Voina Vorotnikov Fight to the Last
Voina’s Next Battle?
The Russian activist group Voina (War) has made headlines over the past year for various provocations. Now that the two members of this artist group have been freed from their jail term the flurry of attention surrounding the group may momentarily cease, but the disturbance may have only begun.
Both the Russian and Western press highlighted their antics, which include police station take-overs, anti-homophobic mock trials in shopping malls, throwing stray cats into swanky restaurants and women members kissing female police officers in the streets. With the February trial having now ended, one may wonder if the group is already hatching the next notorious plot.
Voina began when five ex-students of Moscow University started working together in 2007, performing actions in both Moscow and St. Petersburg . Voina made it onto the pages of newspapers in 2008 with a work staged the day before the election of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. For Fuck for Your Heir the Bear Cub! five couples (including one pregnant woman) had public sex in Moscow’s Timirayzev State Museum of Biology. At the time, artists and critics in Moscow did not regard the group as an artistic entity. The press counted them as a bunch of hooligans.
Now Voina is estimated at about 200 members (based on those who have participated in actions), although the core people and planners of actions remains the same small group. In November 2010 when Oleg Vorotnikov (aka “Thief”) and Leonid Nikolaeve (aka “Lyonay the F’*cknut”) were seized by police after a “car ride,” transported to St. Petersburg and tossed into a pre-trial detention facility, many finally understood that Voina was for real. From that time on Voina has earned its anti-establishment credibility in spades, with the news media taking their actions seriously as well as their pronouncements against corruption and the abuse of power—which has lately focused on abuses by police against the group itself.
The trial following their arrest last November became a conceptual project in its own right and a mark of Voina’s direct confrontation of the legislative system. Charged with criminal mischief motivated by “national hostility” their pending conviction comes with the possibility of up to five years in prison. Many of the Russian intelligentsia have publicly condemned this decision and spoken in support of the group. In other parts of the art world, the refrain is similar. Famed street artist Banksy, for example, has offered the considerable sum of $125,000 from pending sales of his works to support the young rebels—predictably prompting more international media coverage for both Voina and Banksy. Voina has used part of the money to pay bail. Other funds have been donated towards the plight of Russia’s political prisoners from Voina itself, as the artists commented that after witnessing prisoners’ conditions, they felt compelled to donate part of their funds.
Amid the heated trial Voina has been nominated for the contemporary State Prize Innovation at the same time that they were getting attention for their graffiti work on a major St. Petersburg draw bridge. Last June, Voina painted a 200-foot phallus dubbed “Giant Galactic Space Dick” facing the headquarters of FSB, the offices of Russia’s KGB incarnate Federal Security Bureau, when the roadway draws up for passing vessels on the Neva River below. It has since turned into their most scandalous work to date.
Since then, Alexei Plutser-Sarno, Voina’s chief spokesman, called the prize mafia money, which is intended to buy up the artists and make them tow the state line. He further stated that Voina’s nomination from the authorities for an art action against those same authorities is just manipulative noise and an insult to the group. The group refuted any connection with the award, which created a frenzied response from the Innovation committee and a storm of responses in the press.
Finally, after a press conference in February, when Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev were released, they were set upon by seven men as they walked home. All three including Vorotnikov’s wife Natalia Sokol were hurt in the attack by men who claimed that they were the police even though they were in civilian clothing. The group said that the attack was orchestrated to provoke them and incite further actions in the hopes of possibly entrapping them.
Today, there is much curiosity about Voina’s collection of used shoes, based on posts on their blog Free Voina. However, in a recent conversation, the group said it would not disclose their plans. Whatever those plans are, after almost two years in the limelight, they are likely to maintain their high profile in the contemporary Russian art world.
A version of this article first appeared in FlashArt International • MAY JUNE 2011