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Forbidden Texts
in Russian Cities

Arseniy PETROV

From the outside, many Russians seem to have fallen silent. Continued individual pickets, thousands of arrests per month, large fines and sentences of seven years in prison just for the word "war" often do not convince Ukrainian and European critics. Meanwhile, Russian society tries to speak through "partisan" display of anti-war materials, references from texts of classic writers on posters during demonstrations, or new works with the word when creating works of art.
The tragedy of war made life and art even more intertwined than in times of peace.


Visual resistance 

"Several times a week, in the late evenings or at night, I post anti-war propaganda in the city. It's scary. I live in a big city, but this is not Moscow or St. Petersburg.
There are a lot more police and Rosgvardia in the city. There are also a lot of video surveillance cameras - in stores, in houses, and in most institutions.
By the end of spring, after the protest rallies, the authorities installed additional cameras on the city's main squares, streets, and parks.
This makes it possible to identify the activists."

This is how one Russian woman describes her life in July 2022. The fact that she is not alone is proved by the thousands of photos of leaflets or anti-war writings in the popular Telegram channel of journalist Roman Super and other sources.
After these signs and drawings are physically destroyed by utility workers, their lifespan is extended through publication and discussion on social media.
The content of the stickers and signs ranges from harmless pacifiers and dots (you get arrested and fined just for typing *** *****) to playing up the letter Z as a Nazi swastika. Many of the short captions are obviously meant to reflect on what's going on: "How many died?", "Do the Russians want war?", "War will affect everyone". And the context intensifies the expressiveness of the message, as, for example, in the writings left by Feminist Anti-War Resistance members near maternity homes: "You did not give birth to a son for war".

The format of private agitation varies from small stickers disguised as store price tags or street advertisements to large billboards.
One of these appeared on August 22 on an abandoned hospital building in downtown Yekaterinburg. This laconic inscription "MARIUPOL" on a background of bloodstains, as if it were directly confronting Yekaterinburg residents with the specter of the ruined Ukrainian city and its victims.
The police have not yet been able to find the "perpetrators" of this action, but they have already detained the activist who left pacifist leaflets at the Moscow fountain on August 24 and painted its jets blood-red. He faces up to 3 years in prison for "vandalism motivated by hatred or enmity."
Resistance to guns with inscriptions may seem naive, but it solves several problems, becoming an important form of counter-propaganda and support for dissenters. The goal of the authorities is not only to sweep the information field clean of any criticism of the war, but also to create the illusion of universal popular support for it. Against this background, any opponent of the war in Russia knows the feeling of despair and powerlessness and often loneliness in opposing evil.
The presence of visual signs of dissent in public space is precisely what supports those who feel that they are alone, alone in their views, and shows the doubters that there are views that are extremely opposed to the official ideology.


Why Leo Tolstoy is crying

When Anastasia Parshkova was detained on March 15 with because she was carrying the biblical quote "The 6th Commandment. Do not kill" it was a big shock for many people.
Then we stopped being surprised when we saw Russian writers - Nekrasov, Lermontov, and, of course, Tolstoy - on the conditional bench next to the author of the Tablets of the Testament. Leo Tolstoy in recent decades was no longer perceived by Russian society as relevant and in demand. His approach to the reader seemed too moralistic; his language seemed inferior to the avant-garde searches of the twentieth century. Now his anti-war quotations have become so topical that the authorities have made them a figure of reticence. Not only the word "war" itself is forbidden, but also the display of quotations by Tolstoy and other authors.

Alexei Nikitin (March 24), Lubov Summ (March 31), Konstantin Goldman (April 10), and others were detained and sentenced for this.
The purpose of these protesters was to show that the militaristic rhetoric of Putin and his cronies is directed not only against some collective "West," but also against morality, common sense, and the best that Russian culture has created. The authorities has fully confirmed it not only through police arrests but also through the language of sentences that really seem to be drawn up by judges in the style of Orwell, Kafka, Platonov.

"Leo Tolstoy, according to historical facts, is a historical figure, representing the conventionally called "mirror of the revolution", it is a well-known fact that in his works, journalistic articles, the author harshly criticized the ruling regime, in particular for justifying violence in a social explosion. Thus, the actions of citizen Nikitin A.P. should be interpreted as a call to overthrow the current government, as well as to follow the ideology of Tolstoy L.N.".

"The content of the poster's visual agitation clearly expressed a negative attitude to the current authorities of the Russian Federation, namely to the actions of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

"Standing ... held in his hands the book of Leo Tolstoy "War and Peace" as a means of visual agitation, thereby violating Article 8 part. 2, clause 3 of the Federal Law of 19.06.2004 "On meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets".

The Kafkanian continuation of this is to be found in the fact that, on June 22, with the participation of Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, and Vladimir Medinsky, former Minister of Culture and now one of Putin's propaganda ideologists, the "Leo Tolstoy International Peace Prize" is solemnly established. This is a spit in the face of both an aware society and Tolstoy, who is involuntarily being made an agent of a belligerent Russia.

During these same months, private publishers are releasing a book in Moscow entitled "100 Reasons Why Leo Tolstoy Cries". There is also an exhibition under the same name, which features huge tears attached to the writer's photographs.

