“A Truly Presidential New Year’s Gift to All Political Prisoners” (Jan 2012)

Over New Year 2011-2012, the art group Voina set an avtozak (mobile detention van) on fire in the Petrograd neighbourhood of Petersburg in protest of continued detention of political prisoners in Russia. Whilst the exuberant Livejournal entry that followed is entertaining (http://plucer.livejournal.com/531761.html), the escalation in their approach to cop-bothering is slightly more ominous in light of their slogan: ‘Cops don’t fuck us! We fuck cops!’ The slogan reflects their own history of contact with state representatives.

Click for full-size image

Image taken from the Voina Livejournal site: http://plucer.livejournal.com/266853.html

The idea of a country occupied by the MVD is often raised by the group, and their dedication to Russian political prisoners past and present obviously tries to highlight the continuity between the security organs of the current state and the Soviet Union:

“Дорогие россияне! Народ! Это скромный подарок всем вам, но подарок – от всего сердца. Этот новогодний дар я, Ёбнутый Дед Мороз и вся московская арт-группа Война, включая Вора, Козу, Каспера Ненаглядного и Плута преподносит лично политзаключенным Филиппу Костенко, Сергею Удальцову, Таисии Осиповой, Эдуарду Кузнецову, Игорю Березюку, Кириллу Унчуку, Руслану Хубаеву, Антону Лукину, Михаилу Пулину, Алене Горячевой, Павлу Жеребину, Сергею Махнаткину, Владимиру Буковскому и всем-всем другим бесчисленным политзэкам и зэкам России. А на небесах щедрому пламени группы Война да возрадуются покойные герои-политзэки Сергей Магницкий, Анатолий Марченко, Кронид Любарский, Александр Гинзбург, Андрей Синявский, Юрий Галансков, Юлий Даниэль, коим группа Война от всей души посвящает эту свою новую художественную зарисовку Вечным Огнем по мусорскому холсту-автозаку. Да славятся их имена и славится Россия! Поймите, это не художественная, это сверхудожественная акция!”

[shortened version] “Dear Russians, this action is a modest gift to all of you from the Voina Group. It’s a gift to all political prisoners of Russia: Philip Kostenko, Sergei Udaltsov, Taisia Osipova, Sergei Mokhnatkin, Vladimir Bukovsky and many others. We dedicate this action to the deceased heroic political prisoners Sergei Magnitsky, Anatoly Marchenko, Kronid Lyubarsky, Alexander Ginzburg, Andrei Sinyavsky, Yuri Galanskov, Yuli Daniel. Let’s destroy all prisons! Freedom to all political prisoners! Feds don’t fuck us – we fuck feds! Happy New Year, comrades!”

The alleged continuity is highlighted further by thinking about the tradition of non-conformist artists in the USSR providing creative interpretation of persecution, commenting with irony, sympathy, sarcasm, and, occasionally, respect. It is also interesting to note the implied link between the heroes of the dissident movement, defined by its overarching dedication to morality and its legalist tendency, and the activist-politicians working now, whose commitment and suffering is strongly reminiscent of reports concerning dissidents in the 1970s.

The term ‘dissident’ gets banded about a lot, especially in our neck of the woods. Khodorkovskii is a notable case for the English media, and he’s unsurprisingly absent here. But he was recently put forward for the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Journalism, and this provides interesting ground for memory studies. These human rights prizes are often named after significant political figures, and have become a common place of the western cultural landscape in the wake of the human rights boom of the 1970s.

The comparatively modest Sakharov prize for journalism was founded in 2000 by Petr Vins, who has had his fair share of problems in recent years and indeed before, as he is the son of Georgii Vins, a Baptist protest leader who emerged during Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign. Petr, a friend of Sakharov’s, was a member of the Ukrainian Helinski Group who emigrated in 1979 after a group of prisoners (Mark Dymshits, Aleksandr Ginzburg, Eduard Kuznetsov, Valentin Moroz, and Georgii Vins) was exchanged for two Soviet spies. The prize represents the defiance of a family who underwent years of state-sponsored persecution, and the commitment to continued resistance. The winner of the 2011 prize was the Novaia Gazeta journalist Georgii Borodianskii from Omsk, currently reporting on a mass hunger-strike in the city by more than 40 relatives of people accused of various crimes on false charges.

Whilst the Prize jury honours those journalists who remain devoted to the same cause as Andrei Sakharov, the Voina art group continue to shock and amuse, empowering themselves and others in the momentary inversion of the poles of victimhood. It may seem as if I have tried to compare these two examples (I hope it doesn’t), but I am trying to show two different approaches to what is essentially the memory of political repression. Both are directed at trying to repel continued state persecution, yet one strikes you as born out of frustration, the as-yet-unhealed wound, and the other of a longer project, built on the scars of years spent in opposition.

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