Big public demonstrations may be a new development in Russia, but protests in the streets have been around for a while. Just ask the artists.
- By Alexis LernerAlexis Lerner is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Toronto. She is also a Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum research delegate.
Street art as political protest is nothing new to Kirill Kto. For the past fifteen years the boyish, bespectacled Kto has been roaming Moscow’s streets armed with spray cans and paintbrushes. He lifts slogans from Kremlin-friendly youth organizations and paints them on luxury cars as a way of spotlighting the connection between money and power. He writes mini-manifestoes on the walls of Moscow that assail political apathy and institutionalized crime. When the powers-that-be abruptly decided to replace the long-time Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov with a Kremlin insider named Sergei Sobyanin in 2010, Kto used the city’s walls to send the new mayor a message: “Sobyanin, you’re just a baby,” Kto wrote. “Don’t disappoint me."
Kto may do most of his work alone, but he isn’t exactly working in a vacuum. An extraordinary upswell of public protest in recent months has flooded the Russian streets, shaking assumptions about the stability of a political culture dominated for the past 12 years by Vladimir Putin, the former president and current prime minister. The overwhelming majority of these protestors — young, educated, and self-aware — are newcomers to politics, recently galvanized into action. But while their appearance on the scene may have caught political analysts off guard, the style and symbols of their protest have been many years in the making — forged by street artists like Kto and his ilk, often operating in plain sight of the authorities.
A sarcastic appreciation of the absurd has marked this new generation of protest ever since it reached critical mass last year. While demonstrators braced for a subzero protest in December, journalist Anastasia Karimova, adorned in nothing but a blue bikini and high heels, posed for a now-iconic photo in the snow, holding a sign urging her fellow Muscovites to turn out in defiance of the freezing temperatures. (They obliged.) Recently activists in the Siberian city of Barnaul filled public squares with demonstrations attended by Lego protesters — a sly commentary on the mayor’s ban on public protests. (The mayor thereupon issued a decree prohibiting the use of toys in political demonstrations.) And when Putin declared that the white ribbons serving as the opposition’s emblem allegedly reminded him of condoms, protestors responded by pinning actual condoms to their jackets in a wry display of unity.
It’s not hard to understand why politics and performance seem to be joined at the hip in modern-day Russia. Putin’s reign has gone along with a steady tightening of state control over the media. The Kremlin re-asserted its supremacy over national television and radio, as well as most of the country’s newspapers, and cracked down on business tycoons who attempted to use their billions to promote their own political agendas. The authorities were quick to suppress anything remotely resembling an unsanctioned political demonstration, clamping down on even the most minuscule protest marches in Moscow.
But Putin and his entourage have never believed in the wholesale Soviet approach to censorship, so they were happy to leave a few choice niches of relatively free expression. Some activists, like the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, carved out spaces for themselves on the Internet. This is not to say, though, that the Web is a haven of free speech. Political institutions and hacker-for-hire groups easily navigate locked portals and IP addresses to threaten the security and privacy of these basement activists.
Undeterred, counterculture radicals have still found plenty of places to indulge in provocation. Recently, for example, it’s the alternative music scene that has proven fertile ground for protest. The feminist punk band “Pussy Riot” has taken a public stand for free elections and Putin’s hasty expulsion. In December, wearing miniskirts, balaclavas, and wool tights, the band serenaded Navalny outside the prison where he was jailed after leading a series of well-attended rallies against rigged parliamentary elections. Another performance by the group in Red Square skyrocketed the group to viral fame (and earned some of the band members brief stints in jail). A few weeks later they invaded Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow’s flagship Orthodox church, for a loud, impromptu, and stridently sacrilegious rock show.
Meanwhile, another band, “Lyapis Trubetskoi,” released a satirical music video entitled “Putinofthepeople.” The phantasmagorical footage mocks Russia – in both its Soviet and Putin-era manifestations – for its crime, corruption, and predictable failure to achieve promised utopias.
