Anna Matveeva

                         St. Petersburg Votes Atypically

On 3 August 1976, a sign in white paint with meter-high letters appeared on the wall of the Sovereign’s Bastion of Peter and Paul Fortress, facing the Neva River: YOU CRUCIFY FREEDOM, BUT THE HUMAN SOUL DOES NOT KNOW SHACKLES!  The sign had been painted at night, when low tide revealed a strip of solid ground on the walls of the fortress; by morning the water had risen and it was impossible to walk up to the sign to wash it off or cover it up. The police had to try hard to cover up the ‘ traces of the crime’ from boats; they brought some unusual material with them by boat in order to cover the sign—ten coffin lids (the workshop that made them was nearby and they were apparently the first thing that came to hand—and, of course, they added to the eloquence of the symbolism of the show). The authors of the sign were soon arrested: the nonconformist artists Yuli Rybakov and Oleg Volkov. They were sentenced to 6 and 7 years in jail respectively.

Their sign is considered to be the first case of political actionism in Leningrad - St. Petersburg in recent time, but it did not appear out of the blue. By that time there was a heavily populated cultural underground: artistic, musical, and literary. There was also political dissidence. Samizdat journals were published, banned literature circulated in rotaprint copies, apartment exhibitions were held and so were pop-up open air shows on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, which were considered both by their organizers and even more so by the KGB as acts of civil protest, even if the subject matter was innocent. Sergei Sergeev, a member of the Alipi art group, asked, ‘Listen, my works are still-lifes and some other innocent genres which are completely unrelated to politics, what is the problem?’ The supervisor from the KGB at the apartment exhibition in the late 1970s replied: ‘The fact that you are breathing our Soviet air is bad enough!’ [1]

In 1974 and 1975 the underground managed to stick its head up over the parapet: on the outskirts of the city, in the decrepit Nevsky and Gaza palaces of culture there were exhibitions of ‘different art,’ which became epic: the queues were several kilometers long, the underground artists found new colleagues and quite a large audience, and the wave of enthusiasm supported the creation of TEV—the Association of Experimental Exhibitions, which united ‘outsider artists’ and became the forerunner of TEII—the Association of Experimental Visual Art, a powerful opposition to the Artists’ Union. But every step the nonconformists took was in opposition to the KGB, which could not always determine whether they should just watch the artists or start persecuting them. In May 1976 the artist Oleg Rukhin burned to death in his studio; he was a notable participant of the Gaza and Nevsky exhibitions and the Moscow ‘bulldozer exhibition’ of 1974. Everyone was certain that the fire was started on the orders of the KGB to get rid of this inconvenient artist. The artists wanted to hold a pop-up show at the Peter and Paul Fortress in memory of Rukhin; but the show was forbidden. The result was the cri de coeur action by Rybakov and Volkov, and the result of the action was an exile to Siberian camps. The artists served their full terms.

Once out of prison, Yuli Rybakov continued his creative and social activity: he became one of the founders of the first bastion of nonconformist art—the famous artist squat on Pushkinskaia Street, number 10—and he managed to get official status for the squat as a cultural centre and is still a member of its board.

‘St. Petersburg always votes atypically,’ reported sociologists who studied the elections in Russia from 1991 onwards. This meant that it votes primarily in protest. The city was the cradle of three revolutions not only because it was the capital at the time: Moscow was the capital much longer but with many fewer disturbances. Perhaps, St. Petersburg character  is to blame: reserved, used to not expressing dissatisfaction until the last, but when it boils over, it explodes and accepts no more compromises. Perhaps it’s the history of revolutions, Stalin’s repressions and the blockade, which does not dispose one to tenderness; perhaps it is the genius of the place and the way of life, in which freedom was always a higher value than prosperity, which breeds and attracts all kinds of creative freaks. In any case, St. Petersburg was always characterized by the spirit of protest: if not tied directly to politics, then at least  to aesthetics, taking the following stunt ‘I am not against the Soviet regime, I simply don’t like your solar system’, But when it came to politics, St. Petersburg readily joined the opposition. It was always closer to the city purely stylistically.

And it was stylistically and not politically that St. Petersburg (Leningrad rather, in those days) artists of the late 1980s and early 1990s perceived Gorbachev’s freedom and the subsequent officially-established democratic state. They did not start making serious political statements: they intentionally made statements that were not serious, but ironic, trickster-like, and mocking. Their protest was a protest simultaneously against those who were ‘very pro’ and those who were ‘very contra’: they mocked both. To this day it is difficult to make a Petersburger talk frankly about his political views:  first they would make you share all your secrets and mock you a dozen times. The art practitioners of political protest in St. Petersburg to this day remain not only ironic, but ready to put up a comedy show, feuilleton, a cabaret enlaced with  double and even triple  hidden meaning. Paradoxically, it was the only format that allowed St. Petersburg artists to remain completely serious.

