MOSCOW — Among the more than 100 people arrested during opposition protests in St. Petersburg last week, a few were singled out for especially harsh treatment.
Oleg Vorotnikov, his wife, Natalya Sokol, and Leonid Nikolaev are all members of the anarchist art collective Voina. They were not only detained during the Strategy 31 demonstrations, but at least one of them was beaten and all three were charged with disobeying police. Nikolaev was due to appear in court on April 6.
It marks the second time in under a month that Voina — “War” in Russian — was targeted by police in what members describe as a coordinated effort to stamp out their provocative brand of street art.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Russian Service, the group’s lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, says Vorotnikov had visible injuries.
“I went to the police station and got him released; I then called an ambulance and sent him to the hospital,” Dinze says. “He suffered injuries to his lower and upper limbs, his shoulder, and his head.”
According to a statement released by Voina, Sokol and Nikolaev were initially detained at the opposition rally, while Vorotnikov was left standing with his and Sokol’s 18-month-old son, Kasper.
When Vorotnikov asked police to free the boy’s mother, they beat him on the spot, dragged him to a bus, and took him into custody, where they beat him some more. Kasper was taken away from him and admitted to a hospital as an “unidentified child.” Vorotnikov was only able to pick him up after he was released from detention.
St. Petersburg police officials have not commented on the incident.
Last week’s arrests and beating were only the latest run-in with the law for the controversial underground art collective.
Voina’s provocative actions, which tread a perilous line between creative street art and anarchist provocation, have enraged Russian authorities even as the group has won acclaim in the artistic community.
Over its four-year existence, the group has staged an orgy in Moscow’s Darwin Museum, hosted a sit-down dinner on a Moscow subway train, overturned police cars, staged a mock execution in a grocery store, and painted a giant 65-meter penis on a St. Petersburg drawbridge facing the local headquarters of the Federal Security Service.
The overturning of the police cars, an act the group dubbed “The Palace Revolution,” has led to charges of hooliganism against Vorotnikov and Nikolaev. The giant phallus, on the other hand, was nominated by the Ministry of Culture for the state’s prestigious Innovation Award — a nomination the group rejected.
The group’s online manifesto says it is fighting a “war on the ‘werewolves with epaulettes’ for the freedom of modern art” and strives to create an “image of the artist as a romantic hero, who prevails over evil.”
The authorities, to put it mildly, have not been amused — and have labeled the group “extremists.”
Members of the group dismiss the label.
Alexei Plutser-Sarno, one of Voina’s ideologists, fled Russia and spends his time in Kazakhstan, Estonia, and Ukraine to keep the authorities guessing.
“None of this has anything to do with extremism,” Plutser-Sarno tells RFE/RL over a fuzzy Skype connection while declining to reveal his location. “These are artistic performances. Even the most radical of these actions, ‘The Palace Revolution,’ took place in front of a Russian state museum.”
He calls their actions “a protest against the destruction of rights in Russia.”
Vorotnikov says it is actually the police who are extreme.
“In point of fact, it is these people who are the extremists — they are probably the biggest extremists in Russia,” Vorotnikov says. “Their classic method is to carry out their attacks and beatings on the street.”
He says, for example, that he has no doubt that the seven men in plain clothes who attacked him in St. Petersburg on March 3 were working with the police.
Vorotnikov describes the incident in which he says he, Sokol, and Nikolaev were ambushed and beaten as they left a press conference where they told journalists about the abuse that he and Nikolaev suffered in police custody earlier this year.
His toddler son Kasper was bruised in the attack and one of Sokol’s braids was torn from her head, pictures released by the group show.
Vortnikov says they noticed they were being followed after leaving the press conference and began photographing their pursuers.
“Then they attacked us, beat us, and stole the flash card from the camera we’d used to photograph them,” Vorotnikov says. “After this they ran away and drove off in a car without plates. It was a Renault Logan but there were no plates. I tried catch up with them but I couldn’t.”
The nature of Voina’s work has made the group highly secretive. Its activists do not carry mobile phones in order to make themselves harder to trace, and they only rarely appear in public.
But with Vorotnikov and Nikolaev facing charges of hooliganism for the stunt in which they overturned police cars, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hide. The two are currently free on bail and face up to five years in prison if convicted.
Vorotnikov, however, remains undaunted and vows that the group will continue its activities.
“Jail hasn’t scared us,” Vorotnikov says. “Just the opposite — they’ve given us strength and conviction in our actions. Many people have leapt to our support, too. We feel this support. This will all help us in our future actions.”
Meanwhile, the group has won the respect of much of Russia’s avant-garde artistic community.
Lena Hades, a controversial artist who herself has been charged with extremism for her work, was particularly impressed with the phallus on the bridge across from St. Petersburg’s FSB headquarters.
“It was a well-thought-out act of hooliganism. But it turned out well. You know, the bridge rises — the male sexual organ rises. Who would have thought?” Hades says. “In our country, which is completely corrupt and where everything can be bought, in this act male freedom rang out. And all in spite of us being so poor — so many people here are nobody — and Voina climbed onto the bridge and showed them a d*ck. It was beautiful.”
RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report