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Russia's Art War - An Interview with Voina

"Voina" is Russian for "war," and true to their name, Voina are at war with the Russian government.

Things aren't going so well in Russia at the moment. Years of war with rebels and jihadis in the southern Caucasus regions have brought the suicide bombers to Moscow and other Russian cities, many of which--if that canny silver fox Julian Assange is to be believed--are in the hands of the mafia. Freedom of expression is tightly controlled, too. Journalists who disagree with the government are often beaten and in some cases killed, while public demonstrations are brutally crushed and artists routinely imprisoned for "endangering the state."

One such group of artists go by the name of Voina. "Voina" is Russian for "war," and true to their name, Voina are at war with the Russian government.

The art-prank collective have spent the last few years doing everything they can to annoy the powers that be. They stage orgies in public museums, draw 200 foot dicks on drawbridges opposite KGB HQ, and throw cats at McDonald's employees on International Workers' Day.

Recently though, the state has grown tired of public humiliation. In autumn of last year, state police arrested and detained two of the group's leaders, Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev, after the pair were found overturning police cars. They were imprisoned after a show trial, but then a figure emerged from the darkness to snatch the artists from the jaws of the gulag bed bugs: Banksy, who splashed some of that funky urban professional money he's been stacking by putting up Vorotnikov and Nikolayev's bail.

Unfortunately for Voina, the trouble didn't stop there, and Oleg and his wife Natalia Sokol were brutally attacked by security forces on their way home from a press conference. The attackers went as far as to injure their 2-year-old son, Kasper. Those scenes repeated themselves in front of the world's watching media on Friday, April first. In light of these events, I thought it would be a good time to transcribe the huge interview I did with them a couple of weeks back.

Vice: When and why were Voina formed?
Alexei Plutser-Sarno: The group was founded by Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol on February 23, 2007. I joined the group in December 2007 after drinking vodka with Oleg. In February 2008, I participated in the group's most infamous action, “Fuck for the Heir Medvedev’s Little Bear!” which was staged just before President Medvedev’s election. I'm the one wearing a tuxedo and a top hat and holding a black pre-electoral banner. I was surrounded by the copulating activists.

[caption id="attachment_25208" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Casually launching cats at McDonald's workers"]

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To the outside world, it seems that Russia is becoming more and more oppressive. So why aren't there more groups like Voina?
Oleg Vorotnikov: We aren't the only young people protesting. There are fearless anarchists, anti-fascists, and others. They remain unrecognized in the West, as they act anonymously and in secret.
Alexei: People here are really intimidated. Oleg, Leonid, and Natalia are brave artists, they don’t hide their faces and are not afraid of repercussions from the system.

What are the objectives of the group?
Alexei: We are proprietors of left-wing protest street action art. Our principles are honesty, intrepidity, and monumentality. The most monumental action was one dubbed "Dick Captured by KGB!" The phallus on the Liteyny drawbridge was 65 (213ft) by 27 meters (89ft). When the bridge was opened, our dick erected just opposite the headquarters of the KGB’s successor, the Federal Security Service, and laid its head against the cloudy sky.
Natalia Sokol: There were nine activists who painted the dick in 23 seconds. And there were seven guards on the bridge, who rushed at us at once.

Do you think Voina could help inspire the promotion of democracy and freedom in Russia?
Oleg: Courageous young people appear in Russia because of people like us. We have a rule: every next action should be stronger, more impressive, and monumental than the previous one.
Natalia: It seems to me that the Russian authorities are impressed more and more every time. That’s probably why they want to destroy us so much.

[caption id="attachment_25215" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Skull & crossbones illuminated on the Russian parliament building"]

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[caption id="attachment_25209" align="aligncenter" width="422" caption=""Dick Captured by KGB!" - A 200 foot cock drawn on a drawbridge opposite the FSB headquarters"][/caption]

Do the Russian government and some Russian people miss the communist era?
Alexei: They don’t miss the communist era, as they never left it. Moreover they never left the era of Ivan the Terrible.