The political freedom of the late 1980s and early 1990s did not become an era of ideologically charged art in St. Petersburg. Maintaining their ‘above the fray’ position, the artists did not try to become part of the current situation—they were enjoying it as a whole. The older generation of nonconformists, who had been through apartment exhibitions, repressions, and party control, were simply happy that they could now exhibit in public spaces—although many entered into politics  independently of art: for example, Yuli Rybakov became involved in human rights campaign and in 1990 organized the first State Commission on Human Rights and was a deputy of the State Duma for the first three congresses.

The next generation perceived political reforms as part of the chaos in law, life, aesthetics, and ethics—and as extra material for artistic research, that is, for mockery. The atmosphere of feast during the plague, the decadent chic of the 1990s, was an inoculation against taking too seriously the surrounding circus in which human fate skyrocketed in price and collapsed as quickly as money.

Timur Novikov went from the ‘new artist’ ideology he had created, which was intended as a punk fuck-the-state art lobby, to creating neo-academism with the primacy of ideals of classical beauty that existed outside of time and space (which could never have become such a powerful symbol of alternative fashion anywhere else as it could in the impoverished and torn Russia of the 1990s, focused on modernization and not classicism). But Novikov knew the price of his game, had clear political views, and valued social projects. (In the late 1980s, not without Novikov’s input, the Free University opened and worked intermittently for two years; uncontrolled by the state or official agencies, it offering a place for independent seminars and lectures[2]). But like his comrades-in-arms, he preferred the public role of a trickster to that of a public speaker and escapism to active participation.

That is why the political series of Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, seemingly the most apolitical artist of St. Petersburg, came as such an unexpected discovery. People were used to thinking of Monroe as a homosexual travesty-fairy with fake breasts and blonde wig. Behind this façade, they managed to overlook his passion for the political context of the Soviet and post-Soviet era, his experiments with portraits of the members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, mass-published in the USSR, and his blatantly disloyal photo collages—made up as Putin, in camouflage and army helmet depicted against the background of the Kremlin towers. Only Mamyshev’s post-mortal exhibitions showed that he was an artist with a great interest in politics, trying to make his art political, and paying much more attention to ideology than to makeup. They demonstrated that the political component of his art had been important to him from the beginning, when he drew with markers on the portraits of party big wigs, and to the end, when he photographed himself as various Russian politicians, mockingly making each of them a possible hero of a soap opera. Mamyshev turned out to be much broader and greater than the standard blond ‘twin of Monroe.’ Unfortunately, we understood that too late, only upon seeing the artist’s posthumous legacy.

Nevertheless, total irony was the was the main characteristic of the majority of St. Petersburg artists in the late 1990s who turned to political themes. Probably the most interesting phenomenon of the art scene at the time was the New Dumb Ones Association, which totally embraced the aesthetics of the absurd as being the best reflection of the spirit of the times. What else could an artist do in an era defined by art historian Andrei Khlobystin as the time of the Great Semantic Catastrophe?[3] And whose goal was it to build a house where the ground was a whirlpool and the roof a hurricane? The New Dumb Ones raised the banner of the absurd: with their programmatic dumbness, close to Zen, they barred themselves from the intellectual community and thereby avoided getting involved in in any movements and parties.

But they worked as publicly as possible, and in that public gaze they didn’t care what they absurdized: the fiery calls of Timur Novikov, when Novikov organized an action in 1998 on the 500th anniversary of the burning of Savonarola, burning his own paintings and those of his friends ‘infected with modernism’; or  when ‘Dumb’ Sergei Spirikhin decided to fry eggs on Novikov’s bonfire and came out with eggs and frying pan; as befits a self-proclaimed failure, he was late for Novikov’s performance, and succumbed to frying the eggs on the tramway lines in the middle of Liteiny Prospect. Also in 1998 the Dumb Ones were the only artists to react to the elections to the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg: on election day, 6 December, they held an action called The New Image of a Leader. ‘The participants came out on Liteiny Prospect near the Mariinsky Hospital and displayed slogans which read: ‘We will make your life beautiful’; ‘Be individualists—demand the universal’; ‘Unleash your political animal’—accompanied by a picture of the famous cartoon character crocodile Gena; ‘The new image of a leader’ accompanied by a picture of Gena’s friend Cheburashka, also the much-loved cartoon character; ‘Long live all creatures’ and ‘No choice.’ The artist Vadim Flyagin attached an enormous propeller to his back, thus personifying the Karlsson cartoon character[4], and Vladimir Kozin attached a postcard (‘little icon’) to his chest with images of all kinds of characters. After displaying the slogans, the participants handed out household soap, salt, and matches to passersby in the name of these famous cartoon characters, who were much more ‘real’ than the unknown or fictitious candidates to the Legislative Assembly.’[5]

