1.1    There is no political art in modern Russia.


In 2021, I was in a prolonged negotiation of a collaboration with Leonhard Müllner, one of the members of an Austrian art collective Total Refusal. We met in 2020 during our stay at the Saari Residence, an art residence maintained by Kone Foundation in Finland, and soon found out that we had similar political and artistic views, which led to our mutual desire to collaborate. Total Refusal collective found its niche in repurposing footage from mainstream commercial video-games to create films carrying certain political messages, mostly centered around Marxist ideology. Their film Operation Jane Walk, which dealt with issues of desertion, was presented at many film festivals around the world, including a few ones in Russia in 2018-2019. During that time, while visiting various Russian cities, Müllner met a lot of local artists with whom they discussed current political situation in the country and the role of art in it. So, when we started mapping out possible ways of our collaboration, Müllner began questioning me on why I wanted to be involved in a political art project in the first place since he was under the impression that Russian artists preferred to stay away from political subjects.


This episode is significant for me personally and for understanding of this thesis project because I distinctly remember Müllner’s question as being the first time when I actually thought: why do I want my art to be political, and why from the outside it might look like the majority of Russian artists do not want to get involved? By that point in time, I had been working with two major human rights and art organizations in St-Petersburg, Eve’s Ribs (feminist art) and Coming Out (LGBTQ+ rights), for a few years, and I could not see myself doing anything devoid of political meaning. However, I had never examined this desire to necessarily make a political statement, never thought of how and when it started, and never even tried to define what being political meant to me as an artist. I just had a strong aversion towards what I perceived as injustice and wanted to fight for ‘my people’, however vague that category was. Moreover, from the inside of my bubble of NGOs and human rights defenders’ community, it looked like every other artist in Russia wanted the same, so I was completely taken aback by Müllner’s belief that there was very little political art in Russia, almost none.


After initial resignation, I began looking into this issue. I tried searching for the root of this problem by examining cultural climate in Russia through the lens of my own artistic career over the last decade. I distinctly remember being completely disinterested in all things political at the start of my career, around 2011-2012. More so, I remember that it somehow felt important to me to express how political issues were completely irrelevant to my creative ideas. But why was it the case? What influenced me, shaped me as an ‘apolitical’ artist?


This issue mainly centers around two prominent debates: on efficiency of art as political statement, and on politics somehow diminishing the value of art. In his book Actors and Activists, David Schlossman addresses common debates among critics and academics around political engagement leading to bad art (which he disagrees with). He writes that there is a popular opinion that politics diminishes aesthetic qualities of performance. Even world renown plays of such politically-engaged dramaturgs as Ibsen and Brecht count merely as an exception that proves the rule. As an example of such critique, Schlossman mentions scholar Catharine Hughes who in turn quotes New York Times critic John Canaday’s comment stating that “the more worthy the cause, the worse the art” (Schlossman 2002, 70).


Scholar Lara Shalson notes that while “political theatre has long been accused of being ‘bad activism’, overtly activist theatre and performance have often been dismissed as ‘bad art’ from which ‘good theatre’ needs to distinguish itself” (Shalson 2017, 29). However, Shalson herself believes that theatre can in fact become ‘good art’ precisely at the point where it intersects with protest. In his book The Politics of Performance, Baz Kershaw expresses a similar opinion. He states that “even though political efficacy of theatre will always be open for a debate, theatre has a unique ability to bring a political point to people who would not otherwise be receptive of it” (Kershaw 2002, 252).


There is also a prominent debate on the overall necessity of political art and theatre. In The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, renowned philosopher Slavoj Žižek proposed that the society had already moved into post-political times. For Žižek, ‘post-politics’ is a post-modern form of repressing and foreclosing political disagreement, which reduces politics to serving the needs of global capitalism (Žižek 1999, 145). According to researcher Janelle Reinelt, post-political theory produced “a hesitancy to value art involving clear representations of identity-based issues” (Reinelt 2019, 61). With that being said, she argues that ‘post’ in itself is not the best term for political theory, since ‘post’ means ‘over’ and negates the noun it stands before – in this case ‘political’, which resolves in the lack of desire to engage in political practices. She also notes that “in the last couple of years, followed by the rise of nationalism, theatre may transform into ‘re-political’, or ‘neo-political’” (Reinelt 2019, 58).


