RUSSIAN SECURITY SERVICE DESTROYS AN ART EXHIBIT

Inside of the Ribbon Meat Grinder

Article by Dmitry Volchek for Radio Svoboda. Translated by Zarina Zabrisky.

The Meat Grinder with St. George Ribbons. The Ribbons have become a symbol of Victory Day in Russia, 2015.
In Moscow security services have destroyed the exhibition WE WON by the art group Blue Rider.

The exhibition was supposed to open on May 8th in one of the capital’s oldest art galleries “S-Art”, founded by the architect, writer and collector Peter Vois in 1989. The police and undercover security services forces broke into the gallery and confiscated the art, detained the artists and sealed the space. The opposition participants recognized Major Alexei Okopni, a member of the Center for Counteraction to Extremism (also known as “E” Center) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Moscow.

Blue Rider artists spray Lenin’s Mausoleum with Holy Water.

Political art actions of Blue Rider created havoc before. The group leader Oleg Basov protested against Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine by kneeling on the Ukrainian flag in front of the FSB building and washing his face with fake blood. He also ate hundred-ruble bills in front of the Central Bank at the time when the Russian currency collapsed. The most famous action of the group was sprinkling holy water on Lenin’s mausoleum — a building on the Red Square containing Lenin’s mummy, the symbol of Soviet power — shouting, “Get up and go away!” For this action artists Oleg Basov and Eugene Avilov spent ten days in jail.

The exhibition WE WON is devoted to the pobedobesiya (victory mania) phenomenon — pseudo-patriotic hysteria which results in St. George ribbons being tied on backpacks, dogs and Mercedes.

“Our exhibition does not question the heroism of the people who won that war pushing the barriers of the possible in muddy trenches. But we question the chimera of the Great Empire past presented nowadays as the only indisputable foundation for Russian identity. World War II was a monstrous bloodbath for the people of Europe. Congratulations have no place at the times of mourning.

“When a heroic deed is being turned into cult and is replicated, its meaning disappears. St. George ribbon marks pro-government-minded fans of the official TV-channels. “We won, and today the outcome of this discourse is the restoration of totalitarianism with a mixture of Orthodox fundamentalism,” reads the Blue Rider manifesto.

Despite this statement, the REN-TV crew that covered the destruction of the exhibition, labeled the event as “Nazi”, and the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation called it “abominable moral ugliness.”

The leader of Blue Rider, Oleg Basov, answered these allegations on Radio Svoboda:

“They called us Nazi, but this is an extreme distortion of the facts. There was an image, for example, depicting drunken Hitler, ridiculing him. St. George ribbon minced meat, falling out of the meat grinder is our commentary on the replication of the symbols of victory, Victory Day turned into New Year’s.

“We must remember that it is a day of mourning. War is a meat grinder. It is a tragedy. Manipulating tragedy is morally wrong. Ours was an alternative view, and with a certain smirk to some extent. That includes the use of St. George’s ribbons in Donetsk events. Russian fascists, nationalists, actively participate in the war actions in Ukraine so we came up with homemade awards. One of them was a St. George ribbon with a swastika attached to it. But this was not a propaganda or promotion of any ideology. This was a peaceful artistic statement. This is how we see the reality of living in Russia.”

Oleg, did you expect that there will be such a strong reaction, especially on the first day when no one had time to see the show?

“They now accuse us of a provocation, and say that we expected scandalous publicity. This is not true at all. The gallery is located in the suburbs, not downtown Moscow. We invited mainly friends. It was not the opening of an exhibition but an event to talk to our friends and show them a few installations. I do not know how it came to the Center “E”, probably through the Internet. They forced their way in and started ransacking everything. They threw me around and hit me in the stomach in the closet, searched my pockets.”

Did they beat you up?

“I was in the gallery while it was still closed. First there came a man. He knocked and I opened the door. He was alone. He said that he was a journalist interested in seeing the exhibition. He said he was passing by and decided to stop by. They probably sent him first like a Trojan horse so we would open the door. He hung out for about five minutes and then the police in uniform arrived. Then undercover cops, about 20 people all together. The undercover security counted up to about six or eight, for sure, they were huge.”

“Alexey Okopnyi, a major, was one of them. They demanded my documents. I refused to give them my passport because I know that they take the activists’ passports. That’s what happened to the participants of the other art group, VOINA. The Center “E” took their passports and they were forced to flee the country on fake documents. You can’t trust these people.

