A guide to the New East

A war on many fronts

The story of Voina, the Russian artists who fell from grace

By BBC Russian Service correspondent Olesya Gerasimenko

The art-group Voina (Russian for “war”), notorious for their performances targeting the Russian police and security services, left Russia in 2012. In Europe they were offered refugee status and opportunities to exhibit their work and collaborate in art projects. Yet seven years of wandering later, following countless arguments with fellow artists, lawyers and anarchists, Voina found themselves living on a boat in Berlin with neither electricity nor running water. The group’s founder, Oleg Vorotnikov, mysteriously disappeared in January. Who are Voina — prophets and holy fools for the 21st century, or mere purveyors of scandal?   

It is five minutes after midnight, on the evening in January when Russians traditionally celebrate New Year according to the Julian calendar. In Berlin, 38-year-old Natalya Sokol, also known as Voina member Koza (“Goat”), is pushing her children, six-year-old Mama (“Mother”) and two-year-old Troitsa (“Trinity”) in a shopping trolley through a half-lit playground. The children are happy and excited.

Natalya, with her left foot, deftly returns a football sent in her direction from the corner of the playground by her son, eight-year-old Kasper, who she promised to play football with earlier in the day. Slim-framed, curly-haired and with prominent cheekbones, Natalya’s stomach is visible under her coat: she is pregnant with her fourth child.

Her husband stands nearby, well-built and handsome in his winter hat. Oleg Vorotnikov is the founder and leader of Voina, one of the most successful Russian art groups of the 2000s. “We’re very glad you came. We’re totally isolated here. We don’t talk to anyone. Everyone is afraid to talk to us,” they tell me.

Oleg and Natalya — Voina — are famous performance artists from Russia, winners of the national Innovation art prize and recipients of patronage from such art-world stars as Banksy, who once held an auction of his work to support them. They have spent most of the last six years before our meeting wandering Europe, living in a manner which most would describe as scandalous and reprehensible. They openly mock Europe and have refused offers of political asylum from various EU states, preferring to wander the continent while making no effort to register either their own or their children’s existence. In the winter of 2018, the epic tale of their lives turned into a tragedy.  

Vorotnikov, a graduate of the philosophy department of the Moscow State University, and Sokol, a former lecturer of the physics department with a PhD in mathematics and physics, founded the art group Voina in 2005. They were joined later in 2007 by Pyotr Verzilov and his wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, later famous as a member of Pussy Riot. Voina’s many performances, or actions, have been vivid, extravagant and highly successful in terms of media attention.

One of their first performances to be widely reported was A Wake For Prigov, in which they set up tables laden with expensive stolen delicacies in the train carriages of the Moscow metro, in apparent reference to Dmitri Prigov, a Russian artist, writer and Soviet dissident and one of the leading artists of Soviet conceptual art. A bizarre performance protesting Putin’s authoritarianism at a literary fair in December 2007 involved sliding young women holding live sedated sheep down a canvas awning. The sheep were as confused as the spectators.

In the run up to the 2008 elections in which Vladimir Putin’s (temporary) successor, Dmitry Medvedev, became president, Voina performed a politically-inspired orgy in the Moscow Museum of Biology, under a banner reading “fuck for the little successor”.

Voina targeted Soviet officialdom in their protest Humiliate the Cop In His Own Home. A few days before Medvedev was inaugurated as president, the group toured the police stations of the Moscow Region’s most run down towns with gifts of tea and cakes. Recording the performance on camera, the activists entered each police station, arranged themselves into a human pyramid, and demanded the policemen hang a portrait of the new president on the wall.

They also blocked off an entire street in Moscow while screaming “the policeman blows the prosecutor,” broke into the territory of the White House, the seat of the Russian government, and smashed its CCTV cameras, while projecting a giant skull-and-crossbones onto the building from the rooftop of the nearby Ukraine hotel.

On Moscow Day, the anniversary of Moscow’s founding, Voina performed an “execution” of two homosexuals and three immigrant workers in a supermarket, “as a present to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.” The actors were hanged from the ceiling using climbing equipment.

In May 2010, one of the group’s prominent activists, Leonid Nikolayev, ran onto the roof of a Federal Protective Service car wearing a blue bucket on his head in imitation of the much-despised blue sirens which government officials (and anyone else with enough money or connections) use to cut through Moscow traffic. A case of hooliganism was opened against Nikolayev, but closed when he disappeared before his court appearance.

Russian political performance art goes by many names, from actionism to art of direct action. It blossomed in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet era when artists challenged society to question power, beliefs and art and the role they play in life.

