Art of dissent: How Russians protest the war on Ukraine
They risk jail, stigma and fines. But Russian protesters are finding creative ways to get their message out.
Washington Post: By Robyn Dixon, Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova — July 7, 2022
It was 4 a.m. on Moscow’s second ring road. Early light bathed the empty street.
Lyudmila Annenkova and Natalia Perova remember stepping out of a taxi, draped in blankets to hide white dresses splashed with red paint, like blood. They were terrified of arrest, they said, so they worked quickly.
They flung off the blankets, posed, held hands and gazed into a smartphone lens. Snap, snap, snap. Three photos and they fled. The images went viral on independent and activist Telegram channels and social media pages.
Russia’s antiwar movement has found creative ways to express dissent despite President Vladimir Putin’s hard line crackdown.
Protesters are arrested for crimes as trivial as holding up a blank sheet of paper, merely implying opposition to the war.
“You have about 30 seconds to show what you want and then you will be arrested,” said Annenkova, a photographer.
“We were very afraid. We had so much adrenaline,” Perova said.
The red splashes on white dresses symbolized the killings of innocent people, especially women and children. They held hands to send a message to Ukrainians “that we want to hold the hands of everyone who is there and who is in trouble now,” Annenkova said.
“With performances, you can get into people’s minds and you can inform them,” Perova said. “Otherwise if you don’t show them through actions like this they will continue to live in their propaganda bubble without any understanding and any desire to understand.”
Annenkova said documenting and posting their protest was key “because people live on the internet, they live on Instagram, and when they see something online it can influence them more than text.”
Activists have donned “pacifist” clothing or dressed up as skeletons to protest in cemeteries, written antiwar messages on bank notes, baked bread decorated with doves for peace, and left small antiwar installations in city parks. One woman was arrested for loudly playing a song by legendary Soviet songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky about the Nazi occupation of Ukraine with the lyrics: “Ahead of us, all is blooming. Behind us, everything is burning.”
Yekaterinburg street artist Timofey Radya uses posters and signs on buildings for his installations. On June 12, he spelled out “Live in the Past” in huge Soviet-style letters on two buildings in his city, next to another with a hammer and sickle. When he came up with the idea late last year, he saw the words as a prediction.
Now he sees them as “a sentence.” Authorities removed the letters two days later.
Artist Andrei Kuzkin, used his own feces and blood to paint three words — blood, s— and war — for a work he titled “Mixture.” (Courtesy of Andrei Kuz’kin/Courtesy of Andrei Kuz’kin)
Artist Denis Mustafin was jailed for 15 days for hanging a Russian flag in front of the Defense Ministry on Russia Day, June 12, with the words “Today is not my day.” His friend, artist Andrei Kuzkin, used his own feces and blood to paint the three words “blood, s— and war” for a work he titled “Mixture.”
“I felt a kind of relief,” Kuzkin said. “I really wanted to do something to express what I feel, and to show to others that this is what war is: It is a mixture of these two things. For some reason our society and Putin forgot this very simple truth.”
In this repressive climate, protests, including performances, are less about artistic merit than raw courage, he said. “I cannot exhibit my very powerful and vivid antiwar work anywhere, for obvious reasons. So the only way I can reach out to my audience is to post pictures of this work on Facebook.”
Party of the Dead, a Russian protest art group, focuses on what they see as their country’s morbid obsession with “necrophilia” in politics and culture.
They don skeletal masks and costumes and stage protests with “corpses,” or in a cemetery where Soviet war dead and victims of the Leningrad blockade are buried. The Post is not identifying the members out of concern for their security.
“This regime has nothing to give to the world except destruction and death, which is perfectly showcased by the military invasion of Ukraine,” a member of the group said in an interview.
They argue that Putin’s regime is guilty of deceiving the public, even as it criminalizes “fake news” about the war.
“The only problem is that in this spectacle people are being killed for real.”
As Russian galleries censor exhibitions, many Russian artists are turning inward and painting secret works at home, for themselves and their own sanity, Kuzkin said. Most public protests are not artistic — just raw eruptions of frustration and pain.
Dmitry Skurikhin, who owns a shopping center in the small town of Russko-Vysotskoye, southwest of St. Petersburg, vowed last year not to shave his beard until Putin left office — after he was arrested for protesting the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He has painted the names of Ukrainian villages, towns and cities under Russian attack on the walls of his shopping center.
One of Skurikhin’s five daughters had a breathing disorder as a baby. Several times he found her with blue lips. He and his wife worried constantly, until she grew out of it.
“When the war started, I saw pictures of children who had been killed and it was unbearable for me. They were not just killed, they were torn apart,” he said, voice choking. “If I didn’t paint the names of these places where children were torn apart with red paint symbolizing blood, I thought I would just go crazy.”
One anonymous activist protested Russia’s massacres of civilians in Bucha by posing as if he were dead, in some of Moscow’s most popular sites. The images were published by the independent Russian magazine, Holod.
An unknown activist protested Russian atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine, posing outside landmarks in Moscow. (Courtesy of Holod Magazine)
Russian journalist Peter Ruzavin, who fled the country and now is reporting in Ukraine, recently launched a Telegram channel collecting images of antiwar actions, often small and anonymous.
“Ninety-nine percent of this visual art is not made by artists, just by regular people in their regions and near their houses, writing something on the walls,” he said.
There are antiwar slogans and Ukrainian flags on buildings, bridges, behind fences, on street poles, bus stops, beside highways, and in trains and buses.
“It’s really therapy because you see it and you realize that there are lots of people who are against the war. We cannot calculate them. But it’s better to know that there are people who are against war and they do what they do,” Ruzavin said.
About this story
Design and development by Aadit Tambe. Editing by Joe Moore, Reem Akkad and Chloe Coleman. Copy editing by Adrienne Dunn.