“I started to refuse to give the passport so they — about six of them — blocked the door, even though there were police officers and journalists of state television behind the door. They beat me on the stomach, on the back of my head and wrung my hands. I screamed “Help!” to get the police’s attention. Zero response. No one knocked on the door. This was a complete violation of law, pure violence. They took a computer and turned everything upside down — not even the gallery only but also in the utility room, in the office. We were shocked. We did not expect this for sure.”

What happened to the exhibits, are they are damaged?

“Police seized the most radical, from their point of view, exhibits: a meat grinder, janitor’s jacket, barbed wire with St. George ribbons. According to our information they are going to transfer those to the prosecutor. The prosecution will think what to do. They might start a criminal case. I don’t know, they can accuse us of anything. There are lots of relevant articles in the criminal code. The propaganda of fascism?”

All of this can be compared to the events at the Sakharov Center when CAUTION, RELIGION exhibition was destroyed, only at the time they had Christian symbols — and now it is the new religion of victory.

Alisa Zrazhevskaya “Do Not Create an Idol”. The red paint sprayed over by vandals.

“That exhibit was destroyed by Orthodox activists. Now we had the special security services. Really, the government itself came and destroyed our exhibition. We’re returning to Stalin, to the Third Reich. They talked about degenerate art, the art of public enemies, sent Meyerhold and Mandelstam to rot in the Gulag. We are slowly going back to that time. The absolute powerlessness, the helplessness of the artists against activists — all this is obvious. But this time they are no activists but a special service, the police, the authority itself.”

Lawyer Alex Domnikov who represents the interests of the artists arrived to Petr Voys’s gallery one hour after the security services burst into it. He believes that only the presence of TV journalists saved the organizers from physical violence. Here’s what he told Radio Svoboda:

“The exhibition organizers do not deny the importance of the liberation of Europe from Nazism. They are talking about what has become of the holiday, and how the authority manipulates feelings, about hypocrisy, pseudo-patriotism, which is now being implanted in Russia.

“WE WON”: The Title of the Exhibition. Also, the bottom line on the medal “WE WON” (underneath Stalin).

“The meat grinder with the St.George ribbons spilling out of it truly reflects the essence of what is happening. People perished to defend the country and liberate Europe from fascism and now their feat turned into the ribbons that are used in different forms, often in a very vulgar, banal and disgusting manner. This exhibition is an appeal to ordinary people: get back to your senses, think about what it all turns into.

Oleg Basov washing with fake blood by the FSB building.

“Oleg Basov called me and told me he is being beaten up. I am his attorney. I drove to the gallery and met the people from the “E” Center in the street. Okopny, one of the infamous representatives of this center, a functionary was there. He does not attend everyday operations, only the most important ones.

“And, here everyone is debating these days, ‘When will the repressions start?’ They have already started. We have neither the court, nor the police, nor prosecutors, nor the independent media.

“Only the appearance of the existence of some institutions remains. There is the Constitution, the Police Act, under which the policeman should introduce himself and explain the basis of the actions. In this case there was no mention of the law. They just carried out a force demonstration in order to intimidate. Only the fact that I started to record everything on video saved us at the moment when Alexei Okopnyi attacked me as well.

“When, after Oleg told me, ‘Alex, I was beaten up’, Okopny tried to push me into the utility room, you know, I had feelings that are hard to describe. Our health was at stake, if not our lives. We were saved — perhaps not intentionally — by the employees of REN-TV. They arrived at the very moment that I was being pushed into the utility room. We made a compromise, and told the journalists that we will comment on the events, but only outside, on the street, so we can get out of the basement. The gallery itself is located in the basement. It is difficult to protect yourself from violence there.

What happened to the gallery?

“They sealed it. However, from the law’s perspective, they just glued on pieces of paper all around, without any legal justification. You understand, they provided neither me, nor Oleg, with any documents, even though it’s required by law. They sealed it and a policeman, a senior lieutenant, the only one in uniform and the only official in all this mayhem, informed us that immediately after the holidays the documents would be sent to the prosecutor. No one else introduced themselves.

“Oleg Basov is facing a real political persecution. Where will it end I do not know. We are thinking about our life in such conditions. How can we protect our people? But we have no choice.

“We feel somewhat like people who did not support the Nazi regime in Germany, in 1939. Russia has actually become a threat to the peace and security of mankind. We are in hard circumstances but we continue to fight, no matter what.”

The original of the article in Russian is above.