- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
Earlier this summer, mysterious, surrealist, and deeply irreverent art began appearing on the streets of Donetsk. The graffiti and wooden cutouts openly mocked the city’s pro-Russian rebels, depicting them as devils. A graffiti portrait of the rebel leader, Igor Strelkov, urged him to commit suicide. The rebels did not take kindly to the art. Sergey Zakharov, the artist behind the project, has disappeared. His friends and family say that he is a prisoner of the Donetsk People’s Republic, as the putative leaders of the breakaway regions call their new “country.”
Zakharov, the founder of the art collective Myrzilka, was forcibly taken from his workshop on Aug. 6, according to Sergii Mazurkevych, a member of the collective and its spokesman. Four armed men took Zakharov from his workshop under the direction of a man in civilian clothes. No reason was given as to why Zakharov was detained but Mazurkevych believes it is because of the critical art displayed around Donetsk.
Myrzilka’s art installations in Donetsk generated international headlines in July when the group posted photos of their works, which satirized Donetsk rebels as devils and demons. Most famously, a graffiti portrait of rebel commander Igor Strelkov showed him with a gun to his head. The caption read “Just Do It.”
Mazurkevych joined the art collective in early July and said he was eager to collaborate with Zakharov because he wanted to show a more nuanced version of life in rebel-controlled Donetsk. “There are lots of people living in Donetsk who do not want the Donetsk People’s Republic,” Mazurkevych told Foreign Policy. “There are many who want to protest, but are too afraid.”
“Sergey Zakharov, however, was not one of those people. He could not keep silent any longer,” he added.
In the past few weeks, Ukrainian troops have regained territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels and have encircled the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Government forces have also retaken many smaller settlements in Ukraine’s east.
As their military fortunes have declined, the separatists are showing signs of weakness. Three separatist leaders were replaced last week and the Donetsk “army” recently instituted the death penalty for desertion. This vulnerable position may help explain the sensitivity and harsh response to Zakharov’s art and small act of resistance.
Following Zakharov’s abduction, Mazurkevych, along with the artist’s relatives, tried negotiating his release with his captors. Meanwhile, Mazurkevych urged Russian and Ukrainian journalists to publicize his colleague’s arrest and create public pressure for the artist’s release. On Saturday, a group of Russian artists in St. Petersburg set up an art tribute to Zakharov. The installation featured a Donetsk fighter dressed as the grim reaper threatening to execute a cowering pencil. “Free Myrzilka!” an inscription reads.
By Saturday night, it seemed the lobbying efforts had paid off. That evening, Zakharov was briefly released, according to Mazurkevych. Zakharov called Mazurkevych and told him that he was fine. Then, on Monday, armed men once more seized Zakharov, whose second capture was witnessed by his neighbor, who relayed the events to Mazurkevych.
Zakharov is believed to be held in a Donetsk building belonging to the Security Service of Ukraine — or at least it used to belong to them until they were ousted by rebels.