [The Problems of Documenting and Studying Art-Actionism in a Country of Rising Autocracy]’ // Neprikosnovennyi zapas [NZ: Debates on Politics and Culture], No. 6 (92), November–December 2013, pp. 43–69.

[9] See the catalogue Performans v Rossii. 1910–2010. Kartografiia istorii [Performance in Russia. 1910–2010. Cartography of History], edited by Sasha Obukhova (Moscow: Garage, 2014), pp. 208–213, 216–217, and 226–227.

[10] See: Ekaterina Degot, ‘Pochemu ia golosovala za ‘Voinu’ [Why I Voted for Voina]’ // portal Open Space, 13 April 2011.

[11] See: Andrey Kovalev, Rossiiskii aktsionizm. 1990–2000 [Russian Actionism. 1990–2000] (Moscow: World Art Museum, 2007), pp. 32 and 37.

[12] Ibid., pp. 360–363.

[13] The stela was engraved with the names of Marx, Engels, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Jaures, Proudhon, Bakunin, Chernyshevsky, Plekhanov, and others.

[14] See: Grigorii Revzin, ‘Tsena koshchunstva [The Price of Blasphemy]’ // Kommersant–Vlast’, No. 28 (881), 19 July 2010, pp. 14–16.

[15] See: Dimitri Galkin’s invterview with Yuri Samodurov ‘Zashchishchat’ printsipy svetskogo gosudarstva [Defending the Principles of the Secular State’ // the journal-catalogue Russia 2 (project head Marat Guelman), No. 1, January 2005, pp. 44–47.

[16] See Alexei Krizhevsky’s interview with Alexander Savko ‘Protsess sil’no napominal inkvizitsiu [The Trial Strongly Resembled an Inquisition]’ //portal, 21 December 2011.

[17] See the catalogue of works in this series: Khimery Kheidiz [Hades’ Chimeras], edited by Alexander Panov (Moscow, 2009).

[18] The works in this series are reproduced in an academic edition published in Russian and German: Friedrich Nietzsche, Tak govoril Zaratustra [Thus Spoke Zarathustra] (Moscow: The Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences, 2004).

[19] See Alek D. Epstein, Total’naia ‘Voina’: Art-aktivizm epokhi tandemokratii [Total ‘War’: Art Activism in the Age of the Tandemocracy], pp. 147–168.

[20] See: Viktoria Lomasko and Anton Nikolaev, Zapretnoe iskusstvo [Forbidden Art] (St. Petersburg: Bumkniga, 2011).

[21] Sunday, 22 January 1905, in St Petersburg, Russia, when unarmed demonstrators were fired by the troops as they marched towards the Winter Palace to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II.

[22] Several albums of reproductions of his works have been published, the most representative is: Vasya Lozhkin, Zhizn’—veselyi karnaval [Life Is a Merry Carnival] (Moscow: Tioindigo Gallery, 2014).

[23] See reproductions of all the works exhibited in the album: Iskusstvo na barrikadakh: Pussy Riot, ‘Avtobusnaia vystavka’ i protestnyi art-aktivizm [Art on the Barricades: Pussy Riot, The Bus Exhibition and Protest Art Activism], edited by Alek D. Epstein (Moscow: Victor Bondarenko/Russia for Everyone & Kolonna Publications, 2012), pp. 73–111.

[24] See Iskusstvo pod bul’dozerom. Siniaia kniga [Art Under the Bulldozer. The Blue Book], compiled by Alexander Glezer (London: Overseas Publications, 1976).

[25] See Alek D. Epstein, Proekt Victora Bondarenko i Evgenii Mal’tcevoi ‘Dukhovnaia bran’’: Bor’ba za novuiu zhiz’ v iskusstve sakral’nykh obrazov khristianstva [Spiritual Combat, a Project by Victor Bondarenko and Evgeniya Maltceva: The Struggle for a New Life in Art for Sacred Images of Christianity] (Moscow: Russia for Everyone & Kolonna Publications, 2012).

[26] One of the paintings seized by the police depicted President Vladimir Putin in women’s underwear.

[27] Milena Orlova pointed this out in her article ‘Oni zapisalis’ dobrovol’tsami [They Volunteered]’ // ArtKhronika [Art Chronicle], No. 4, April 2011, pp. 44–48.