Do you think the general public enjoy your acts of civil disobedience and do you know of any copycat acts?
Alexei: The whole country applauded our 200 foot dick. Everyone understands what this “Fuck you!” means. Our art is too innovative for people to make successful copycats acts.
Yana Sarna: By the way, there were some pathetic and unsuccessful copycat actions. For example, a flash mob known as 'Лобзай мусора'--or as we call it, "cop-trash smooching” or “pinky kisses”--is a glamorous and sexist attempt at a Voina-like action, which was undertaken by the plagiarist and provoker Pyotr Verzilov.

That doesn't sound like a very strong character recommendation.
Oleg: This performance has nothing to do with the Voina Group. It was a provocation by police stooge Pyotr Verzilov and his girlfriends. He was expelled from the group a year and a half ago. He ratted out Alexander Volodarsky, who was then detained for two months in prison and has now been sentenced to one year in a colony for his actions. At that time Pyotr proudly declared to the group that Alexander’s imprisonment would be great PR for Voina, and took full responsibility for the betrayal and reveled in it.
Yana: After this event we drummed him out of the group. Pyotr Verzilov also tried to rat Oleg and Natalia out to the police, but they managed to escape. While Oleg and Leonid were in prison, Verzilov published statements on behalf of the group calling for, among other things, Putin’s assassination. Those statements served to increase the severity of charges brought against Voina.

[caption id="attachment_25210" align="aligncenter" width="548" caption=""The Palace Revolution" - Overturning cop cars in St. Petersburg"]

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[caption id="attachment_25268" align="aligncenter" width="635" caption="'Crazy' Leonid running over FSB vehicles wearing a blue bucket, highlighting the impunity FSB vehicles have when using their sirens, even if that means running people down"][/caption]

Yeah, I can see how they might have done that.
Yana: It’s a shame that those groups' epigones fill lacunas of their artistic impotence with the Voina name.
Alexei: Pyotr Verzilov’s Live Journal blog has been used to discredit the group by publishing fake news about Voina actions that never happened. On this site, like a complete sexist, Pyotr Verzilov calls women a “petticoat faction,” or “totally fucked up girls with a mess of left-wing theories, school lesbianism, and hatred towards males in their heads.”

OK.
Leonid Nikolayev: The Voina Group doesn’t violently kiss cops on their mouths—we fuck them with our 200 foot dick.
Oleg: There are more than 200 activists who have participated in our actions. Many of them keep working with us.
Alexei: We are telling you about this and giving so many details because we are absolutely shocked by this idiotic shit!

[caption id="attachment_25217" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Pyotr Verzilov's copycat action - "Pinky Kisses"."]

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Do you think Pyotr could've been a police informant from the start?
Alexei: He is crazy about self-promotion. Ratting an activist out for him is, first and foremost, a possibility to spin in front of TV cameras and give interviews. Whether he's an informant or not, I can say one thing: he is such an unprincipled guy that you can't be surprised by any deceitful thing he does.
Oleg: He has also robbed from me—he stole the group’s archive and all my books on art.

[caption id="attachment_25267" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Natalia Sokol's face after being attacked by Russian security forces"]

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Tell me about one of your most infamous actions “Fuck for the Heir Medvedev’s Little Bear!”
Alexei: The sex orgy was staged in the Biological Museum just before Medvedev's election [click]. With the orgy we showed the disgracefulness and falseness of the elections. It was our portrait of pre-electoral Russia, where everyone fucks each other while an illegitimate President watches with delight.

Was it hard for the guys to get boners in a cold museum?
Oleg: The Voina Group never suffers from impotence, neither sexual nor metaphysical.

Any thoughts as to what Medvedev thought about it? What was the general public's reaction?
Oleg: The authorities don’t think about anything else but how to plunder more petrodollars, suppress the protest, and violate our rights.

