Russia is cracking down on the art of political performance. He should be listening, not lashing out.
The performances of artists and activists on political subjects have been a sensitive point for the Russian authorities for years. But as the authorities’ crackdown on civil society intensifies, so does the nonviolent creative response that exposes her and draws attention to her.
This in turn increases the pressure exerted by the authorities on artists and activists in their efforts to crush free speech. The wave of lawsuits in recent months has clearly shown this.
On November 28, two women dressed in costumes like those worn by Snegurochka (“Snowgirl”), a companion of the Russian version of Santa Claus, were in a central square in Moscow. With them was a man disguised as a riot cop. He stood with his back to a lamppost as the women tied him up with wrapping tape and signs saying “Careful, fragile.”
The women were Pussy Riot activists Rita Flores (aka Margarita Konovalova) and Mariya Alyokhina, and the “policeman” was artist Farkhad Israffili-Gelman. With them was a photographer, Gleb Kuznetsov.
They posted pictures of the event and tweeted, “Since July 2019, paper cups or plastic bottles have become weapons, but the worst weapon against the population is a police state.” The performance referred to the ‘Moscow Affair’ of 2019, in which several people faced serious criminal assault charges for throwing empty plastic bottles or cups at the police. In December of that year, President Vladimir Putin mentionned that if a prosecution was not brought for throwing plastic cups at the police, things would escalate into riots. The fragility of riot police has become a common joke among political activists.
On December 3 of this year, the police arrested the four artists.
They held Flores in a hospital where she was seeking treatment for a health problem. His lawyer told me that on the way an undercover policeman tried to board the ambulance, pretending to be his acquaintance. Before that, they stood guard outside his apartment on the weekends.
Alyokhina declared that before she and Flores were arrested, someone cut the electricity their apartments. While the others were released pending court hearings, Flores was held overnight on charges of repeatedly violating public assembly rules and sentenced to 20 days of detention for this completely peaceful protest spectacle.
Alyokhina, Flores and Israffili-Gelman were also arrested on November 4 and 10, apparently as a preventive measure, when they donned the costumes they eventually used for the show. Both times they were detained before doing anything, and the police gave them no explanation. Their lawyer told me that they were later charged with an administrative offense for failing to wear masks and gloves in a public space, as required by the city’s COVID-19 rules, and that they were followed by the police, as the police would appear in places. they visited soon after.
A story of persecution
Apparently, the police regard these artists and activists as so dangerous that it justifies this attention by real public order concerns.
Perhaps that’s because on October 7, Pussy Riot placed rainbow flags on several key government buildings in Moscow. Alyokhina Explain that this action was for President Putin’s birthday, to make this day “a day of LGBTQ visibility”. One of their lawyers said that in the following days 11 activists were arrested. Most were released with a charge sheet for breaking public assembly rules. But on October 9, a court condemned one of them, Alexandr Sofeyev, to a maximum of 30 days of detention for repeated violation of these rules. Three others, including Alyokhina, were fined.
On the same day, a left-wing activist, Vladimir Shulenin, left a “birthday present” for Putin in the presidential administration building. It was a fake certificate of appreciation “for the maintenance of poverty and dictatorship”, accompanied by a pair of palms and glue, apparently in reference to the Russian slang expression “sticking palms”, meaning to die or die. He left the items next to the entrance to the building.
Shulenin’s lawyer Mansur Gilmanov said police claimed he did not act alone and therefore viewed his action as a mass rally, which requires prior authorization. On November 27, a the court fined him 15,000 RUB (approximately 200 USD) for violating the rules of public assembly.
In early November, Pavel Krisevich gave a performance in a square in front of the Federal Security Service (FSB) building in Moscow. He was covered in fake blood and tied to a cross, while other activists set fire to criminal files around him. Apparently the paper was covered in chemicals burning at 40 degrees Celsius and was safe for him and others. Krisevich told the media that his performance represented political prisoners. Shortly after, he was arrested and the court sentenced him to 15 days of detention for non-compliance with police orders.
It was not his first performance related to political affairs. Among other performances he staged, during the summer he put up a poster with pictures of vulvae in support of Yuliya Tsvetkova, a Russian artist and activist who is being prosecuted for posting a series of body drawings of naked women on social media.
On December 1, the university Krisevich attended expelled him, referring to his November performance and stating that his actions “did not correlate with the moral character” of the graduates. He intends to appeal. Before that he was attacked at a train station in St. Petersburg. Two men approached him and asked him to kneel down and apologize to them. When he refused, they threw an antiseptic green dye on his face, which has become a common feature of vigilante attacks on critics in recent years. Krisevich declared that they identified themselves as “Orthodox Christian jihadists”.
In Samara, Karim Yamadayev, creator of the amateur web series “Judge Graeme” from Tatarstan, is tried for “insulting the authorities” and “justifying terrorism” before a military court. He has been in detention since January 2019, when he was searched, questioned and detained for a published video on Youtube. In the video, he played a judge in a mock trial against Putin, the head of state oil company Rosneft and a presidential spokesman, accused of corruption and embezzlement. The video strongly implies that each accused is executed off camera. The creators had a disclaimer that the video was an art project.
The video is undoubtedly distasteful to many, but bringing criminal charges – let alone terrorism charges, with a potential seven-year prison sentence – is a blatant violation of free speech. On December 2, his trial was suspended because Yamadayev is suspected of having contracted the coronavirus in prison. Yamadayev has already been detained twice for violating the rules on town halls when he created a facility with a Putin’s grave and tombstones symbolizing the death of the opposition. He spent over a month in detention for this offense.
Don’t get angry, listen
In a rare demonstration of at least a little common sense, in November a Perm Court of Appeal suspended the remaining prison time for Alexander Shabarchin. In August, a court had condemned him to two years in prison and another activist to a suspended sentence for hooliganism after mounting a doll with Putin’s face on and signs reading “Liar” and “War criminal”.
It was an entirely peaceful act that posed no danger or harm to anyone. The court ruled that this amounted to Putin’s public humiliation. And while neither of these young men stays behind bars, both have criminal records that can negatively impact their futures.
These graphic political performances are symptoms of repressed public frustrations. It would be smarter for authorities to listen to the critical voices of people, especially those in distress, even when they are expressed through controversial performances. Even if the authorities do not want to listen, they have an obligation under international law to respect freedom of expression and not to attack it.