Art and protest in Putin’s Russia


With thanks to Liza Malyan

In the past few weeks living in London I have seen the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag on every corner. As little as a ribbon pinned to the lapel is a symbol of allegiance with the oppressed. It is easy to forget that the freedom to express such views is not universal. The stakes are high when it comes to protesting in Russia.

Marina Ovsyannikova, the woman who recently made headlines for protesting live on Russian news, could face up to 15 years for her actions. Those who choose to stand with pickets are quickly arrested and often face police brutality. Russian police are indiscriminate in their crackdowns, detaining even children protesting the invasion. In consideration of the safety of protestors, I have chosen to write only on those with a public, online presence.

In discussions I have had in the UK, I am often met with the opinion that the Russian people are brainwashed by propaganda and therefore complicit in the ongoing violence against Ukraine.

While some polls indicate a high level of public support for Putin, this is an oversimplification of the reality on the ground, and does a disservice to those who are using this moment to resist. In recent years groups such as Pussy Riot, Prigov, and VOINA have made headlines for their protests through performance art. While Russian artists face de-platforming in the West, it is worth remembering that Russian culture is not homogenous and there are those taking a stance against the war, at their own peril.

Russian art has a long history of building up and breaking down norms: think of abstracted Cubo-Futurist artists like Kandinsky, contrasted with Soviet-era propaganda posters. Such genres demonstrate the role of art in shaping the individual’s outlook. With social media becoming ever more restricted within Russia, the creation of artistic protest helps bridge the gap in true information. In the context of censorship, I am reminded of poets such as the wonderful Anna Akhmatova, who produced poetry of resistance that could not so much as be written down for fear of Stalin’s retaliation.

I spoke with Moscow-based animator and illustrator Katya Kuler. Kuler is involved in feminist art and anti-war resistance, and has emphasised the extent to which the war has worsened conditions for Russia’s artists.

“People are being arrested not only for performing protest art, but for wearing anti-war pins, green ribbons and for silent pickets.” She affirmed that police have subjected art activists to destructive house raids and was herself threatened with arrest for “discrediting Russian forces”.

According to Kuler, there has been a rise in pre-emptive prosecution of artists who have not yet produced anti-war artworks. She states that the emotional impact of artwork may carry more resonance than picketing alone.

Kuler believes that protesting as a collective undermines the significance of the individual, whereas creating protest art means “everybody will remember your name and connect it with art that you make”.

A collective of artists that has caught my attention is Pobegi, who stage exhibitions in the forests surrounding Moscow. Their mission is to create an autonomous, self-sustaining art system, independent from Russian institutions.

“We arrange exhibitions in the forest, because the forest is close to us as a system. The forest is a place of freedom, a primary source in which nature rules, which means that it is a zone of utmost sincerity.”

Here we see deviation from the norm not only in the content of Pobegi’s works, but in their choice of venue. The use of the forest as a space of emancipation is an act of protest against traditional institutions and urban spaces. Rather than benefitting from environments built upon years of oppression and imperialism, the forest is a return to nature.

Pobegi have taken a stance against the war in Ukraine, using the hashtag #побегимира (‘saplings of the world’) to bring together works which call for peace. This is an opportunity for anti-war protest artists to form a community without the immediate risks of arrest faced by street protestors.

Like Pobegi, performance artists Bez Naz incorporate the environment into their works. Their filmed performance Мирное шествие, a piece that situates the individual within a cityscape, was inspired by protests in Moscow’s Garden Ring. “Мирное шествие” can be translated both as ‘people walking’ and ‘peaceful protest’. The video, a looped clip of a young man running through the streets of Moscow, creates a sense of palpable urgency within a continuous cycle of motion. Its creators write:

“The film is an experience of the bodily living of protest marches, the passage of a conditional route. Rapid movement is usually born with the goal of catching up or leaving, but due to the cyclic nature of the route, it is difficult to determine whether the hero’s movement is an attempt to reach the destination, or to leave the ‘ring’, to overcome spatial restrictions”.

This piece pays tribute to those who have attended peace demonstrations, and highlights the feeling of powerlessness that may come with these efforts. Despite being effectively trapped within a time loop, the runner continues on, a symbol of perseverance. Based on my conversations with Russian artists, those who publish even protest works as subtle as this risk fines, arrest, and imprisonment.

The medium of performance art is often used to draw attention to the actions of Russian police. One such instance is the protest of 17-year-old Olga Misik, who boldly read the Russian constitution in front of Putin’s riot police. This was a reminder of the supposed right to peaceful protest, and the excessive use of force by Putin’s government.

Similarly, another Russian woman went viral for holding a sign that read simply “Two Words” and was consequently escorted away by police. In both instances, a striking visual is created, juxtaposing the defiant individual with the machine-like instruments of the state. In purely practical terms, these solo protestors are easily overpowered and suppressed; the success of these protests lies in their being witnessed by an audience.

The question remains as to whether protest art can have meaningful impact on the situation in Ukraine. Frankly, it seems unlikely that art can rival the brute force of Putin’s imperialist regime. Instead, perhaps this is a matter of subversive soft power. The value of protest art lies in capturing hearts and minds. Speaking to Russians in the UK who oppose the war, the visuals of protest remind them that solidarity is not dead. In years’ time, works of protest art from this period will serve as documentation that Russia is home to more than militants and nationalists.

All views expressed are the writer’s own.

Article Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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