What inspired "A Cop in a Priest's Robe"?
Oleg: It’s an absurd image of a cop wearing a priest’s robe and enjoying total impunity. For that action, I took five large bags of food in the supermarket, went through the counter without paying, passed security, and left. I met no challenge. A cop in a priest’s robe is like Satan: he can do anything he likes.

[caption id="attachment_25205" align="aligncenter" width="635" caption="Oleg Vorotnikov as "A Cop in a Priest's Robe""]

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Did the McDonald's staff enjoy having cats thrown at them? Where did you get the little kitties from?
Natalia: We collected hungry cats on the outskirts of Moscow. We made an action and fed them with free hamburgers at the same time. The cats artfully landed on all fours, snatched meat, and ran away.

Was it hard drawing a 200 foot penis on a bridge and do you think it was a case of penis envy that annoyed the FSB so much?
Leonid: There were 66 liters of paint. Nine activists were pouring it from the cans onto the bridge while running from the bridge security.
Natalia: The guards started kicking us—that’s why one ball was left unfinished. In the end Leonid was caught and beaten.

What were the conditions of the prison, and did the guys receive any threats on their lives while inside?
Oleg: During the first week of detention, Leonid and I didn’t have the opportunity to choose our own attorneys. We were not allowed to make any phone calls. We were being questioned without a transcript. I haven't been able to feel my left arm since November 15th, when I was handcuffed for 17 hours.
Alexei: Healthy prisoners are kept together with people suffering from contagious diseases such as TB, HIV, and hepatitis in mass cells. There were a lot of bedbugs in the cell.
Oleg: In my cell, the window was broken and cold wind was blowing inside. The cell walls were covered with mold, fungus, and foul liquid. The cell was very small. The living conditions were unsanitary. There was neither drinking water nor medical treatment.
Leonid: There is no opportunity to do exercise in prison. Oleg and his cell mates made a ball from old dirty socks to play football.

Do you see a parallel between Voina and Banksy? Do you admire his art?
Oleg: I've always admired the works of Banksy. He is huge.
Alexei: What’s very important for us is that he gave us a helping hand in the most critical moment. He bailed both Oleg and Leonid out and paid for their lawyers. But what’s more: he drew the world’s attention to this problem—the problem of human rights violations in Russia.

What will happen if Oleg and Leonid lose their case, will there be retaliatory Voina actions?
Oleg: There's been no judicial system in Russia for a long time now. The decisions on political cases are made in the Kremlin cabinets. Judges don’t give a damn about laws. They obey the command from above. In Russia people don’t “win” or “lose” criminal cases.

Who attacked Oleg and Leonid after their press conference? Any hope of prosecuting the attackers?
Yana: On March 3rd, in St. Petersburg, seven plainclothes policemen attacked Oleg Vorotnikov, Leonid Nikolayev, and Natalia Sokol with her little baby Kasper and beat them up severely.
Oleg: One police officer attacked Lenya from behind. They pushed the baby's stroller away and hit Kasper against his face. Two others knocked Natalia down and started kicking her. They injured her hand. I managed to free myself from the cops who were holding me and covered Natalia with my body. The blows rained against my back and head.
Alexei: In Russia there is not the slightest chance of cops being punished for their actions. They have complete impunity.

[caption id="attachment_25211" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="'Concert in a Coutroom' - Singing "All Cops Are Bastards" at the gathered cops and lawyers."]

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What's your personal favorite Voina actions?
Yana: I like the action "Cock in the Ass." That was a punk concert in the courtroom where Voina activists brought guitars and amplifiers and performed the song “All Cops Are Bastards!” It was real fun!

What does the future hold for Voina?
Alexei: Voina’s future has already come. With our art we are waging a war with the Mafia who hold power in Russia. People around the world hear our message.

And what do you want for Russia, ultimately?
Natalia: We want a bloodless revolution. We want to put an end to this filthy, authoritarian regime.

If you want to follow Voina's struggle against their criminal charges, visit free-voina.org. To check out all of their actions since 2007, go here.

HENRY LANGSTON