Two years earlier, in the performance Big Laundry, they washed the Russian flag with soap and detergent in order to remove the ‘dirt.’ But it’s hard to consider these events, directly tied in with the ‘newspaper’ politics, more significant for the legacy of the Dumb Ones than their ‘internal doings’ such as performance Carrying a Tea Table to the Sunset (1996, where for two days the group carried a table, folding chairs, and a typewriter through the streets, from time to time setting up the table and chairs, having tea and philosophizing and making a transcript of the conversation) or the Inevitability of the Masterpiece. A Conference Dinner (1997, lectures ‘on the masterpiece and masterpieciality’ which were delivered in front of a large pot, in which pig’s head was being cooked). Man’s insignificance in the face of politics, which appeared like an extraterrestrial howl coming out of the TV, life, and fate were  equally important subjects for the New Dumb Ones.

The followers of this absurdist line—albeit much more daring, angry, and punk—were the Protez (Prosthesis) group, which worked in St. Petersburg in 2006-2010. Their main theme was the cannibalistic underside of pop culture, which included politics. They proclaimed: ‘We are artist-loaders   ‘killed by the garbage can’ and art interests us only out of innate passion for self-expression. We are representatives of the ‘yellow press’ in visual art, and the main content of our work is  frightening lyricism. We are mostly interested in various boundless expressions of the basic, lowest instincts of man. There are five themes that interest us: sex, violence, drugs, madness, and war,’ reads their manifesto Charge Against Society. ‘We are researching the manifestation of such human vices as stupidity, greed, boorishness etc., for which we regularly hold anthropological actions.’[6] The Prostheses developed their own genre of ‘hard jumping’: under cover of the night they would come out with brushes and paint and change advertising posters across the city into so-called ‘breakthroughs of the infernal into the urban space’. Their anthropological actions included, for example, Liquidation of Goods Confiscated by Customs , held on 13 May 2006 on the Palace Square in St. Petersburg, right in front of the Hermitage museum. Among the confiscated goods there were works by the Prostheses, which had previously been sold for 200 euros to Italian admirers. The Italians were not allowed to take the works out of Russia: under the law on ‘Cultural artifacts being taken out without appropriate paperwork’ these works were confiscated by customs and returned to the authors. In protest the artists decided to liquidate the confiscated works. ‘Because the works were already sold once before, the authors feel obliged to offer them for sale at a price of expired utilitarian goods. At 13:00 on the Palace Square, the participants began giving away the works to all comers for 200 conditional non-monetary units, for example, 200 cigarette butts picked up on the square, 200 squats, 200 push-ups, 200 beer tops, etc.’[7] They sold seven works, after which the actionists were arrested and charged with ‘unsanctioned exchange of paintings for cigarettes’. After they appeared in court, the case was closed due to lack of evidence. On 2 December 2007 - day of elections to  the State Duma  which was accompanied by falsification and secretly ‘selling votes’, the Prostheses decided to openly sell their votes: ‘We absolutely do not believe that the election of some fucking political party can change anything. Moreover, we believe that all perceptions about civil and social relationships are too old-fashioned and that only commodity-money link is still working. Therefore the art group Prosthesis and a number of sympathizing quasi-artistic elements are prepared on that day to announce openly their readiness to sell their vote in the elections for a sum that suits them. We will show all the social faux activists that we are indifferent to their hopeless promises, we want money right now! Don’t be a sucker! Sell your vote! A vote is a commodity like sanitary napkins, kidneys, or real estate!’[8] They, along with the poets Natalya Romanova and Artem Suslov and the author of this essay, stood at the entrance of election precinct No. 20 on the embankment of the Griboedov Canal with signs ‘Selling my vote,’ and were arrested as they expected by the police; in the police cells  they passed time before the hearing by reading poetry out loud. The magistrate’s court fined each of us 500 rubles for violating the law on public meetings. Everyone was happy, however they ‘regretted that none of us had the chance to sell his vote, which evinces the low level of the culture of commodity-money relations in our country.’[9]