Following those debates, I can come to a conclusion that ten years ago, while working in musical theatres in Russia, I was clearly on the side of critics who believed political art to be unnecessary, or even worse, lesser in value than non-political. The belief was shaped by the environment I was in – extremely hierarchal structures of state theatres, army-resembling academic training, total subordination, and unofficial (yet) but already strong censorship. If I were to succeed or even to survive in this field, I needed to agree with everything blindly, and after a while it dulled my ability and desire to question anything. “Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful”, as Marina Abramović said in one of her performances (Abramović 1975). That was the unified and, unlike in Abramović’s performance, unironic belief, and there was no point in even arguing with that.


This situation is, perhaps, best illustrated by the process of my Bachelors graduation production (in Musical Directing). I chose to stage Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent. The plot of this musical centers around a group of young, mostly queer people dealing with HIV crises in New York in the 90s. At that time, I chose it not because of its queer and political themes but despite of those – I liked the music, and I thought that building a set for one apartment in New York would not be too expensive. The year was 2011, long before the first ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law – technically, there should have been no censorship issues. However, when the theatre commission showed up for dress rehearsals before the premiere, I was immediately given an ultimatum to either re-write all queer characters and make them ‘normal’, or cancel the whole production. I wish I could say that I protested, or at least got offended, but no – I was just annoyed that I would have to do extra work with re-writes now (we never even questioned copyright, and that is an issue in itself). Orders were not to be questioned - Russian theatre always reminded me of army. At that time, we did not have strict official censorship, I do not think it would be just to even talk about oppression, at least not in the same way we can talk about it now – legally, we, Russian artists, had full freedom of expression. However, inner censorship was as strong as ever. Furthermore, reading queer theorists like Jill Dolan who states that “theatre has also long been a site for dominant culture to clamp down on sexual minorities and to censor representations that suggested relationships or characters that weren’t staunchly heterosexual” (Dolan 2010, 5), I am made to think that as far as queer theatre is concerned, it might have been not just a Russian issue.


It took me years, even after immigrating to the UK, to come to an understanding similar to the one Schlossman expresses in his book: art is always connected with politics. It combines “critical and sociological thinking to offer a model of the relationship of performance and politics as an exchange between people working in different but overlapping social environments” (Schlossman 2002, 1). I believe that I have explained what shaped me as an apolitical artist, however, the question of what led me to becoming political remains.


To answer this question, I will need to address the change in overall political climate in Russia over the last decade and to look at the examples of some of the most prominent activist performance artists that emerged due to the strengthening of oppression and militarization of the country, and that eventually inspired me to join the ranks of political artists myself . Three main examples I will be discussing here are: Voina, Pussy Riot, and Eve’s Ribs. I chose those three art collectives as, in my view, they represent a progression of Russian activist art over time, and, more so, were created as direct influences of each other. 


Artistically, Voina (the word that translates into English as ‘war’) was heavily influenced by radical actionism. By ‘radical actionism’, I mainly mean Viennese Actionism of the 6os, which according to scholar Maria Mikhaylova is often considered a predecessor of Russian actionism in general. Mikhaylova believes that the reason for this influence is "the external resemblance of the artistic actions." She adds: "The main agenda of Viennese actionists was facing and overcoming the Post-World War II trauma and taking out the suppressed memories and fears" (Mikhaylova 2020, 11). I mostly see the resemblance between Viennese Actionism and actions of Voina in similar modes of expression – ritualistic orgies and the overall emphasis on shock value, however, I think that the reasons mentioned by Mikhaylova were also relevant here.


Voina officially came into existence in 2007, and had over sixty members and associates, most of whom came from the Moscow State University and Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography. Voina became famous for their street protests and performances bordering on vandalism and often relying on shock value. The founder of the group is believed to be Oleg Vorotnikov, who was a philosophy student at Moscow State University. Other prominent members include Anton Nikolaev, Natalia Sokol, and, notably, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Pyotr Verzilov who later formed Pussy Riot.


Among the most notable works of the group are: Fuck for the heir Puppy Bear! (February 29th 2008) - a performance dedicated to the election of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in which five couples had public sex in Moscow's Timiryazev State Museum of Biology; Dick Captured by the FSB, in which Voina painted a 65 metres long phallus on the surface of the Liteyny drawbridge next to the Bolshoy Dom, a place where Federal Security Service in Saint Petersburg was residing; Operation: Kiss Garbage, where female members of Voina were approaching and kissing policewomen without warning or consent (garbage in Russian is a slang term for a police officer) – as a response to new police law signed by president Medvedev; and Cops Auto-da-fe, or Fucking Prometheus,  a performance action in a form of an arson attack on a police vehicle in St. Petersburg.