But if you really want to explore the antecedents of today’s culture of protest, the best place to start is with Russia’s graffiti artists. Some of the most notorious recent examples of shocking public art are credited to a collective called Voina (“War”). In 2011 they won a prestigious contemporary art award for defiling the Neva’s raising bridge with an immense spray-painted phallus. Though the group has kept to the streets for most of their work, last year they sneaked into Saint Petersburg’s Russian Museum to conduct an elaborately staged public orgy, which they promptly dedicated to President Medvedev. They’ve been known to throw cats at McDonald’s employees and light police vans on fire.
It’s easy to see why graffiti — as an art form that allows anonymous commentators to express their views on a truly public stage — would have become such an amenable medium for political artists in a place like modern-day Russia. Street art first arrived in the early 1980s under the guise of “fan graffiti.” Followers of the Soviet-era alternative band Kino and soccer hooligans-cum-gang members co-opted this early version of the medium. By the late 1980s, the hip-hop craze that gripped Muscovite youth triggered an explosion of tags (a side effect of MTV’s first inroads into the country in the later stages of perestroika). One enthusiast organized the first “legal jam” in 1998. Jams like this gave rappers, breakdancers, and graffiti artists a free space for collaboration.
But not all of the artists who took to the streets were interested in legal festivals and pure aesthetics. One of the giants of the scene is Misha Most, a friend of Kto. In the early 2000s, Most and five of his friends formed a crew they dubbed Zachem, “what for.” The crew tagged everything from highway overpasses to corporate advertisements with the word, allowing their audience to fill in the meaning according to context. Within a few years the group, which swelled to some 30 members, adopted the slogan “No Future Forever,” an allusion to the Sex Pistols slogan “No Future.” “The whole world seems to be living by this motto,” says Most. “We added ‘forever’ because [this mentality] seems like it will last forever.”
In February 2011, long before anyone had an inkling of the protests to come on Moscow’s streets, Most came up with one of his slyest provocations yet. One cold morning he walked up to the wall of the Kremlin and proceeded to write out the full 45-word text of Article 29 of the current Russian constitution. The passage starts with the words: “Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of ideas and speech,” and ends with “The freedom of mass communication shall be guaranteed and censorship shall be banned.” The Kremlin guards stationed around Red Square never made a move, apparently assuming that anyone working with such nonchalance must have permission to be there. The work stayed on display for three weeks before it was buffed by order of the Russian government, much to Most’s chagrin.
But Most and Kto weren’t the only ones. Five years ago, when political protest was barely making itself heard, the Blue Noses Group openly devoted themselves to the cause of social commentary. The collaborative duo out of Siberia used radical graffiti art to draw attention to Putin, the sexuality of Muslim Chechen women, and an unhealthy cultural obsession with revolutionary icon Che Guevara. More recently, Saint Petersburg’s “Group of Change” use stencils to propagate slogans such as “Censorship Does Not Sell,” and “Rise Up Beside Me” around the city. Their pieces often incorporate URLs that lead to a website that shares practical details about upcoming public demonstrations. Other groups have used graffiti to criticize recent nuclear policy, assail ethnic violence, or question the assumptions beneath the official version of Russian history. Street art criticizes everything that the mainstream media does not — and perhaps cannot.
Yet the street artists’ work often suggests self-imposed limits as well. Even the same graffiti artists who indulge in public provocations are sometimes hesitant to admit that their work is explicitly political. It’s a stance that has something in common with the broader culture of protest in today’s Russia, where the same protestors who eloquently oppose state-managed elections or the corruption of the authorities often hasten to add that they are decidedly opposed to “revolutions” of any kind. In August, one young graffiti artist in St. Petersburg showed me a Group of Change stencil that read “Modernization or Death.” She explained to me that people want greater rights and an end to corruption rather than any wholesale abolition of the existing system built around Putin and United Russia. It’s a skepticism born of the turmoil of Yeltsin era, when the high hopes that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union led instead to economic chaos and mafia anarchy.
Of course, not everyone among the artists necessarily shares such views. Russia’s street artists remain as critical as ever — even if Vladimir Putin still looks a like shoe-in as voters head to the polls on March 5 to elect their next president. As long as state oppression and media censorship continue, critical minds will continue to seek out alternative avenues of expression. And if Russia’s recent past is any indication, all you need is an independent outlook, a sense of humor, and a spray can.