[28] Although Voina’s last action, Fucked Prometheus, took place on 31 December 2011 —after Pussy Riot had performed three actions, including Release the Cobblestones, where the activists, inspired by the overthrow of Egypt’s ‘eternal president,’ called for ‘repeating Tahir on the Red Square’.

[29] See: Dmitri Volchek, “V georgievskoi miasorubke [In the St. George Meat Grinder]” // portal Radio Svoboda [Radio Liberty], 9 May 2015.

[30] Letter from Alexander Volodarsky to the author, 26 October 2012.

[31] See Dmitri Volchek’s interview of Sergei Zakharov, ‘Menia trizhdy vyvodili na rasstrel [They Took Me Out To Be Shot Three Times]’ //portal Radio Svoboda [Radio Liberty], 18 October 2014.

[32] See Dmitri Volchek’s interview of Darya Marchenko ‘Litso povelitelia voiny [Face of the Warlord]’ // portal Radio Svoboda [Radio Liberty], 28 July 2015.

[33] See: Alek D. Epstein, ‘Art-Aktsionizm v Rossii i Ukraine: tochki peresecheniia [Art Actionism in Russia and Ukraine: Points of Intersection]’ // Teatr [Theatre], No. 17 (June 2014), pp. 150–159.

[34] See Zinaida Troitskaya, ‘Davai sdelaem eto za nikh [Let’s Do This For Them]’ // Portal Chastnyi correspondent [Private Correspondent], 5 November 2009.

[35] Pasha Kas reworked Matisse’s famous painting, commissioned by Sergei Shchukin and now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, in the context of the ecological disaster in ‘Kazakhstan’s Magnitka’; see: ‘Almatinskii khudozhnik sozdal art-manifest protiv zavodov v Temirtau [Almaty Artist Created an Art Manifesto Against Factories in Temirtau]’ // Portal (Kazakhstan), 20 April 2016.

[36] His works dedicated to the confrontation of protesters and police At Sunset and Battle, made in 2012–2013 under the obvious influence of the protest rallies of ‘angry urbanites’.

[37] See: ‘V Novosibirske poiavilis’ ikony v podderzhku Pussy Riot [Icons in Support of Pussy Riot Have Appeared in Novosibirsk]’ // portal, 13 March 2012.

[38] See: Anna Tolstova, ‘Ikona Pussy Riot iz’iata iz interneta [Pussy Riot Icon Removed from the Internet]’ // Kommersant, 9 September 2013.

[39] See Anna Landikhova’s interview of co-curator of Apocalypse … in a Chocolate House Konstantin Doroshenko, ‘Korrektirovat’ iskusstvo s ogliadkoi na ch’u-to dremuchest’—unylyi put’ [Editing Art with an Eye on Someone’s Backwardness Is a Dreary Path]’ // Art Ukraine, 22 June 2012.

[40] Letter from Leonid Danilov to author, 27 February 2013.

[41] See: Performans v Rossii. 1910–2010. Kartografiia istorii [Performance in Russia. 1910–2010. Cartography of History], p. 234.

[42] See Dmitrii Filimonov, ‘Radia i smert’ [Radya and Death]’ // Russkii pioneer [Russian Scout], No. 4 (46), May 2014, pp. 47–50.

[43] See Alek D. Epstein, ‘Mezhdu podvalami, sudami i emigratsiei: art-aktivizm vremeni vseobshchei mobilizatsii [Between Cellars, Courts, and Emigration: Art Activism in the Times of Total Mobilization]’ // Neprikosnovennyi zapas [NZ: Debates on Politics and Culture], No. 6 (104), November–December 2015, pp. 71–94.

[44] Denis Mustafin, ‘Legko li byt’ molodym [Is It Easy To Be Young]’ //, 1 November 2011.

[45] Petr Pavlensky and Oksana Shalygina, ‘Prizraki identichnosti [Ghosts of Identity]’ // Politicheskaia propaganda [Political Propaganda], No. 2, 29 August 2013, p. 3.

[46] See Alina Streltsova’s interview of Tatiana Volkova, ‘Art-aktivizm seichas budet tol’ko rastsvetat’ [Art Activism Will Only Flourish Now]’ // Iskusstvo [Art], No. 3 (582), July–September 2012, pp. 190–198.