This article originally appeared in Kosovo 2.0's Public Space issue. Click here to get your copy!
For the Russian authorities, Voina Art Group performances are like fingernails across a blackboard: piercing and damn annoying. Voina leaders claim their membership includes as many as 200 activists, all taking part in militant public performances that have garnered them at least 20 criminal investigations, some ongoing.
“Voina” — it translates to “war” — not only uses public spaces across Russia to its advantage, but at the same time utilizes social media to enter the consciousnesses of people across Russia and beyond. Their protest-driven actions have played out in various public spaces, ranging from McDonald’s restaurants to major city bridges to courtrooms to supermarkets.
Voina was founded in Moscow in 2005 by Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol. Alexei Plutser-Sarno and Leonid Nikolayev joined in 2006 and 2009, respectively, and the four now create the concepts and coordinate the actions of the group.
Voina’s actions illustrate the potency of using public spaces and media to influence and engage a wider pool of people. Their stunts have shocked and disgusted many but also gained them worldwide interest, culminating in the use of public spaces in Estonia, Italy, Germany and the United States to show support. The group has provided a provocative, sometimes shocking, arena for debate on topics that few others in Russia dare broach.
Voina’s official political orientation is anarchist. Its website names the group’s enemies and outlines the group’s structure:
“Enemies: philistines, cops, the regime.
“Organization type: militant gang, dominated by horizontal ties in everyday life and employing vertical relationships during actions. The group preaches renunciation of money and disregard toward the law.”
The group’s manifesto recalls Mayakovsky and Russian futurists of the early 1900s, who made similar use of public spaces, loudly singing out manifestos from street corners rejecting traditional art and societal norms. But Voina’s bitterness directed at Russian authorities takes the group to new levels of public extremes. They question corruption, authority and art.
Vorotnikov told a television news reporter, “I don't believe in peaceful protest because I don't believe peaceful protest is possible in Russia. If you just use legal methods, like the organizers of the big demonstrations propose, then you won't be able to stand up to the state.”
A Voina representative told Kosovo 2.0 that because of its outlaw status, contact with the group is possible only through one email address. “Any other addresses, as well as Skype (and) telephone, are not Voina contacts. If anyone offers them to you, these are obvious police provocations.”
Just as Voina activists have incorporated chaos into public performances, so too has disorder seeped into the group’s internal workings. Arguments have split the organization into factions, the most famous being the splinter group Pussy Riot. Since Voina is now on national and international wanted lists, it is unknown if the world has seen the last of the group’s anarchic performances.
Voina in action: The concept of radical protest through street performance
Palace Revolution / ‘Beg for mercy, cop!’
– September 2010
“On Judgement Day, cops have to kneel down and beg us, workers of fine arts, for forgiveness. God's punishment is coming. Repent your sins, two-faced dirty-dealin' cops!”
Demonstrators overturned a police car, nominally to retrieve a ball for a child. The protest of the Ministry of Home Affairs was titled “Help a child – help the country!” Vorotnikov, 35, and Nikolayev, 27, were arrested but later bailed out by United Kingdom street artist Bansky, who donated £80,000 so Voina could secure their release.
Dick captured by KGB / Voina’s 65-meter-high cock
– June 2010
Voina activists drew a gigantic phallus on Liteiny drawbridge in St. Petersburg, across the river from the offices of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. Voina activist Alex Plutser-Sarno explained that, conceptually, the member was “turned on” not only by the powerful security office, but also by the whole hierarchy of power in Russia.
Cock in the Ass / Punk Concert in the Courtroom
– May 2009
During a federal hearing of prominent Russian curator Andrei Yerofeyev, on trial for “insulting human dignity” with an exhibition he organized, Voina burst into the courtroom as the punk band “Cock in the Ass.” The performers turned on stage equipment to full volume, jumped onto the benches and performed their song “All Cops are Bastards — You Ought to Remember That!” from the album “Fuck the Police, Those Motherfucking Bosses.”
Decembrists Commemoration / Public Execution in the Supermarket
– September 2008
On Moscow City Day in 2008, Voina activists invaded the lighting department of Moscow’s largest supermarket and staged a mock hanging of five people who represented groups that Voina says are targeted by national institutions: central Asian migrant workers, homosexuals and Jews. The mock-lynching was presented as a gift to corrupt Russian authorities, who incite homophobia, misanthropy and anti-Semitism, according to Voina activists. The killing of migrant workers has become an everyday reality in Russia, they say. Homophobic and racist comments made by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov incited the action, the activists said.
Cop In a Priest's Cassock
– July 2008
Oleg Vorotnikov wears a Russian Orthodox priest’s robe and a police officer’s hat. Dressed in this costume, he filled a cart with groceries, then left the store without paying. The action was supposed to protest the impunity with which the church and police operate. Voina released a statement that read, “There is no power of capital in Russia. Money strengthens the status of the illegally ruling corrupt clan. That's why we refuse to use money at all.”
Cop humiliation in his own domain
– May 2008
A poster of then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hangs on bars in a Russian police station that Voina protesters invaded. They formed a human pyramid and then recited poetry: “Hello, policemen! You are not just two-faced dirty-dealing cops! We came here to humiliate you and teach you politeness! Voina congratulates you on the May holidays and on the inauguration day of Russia’s President Medvezhonok. It doesn't matter that Medvezhonok is young and inexperienced – you’re gonna teach him your simple tricks!” The pet name “Medvezhonok” is derived from the root of Mr. Medvedev's surname and means “puppy bear.”
Fuck for the Heir - Medvedev’s little Bear! / Pre-electoral Bang in the State Museum
– February 2008
Couples have public sex because, “in Russia, everyone fucks each other, and the little president looks at it with delight,” the activists said. Voina mocked the country’s elections, calling them farcical and pornographic. They say Medvedev simply inherited Vladimir Putin's presidential “throne.”
– May 2007
At a McDonald’s restaurant in Serpukhovskaya, Moscow, activists threw cats “to break up the drudgery of workers’ routine days,” they said. Activists chanted, “Death to fast food!” “Let’s strike at globalization with homeless cats!” and “No to global fascism!” Police interrupted the action and escorted activists to the police station — along with three cats collected as criminal evidence. Charges were later dropped.