In the mid-2000s, art movements which  declared to be political, with political actions, primarily leftwing, began appearing in St. Petersburg. Founded in 2004, the left-radical Petr Alexeev Resistance Movement (DSPA) had an ‘artistic cell’ (KhuYa DSPA), which mainly aimed to provide visual support to DSPA’s actions (street graffiti and banners Mutin—Pudak (2005), Valya, Go Away! (2011, protest against then-governor of St. Petersburg Valentina Matvienko),. In 2005 KhuYA DSPA hung a dummy of President Putin from a lamppost (Putin ofonarel [Putin is nuts, a visual pun on a slang term]);  in 2008 they burned a dummy of a policeman on Nevsky Prospect (Burn a Cop, against police brutality); in 2009 they organized an improvised court and punished  an unidentified extremists (Extremist, in support of Artem Loskutov who was imprisoned at the time); and in 2012 in the course of A Good Full Car of Truth it replaced the commercial ads in a metro carriage with posters and graphics based on the data from Goskomstat official statistics agency, showing the economic decline and the drop in living standards in Russia. The ‘Truth Carriage’ traveled on one of the lines of the St.Petersburg metro the whole day.

The DSPA collaborated with Voina (WAR), which is also an integral part of the St. Petersburg context: they did one of their most notable actions together, Cock in Captivity of the FSB on the night of 13 June 2010, when they painted very rapidly a huge penis with whitewash paint on the flap of the Liteiny Bridge. When the bridge was opened, the penis looked right into the windows of the St. Petersburg FSB on Liteiny Prospect, number 4, and nothing could be done about it until the next morning. The whole city was talking about this action, even those who had never had any interest in art or politics; it became internationally famous, the case of vandalism had to be abandoned (the water trucks easily washed the drawing off the asphalt in the morning, and there was no harm done to the bridge), and Voina received the Innovation State Art Prize for the action.

Art as political activism became the main strategy of the group What Is To Be Done, founded in 2003 by the artist Dmitri Vilensky who has become one of the famous Russian artists on the international scene. The number of their actions in the city space is not great, the group prefers the international Internet, publishing, and educational projects. However, they did found ‘Roza House of Culture’ in St. Petersburg, a counter public space where young left initiatives found shelter, for example the feminist art cooperative Shvemy, an experimental theatre, and an activist choir. In their School of Engaged Art What Is To Be Done educates the creative youth in a leftist spirit.

Naturally, when speaking of the art of political protest in St. Petersburg, we cannot leave out its main symbol and most famous figure—Pyotr Pavlensky. But  since there is already an essay dedicated to him in this catalogue, I just wanted to remind the reader  that he should not be viewed as a spontaneous pinpoint phenomenon: he is certainly part of the context of the general protest movement of the artists of Leningrad – St. Petersburg, and is its logical continuation.

The fact that this context is alive and continuous, developing out of its roots, is confirmed by the graffito that appeared on 3 August 2016 on the Pirogovskaia Embankment: YOU CRUCIFY FREEDOM, BUT THE HUMAN SOUL DOES NOT KNOW SHACKLES! On the 40th anniversary of Yuli Rybakov and Oleg Volkov’s action this sign—in a contemporary font—was repeated, without any sanctions, by the street artist Timofei Radya. Like his 1976 predecessors, it remained there for only a few hours and then was painted over. As Yuli Rybakov noted, it proves that this slogan has still not lost its relevance.


[1] Matveeva, Anna, ‘Mesta sily neofitsial’nogo iskusstva Leningrada. Chast’ 4. Skvota na Ligovka i gruppa ‘Alipii’ [Places of Power of Leningrad Unofficial Art. Part 4. Squats on Ligovka and the Alipii Group].’ Artgid, 18.11.2015,

. – it is already mentioned in the main text.

[2] Golynko-Volfson, Dmitri, ‘Strategiia i politika vsego novogo. Kak segodnia pisat’ kontseptual’nuiu biografiiu Timura Novikova i peterburgskogo iskusstrava 90-kh [Strategy and politics of everything new. How to write a conceptual biography of Timur Novikov and St. Petersburg art of the 90s today], Khudozhestvennyi zhurnal, no. 70, year, p.?

[3] Khlobystin, Andrei, ‘Iskusstvo ne (dlia) iskusstva. Sokrovenoe iskusstvo Peterburga [The Art of Not (for) Art. The Secret Art of St. Petersburg], Kommentarii, No. 9, 1996, p. ?

[4] Karlsson on the Roof – ‘a handsome, thoroughly clever, perfectly plump man in his prime’ –  is a character who features in a series of children's books by the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. A cartoon adaptation of the series became popular in the Soviet Union after it was first released in the 1970s. Karlsson, together with Cheburashka are still widely recognized as national icons.

[5] Raiskin, Amksim, ‘Vybora net [No choice],’ Maksimka, No. 3, 1998, p.?

[6] ‘Prediava obshchestvu [Charge Against Society]’ The Prosthesis group: Igor Mezheritsky, Grigory Yushchenko, Alexander Vilkin. 2006 on

[9] Ibid.