With all the radical activity bordering on criminal acts that was so common for the group, it is especially interesting to note one specific episode. On 7 April 2011, the group was awarded the "Innovation" prize in the category "Work of Visual Art", established by the Russian Ministry of Culture (the prize was given for the aforementioned ‘penis-on-the-bridge’ stunt). Looking back at the last decade of Russian protest art, this event seems somehow representative of a fundamental turning point. In 2011, an official government body awarded an anti-government art organization (turned against FSB, the main police force in the country, no less). One year later, in 2012, members of Pussy Riot, a very similar anti-government art organization, got real prison sentences for the famous Punk Prayer performance. Two years later, in 2013, ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law was passed, effectively erasing all legal possibilities for queer representation in the arts. And three years later, in 2014, Crimea was annexed and became Russian territory, which led to the rise of military-based censorship in all cultural areas. Freedom was over. Protest and political art turned into something with much higher stakes – from pranks and misdemeanor cases to understanding that as an artist you should only speak when you cannot be silent and then be ready to get imprisoned afterwards.


Pussy Riot appeared on a cusp of this change, in the transitional period between freedom and non-freedom, with a former member of Voina, Natalia Tolokonnikova, as a founder. The significance of Pussy Riot as representatives of contemporary Russian political art scene cannot be overstated, even though, I personally believe their works to be much less interesting than the ones of Voina, or even their indirect successor – Eve’s Ribs. During preparatory stage of this research, while doing a lot of reading, I found mentionings of Pussy Riot in over a dozen books. For example, Lara Shalson’s book Theatre and Protests literally starts with the whole chapter on Pussy Riot and the significance of the Punk Prayer court case in 2012 with descriptions of performative support it got abroad (Shalson 2017). Pussy Riot surely provoked a lot of academic interest but they were, perhaps, even more important for the world art scene, influencing and inspiring performance and theatre makers across the globe. Some immediate examples of such influences that come to mind would be a reenactment of Pussy Riot’s trial in 2013 in Moscow staged by Milo Rau, Belarus Free Theatre’s production of Maria Alyokhina’s (member of Pussy Riot) play Burning Doors in London Soho Theatre in 2016, and Barbra Hammond’s We Are Pussy Riot play written in 2015.


Discussions on Pussy Riot usually revolve around the connections between theatricality and protest, and trail back to questionable efficiency of merging them. For instance, the aforementioned Hammond’s play seems arguably self-conscious about its difference from an act of political protest. Even Hammond herself noted that “Pussy Riot wouldn’t write a play – Pussy Riot’s actions are spontaneous, public, and often get them arrested” (Anderson 2015). Continuing on the topic, and relating again specifically to Pussy Riot, Shalson goes as far as to state that “theatricality can be seen as a threat to the legitimacy and urgency of political action” (Shalson 2017, 10). She, however, later admits that with that being said, protest in itself can be a form of performance (Shalson 2017, 11). That argument resembles a theory proposed in 1992 by sociologists Robert Benford and Scott Hunt. They created dramaturgical framework for social movements, arguing that protest actions are usually somehow loosely scripted, they have plans and guidelines, and those scripts inform actions protesters take: for example, dress codes and speeches are often scripted, as well as specific events and their placements. According to Benford and Hunt, in order to carry out protest actions successfully, they need to be dramaturgically planned and rehearsed (Benford and Hunt 1992, 36-55). Which, of course, can be clearly seen in the works of Pussy Riot, with prime example being their Punk Prayer, where the specific actions (chanting certain anti-Putin lyrics in a church) were not only scripted and rehearsed but also repeated later in various places and situations.


I am brining up those discussions to point out certain personal changes that happened in me as an artist due to the debates around Voina and Pussy Riot. I have already mentioned that what made me apolitical was the conviction that political art loses its quality, or, simply, just becomes bad. To be honest, being introduced to Russian protest art only fortified this belief in me. However, with the events of 2013 and 2014 in Russia (Crimean war and new oppressive laws, including anti-gay propaganda law, and the rise of censorship), I could no longer pretend that I was unaffected, in fact, I started feeling trapped between what I perceived to be ‘bad art’ and art that was apolitical, which somehow felt even worse. At least I saw that what Voina and Pussy Riot were doing was getting traction, being noticed. It made me think that political, activist, protest art can actually be efficient. So, I made a choice to explore its potential and quality. With that being said, I believe that the next logical step is to talk about my artistic and practical transition into political, which eventually brought me to writing Neptune as a response to this thesis’ main question: How to make personal narrative political?



1.2 Is there political art in modern Russia?