Tolstoy remains in isolation and condemnation not only in Russia, but also abroad. In the near future to get a grasp of Tolstoy's essence, the main pacifist of Russian literature, will not be allowed not only to schoolchildren in Russia, but also in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian parliament banned the import of Russian literature. At the same time, the demand of one of the deputy ministers of education and science of Ukraine to remove War and Peace, the main anti-war book of Russia, from the literature course was fulfilled: "This will not be studied in Ukraine, that is, everything that "orcish" troops chant".
It is as if Heine's books were not only burned in Germany, but also withdrawn from the cultural heritage of the world. The feelings of the inhabitants of Ukraine are understandable, but the horror of the situation is that this condemnation plays into the hands of a totalitarian regime that from within cancels, bans, destroys the best of culture, and if it leaves it in a distorted form.

Living in the Past vs Future

In connection with the war, inscriptions were used in a new way in the works of many artists, first and foremost in the works of street artists. The link between inscriptions and images in Russian art itself has a long history. These are both the ancient icons and in many ways the avant-garde painting of the early twentieth century, imitating them. The avant-garde, after the revolution of 1917, embarked on the path of service to a new ideology and combined slogans and expressive visual signs for clarity.
Until now in the visual culture of Russia there has been a habit of perceiving the inscription in the urban space as an edict from the authorities to the people, and that is something that is used by the artists.
On 12 June in Ekaterinburg, a well-known local artist Timofei Radya illegally mounted his new work in place of a Soviet inscription from which only the coat of arms has survived. Instead of "Our goal is communism!" appeared the more concise "Living in the past" (destroyed a day later).
Until now in the visual culture of Russia there has been a habit of perceiving the inscription in the urban space as an edict from the authorities to the people, and that is something that is used by the artists.
On 12 June in Ekaterinburg, a well-known local artist Timofei Radya illegally mounted his new work in place of a Soviet inscription from which only the coat of arms has survived. Instead of "Our goal is communism!" appeared the more concise "Living in the past" (destroyed a day later).
The bitter irony hidden in the simple words faithfully reproduces the lack of a picture of the future in contemporary Russian political discourse. The war has destroyed the stability of the worldview and ways of further development; instead, propaganda pumps people exclusively with the awareness of Russia's historical superiority and the significance of its former military victories. During fake elections, the main contender and obligatory winner do not bother to engage in political debate and explain his goals and the ways to achieve them.

A whole generation of students has already been born and raised under Putin as a permanent constant. That image of the ruler, who was chosen by the people of the older generation as the return of stability, has become for their heirs the undertaker of hopes for development and progress.
That same year saw the creation of a new series of paintings by Pavel Otdelnov, where among the snow-covered steppes we see disembodied human figures, Putin, and, most importantly, the disappearing word Future.  A limitless, impersonal expanse, snow, temporal indeterminacy, and human loneliness erase hope, while it is precisely around it that any image of the future is formed.
Even the work of Ffchw, a street artist from Perm', was allowed by the authorities to exist for only one day, between August 2 and 3. In his work "Results", an insistent sequence of prohibitions simultaneously takes on tones of rap and biblical commandments:

“Do not go there, do not stand here,

do not sing this,

do not sit there, do not sit on it,

do not eat it, do not listen this,

do not turn it on, do not buy, 
do not say this, do not sleep with that,

do not look at this, do not wear that,

do not offend, idolize,

do not draw this, do not vote for that,

support this,

do not write this, do not sign that,

do not oppose, but respect this,

calm down, pray, bow down,

bend down to the ground,

do not spread, do not defend,

do not reason, do not raise your head,

do not think, do not get ideas,

bring children into the world, do not disturb,

pay up, get it over with,

shut up and be good".


Taken together, prohibitions and humiliating coercion represent the essence of the legislative life of the Russian parliament and, more importantly, the nature of the relationship between the state and the citizenry in modern Russia. The apparatus of government, by its conception elected and serving the people, has turned into a totalitarian Leviathan, which by its orders penetrates all aspects of human life.
Directly related to the military theme are the slogans of the art group "Party of the Dead", whose members were prosecuted in September. At the beginning of the war, they had demonstrated in Petersburg next to the monuments of the fallen in the Second World War, holding the names of the dead in their hands.

According to their understanding, the authorities usurped the right to speak on their behalf - be it of war heroes or of the 'great past', using their names to bless the war and make patriotic propaganda. Their inscriptions echo the pacifist appeals of Soviet monuments, creating the feeling of a discourse shared by several generations:

'[The living] don't have enough corpses', 'The dead don't need war', 'Russians don't bury Russians', 'We don't leave ours (only their corpses)'.

It is still too early to assess the visual resistance in Russia, we can only outline its contours fragmentarily. In Ukraine, a project has appeared to archive paintings, graphics, and posters created in these tragic days. Some of them follow one another in a continuous cycle in the Piazza Ucraina exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Unfortunately, such an initiative does not exist in Russia as yet.

And we do not know what effect the writings posted on the streets or the works of individual artists have on society. But we are absolutely certain that they mirror the deep tragic reflection of the best part of Russian society in front of what is happening in the country.

Written with the support of Scholars at Risk – Italy

(Università di Trento, coord. Ester Gallo)

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