Voina (literally ‘War’) is a Russian street-art group known for their provocative and politically charged works of performance art. The group has had more than sixty members, including former and current students of the Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography, Moscow State University, and Tartu University. However, the group does not cooperate with state or private institutions, and is not supported by any Russian curators or gallerists.
The activities of Voina have ranged from street protests, symbolic pranks in public places, and performance-art happenings, to vandalism and destruction of public property. More than a dozen criminal cases have been brought against the group. According to its members, Voina has no formal leadership, and all members are considered equal. Conceptions are worked out by Oleg Vorotnikov (a.k.a. ‘Vor,’ ‘Thief ‘– the chief ideologist), Natalia Sokol (a.k.a. ‘Kozlyonok,’ ‘Goatling’ – the chief coordinator), Leonid Nikolayev (a.k.a. ‘Crazy Lenya’) and Alexei Plutser-Sarno (the chief media artist, the author of the group’s media art and texts).
Voina was founded in 2006 by Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol. The collective had no income, philosophically rejected salaried employment, and therefore lived primarily by scavenging and by stealing food and drink from stores. Pyotr Verzilov and his wife Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were members of Voina since its early stages, and lived with the group as squatters in an automobile garage. However, they split from the original group in acrimonious circumstances in late 2009, forming their own faction. Tolokonnikova was later arrested for her role in the Pussy Riot ‘punk prayer’ at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and was sentenced in 2012 to prison for hooliganism. Meanwhile, Verzilov continues to use the name ‘Voina’ despite the objections of Vorotnikov and other Voina members; his group is sometimes referred to as the ‘Moscow faction’ of Voina.
In late 2011, activists Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev were released on bail after four months in Moscow police custody, in connection with an anti-corruption protest. They face up to seven years of prison. In response to the detention, graffiti artist Banksy helped to raise money for the artists. They have also been denounced by right-wing groups such as the People’s Synod. Voina came to widespread public attention with their 2008 work ‘Fuck for the heir Puppy Bear!’, staged the day before the election of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Five couples had public sex in Moscow’s Timiryazev State Museum of Biology, including Pyotr Verzilov and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who was nine months pregnant, and gave birth four days later. Other early Voina actions included a wake for absurdist poet Dmitry Prigov, featuring a table with food and vodka, in a Moscow Metro car, and celebrating International Workers’ Day by throwing live cats over the counters at the McDonald’s restaurant at Serpukhovskaya, Moscow, ‘to break up the drudgery of workers’ routine day.’
The Voina action ‘In Memory of the Decemberists – A Present to Yuri Luzhkov,’ staged a hanging of two homosexual men and three Central Asian guest workers, references to political stances of Moscow Mayor Luzhkov which have been denounced as racist and homophobic. The mock-executions took place in a department store in Moscow. ‘A Cop in a Priest’s Robe’ featured Oleg Vorotnikov wearing the robe of a Russian Orthodox priest and the hat of a police officer, when leaving a grocery store, without paying for a full cart of groceries, to demonstrate the ‘invulnerability’ of these groups. In 2008, members welded shut the entrance doors of the restaurant ‘Oprichnik,’ using an acetylene torch and metal sheets. A message was left at the scene: ‘For the security of our citizens, the doors of the elite club Oprichnik have been reinforced.’ In 2009, Voina members, including Vorotnikov and Tolokonnikova, interrupted a courtroom hearing for the director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center, which was being held in Moscow. They performed a song, ‘All Cops are B*stards, Remember This,’ using instruments and a small amplifier which they had smuggled into the courtroom. The performance lasted less than two minutes as they were soon removed by security forces.
A schism of the Voina collective into two groups occurred in connection with a performance-art action in 2009. Tolokonnikova and Verzilov went to Kiev, Ukraine, to assist in a performance by Ukrainian artist-activist Alexander Volodarsky. At the Verkhovna Rada building, house of the Ukrainian Parliament, Volodarsky and his girlfriend were arrested for stripping naked and simulating public sex. As a result, Volodarsky served six weeks in police detention, and a six-month sentence in a penal colony. According to other members, the reason for the split of Voina into two factions was that Tolokonnikova and Verzilov had turned police informant against Volodarsky, then had stolen Volodarsky’s personal items, laptop computer, and money, while he was in detention. In December 2009, Tolokonnikova and Verzilov were expelled or otherwise moved elsewhere, to re-organize a separate group. This conflict later led to controversy over which faction should take credit for various artworks created under the name ‘Voina.’
In 2010, Voina painted a giant 65 m long phallus on the surface of the Liteyny drawbridge leading to the Bolshoy Dom, headquarters of the Federal Security Service in Saint Petersburg. This ‘painting’ was entitled ‘Giant Galactic Space Penis.’ In July of 2010, an action entitled How to Snatch a Chicken was performed in the ‘Nakhodka’ supermarket in St. Petersburg. An unidentified female Voina activist removed a frozen chicken from the refrigerated section of the supermarket, then laboriously stuffed the entire chicken into her own vagina, while being filmed by other Voina members. She then shoplifted the chicken by leaving the supermarket without paying, with the chicken still inserted, and rejoined protesters outside the store. The activists held signs spelling out the word ‘bezblaydno,’ which translates roughly as ‘without whoring,’ a reference to the group’s rejection of paid employment, and preference for stealing food.
In a more drastic and destructive turn of events, in 2011, Voina committed an arson attack in St. Petersburg, in which they set fire to a police paddy wagon vehicle. Members broke into a police station on New Year’s Eve, and used Molotov cocktails to destroy the vehicle. Voina spokesman Plutser-Sarno wrote in a statement: ‘Understand that this is not art, it is action which is beyond artistic. This will be our Bonfire of the Vanities.’
In the summer of 2010, members of Voina entered the Tagansky Courthouse, Moscow, where other artists who had been organizers of the exhibition ‘Forbidden Art 2006’ were being sentenced in the courtroom. Voina released approximately 3000 live Madagascan giant cockroaches into the hallways of the courthouse. Activist Yekaterina Samutsevich, among those who released the insects, was later sentenced to prison in the very same courtroom, after being indicted in the Pussy Riot trial (the female punk group Pussy Riot was formed in August 2011, and included at least two members of the Moscow faction of Voina). In January and February of 2011, Voina enacted a series of provocations in Moscow public transportation stations, entitled ‘Operation: Kiss Garbage.’ In Russian, the word ‘musor’ (literally: ‘garbage’) is derogatory slang for ‘police officer,’ and the action consisted of female activists approaching and kissing, without warning or consent, policewomen in the stations. It was done as an anticipatory protest of the New Law On Police signed by President Medvedev.
In 2010, Leonid Nikolayev and Oleg Vorotnikov were arrested for overturning seven empty police cars as an art performance act, ‘Palace Revolution.’ When bailed out from prison in late February, Vorotnikov skipped on his bail and went into hiding. An international warrant was issued for his re-arrest. He was arrested again in an unrelated incident, for assaulting a police officer at an unsanctioned political rally. Nikolayev, Vorotnikov, and a third Voina member, Natalya Sokol, allege to have been attacked by plainclothes members of the anti-extremism police in St. Petersberg. The beating followed a press conference where Voina discussed the conditions of their detention. They have been living as fugitives in the St. Petersburg area, and have attempted to evade police by frequently changing location.