Their former comrade Pyotr Verzilov remembers how Vor (Vorotnikov’s pseudonym in the group, which means “thief” in Russian) proudly advocated Voina’s anarchistic tendencies: “We’re worse than gypsies.” “Nomads” is the word that the activist Artem Chapaev, who they lived with for a long time in Moscow, uses to describe them.

When someone would host them, Voina would shoplift delicacies according to a “shopping list” provided by the hosts, whose fridge they would fill up with the expensive food; they themselves would eat scraps and leftovers. They weren’t fussy — they’d eat porridge with leftover bits of fish and vegetables, sleep on a mattress on the floor and spend nights in unheated sheds as an essential part of the Voina lifestyle. “They live their lives according to their own artistic principles, in which political ideas, left-wing, right-wing, fascist, anti-fascist, oppositionist or pro-Putinist, are absolutely irrelevant,” says Chapaev.

The patriarchy was one of Voina’s performances’ most frequent targets, although Pussy Riot have achieved more prominence in relation to Russian feminism. At one point Voina wanted, for example, to project a huge vagina onto the onion domes of a church. Vorotnikov, according to his friends, managed to stockpile 700 litres of pig excrement across a number of Moscow region farms, with the intention of filling a septic truck rented from the Mosfilm studio and using its hose to spray the faeces onto the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This last idea was voted down by Verzilov and Tolokonnikova, who were members of Voina at the time.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is a cathedral in Moscow that, because of its history and symbolical weight, has been chosen by artists as a site for performances. Apart from the famous Pussy Riot performance, it has also been featured in a performance by Oleg Mavromati, who chose it as a background to his performance Do Not Believe Your Eyes, which involved the artist being crucified. The original cathedral was constructed over 40 years in the 19th century but destroyed in the 1930s on the order of Joseph Stalin. In the Soviet times the site of the cathedral housed a swimming pool. The current church was rebuilt in the 1990s and revealed in the year 2000.

Voina’s many performances, or actions, have been vivid, extravagant and highly successful in terms of media attention

Following several disputes the art group splintered, and in the spring of 2010 Vorotnikov and his wife left for St Petersburg. A month later the image of a 65-metre-long penis appeared on a section of St Petersburg’s Liteiny draw-bridge. At night, when the bridge section was raised it directly faced the local offices of the FSB, the successor to the KGB.

In September 2010 Voina performed Palace Revolution, a performance in which they rolled several police cars onto their roofs. Nikolayev and Vorotnikov were arrested for hooliganism for their roles in the performance, and were placed in jail until February 2011, when they were released on bail. Vor has described the months he spent in jail as having one of the three most long-lasting impressions of his life. The other two are sex, and the snow that fell in April after the birth of his and Koza’s first child following 36 hours of labour.

Those who know Vor describe him as the leader of his own cult, a charismatic manipulator and demagogue. “He seeks novelty and sensation; what exactly it is about and with who he works on it is unimportant. His inspirations are Lenin and [Eduard] Limonov. No one else is radical enough. He considers himself the greatest Russian artist alive, and he had good reason to do so: he was the bravest and most visible of our performance artists,” recalls Chapaev.

On more than one occasion, Vorotnikov simply walked out of the police station following his detention, without waiting for his arrest or interrogation: so confidently does he hold himself that no one would think to stop him and ask where he is going. “In tense situations he neither raises his voice nor uses his fists, but knows how to use his voice to quietly convince: ‘stop showing off’. And you’d just stop arguing with him,” his acquaintances tell me.  

Vorotnikov himself is rarely quiet. During our meetings, when he isn’t talking about himself, his children, or art history, he recites poems by Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova or Alexander Blok, and then starts singing the songs of Soviet singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, early 00s Russian rock band Mumii Troll or criminal ballads. When tired he whistles instead of singing. The only person he listens to, and the only person able to bring him down a peg or two, is Koza, says Chapaev: “Koza’s role was always that of ‘the Moscow State University academic’, the voice of reason in the group. She never needs to raise her voice, and could get her way by whispering.”

When Vorotnikov and Nikolayev, having given up their passports, were released from jail, they found that they had become an overnight sensation. “We thought we could use our new fame to attract new followers, but it actually turned out that no one wanted anything to do with us. Nor could we continue stealing, because we were instantly recognised in every shop we entered,” Vor told me.

It was then that Voina, in Vor’s opinion, made a tactical mistake. Instead of doing “a few mediocre but headline-grabbing performances”, they “locked themselves away like monks for months on end preparing a super difficult stunt.”  In the end they spent all of 2011 preparing for a performance which they gradually came to realise they wouldn’t be able to accomplish on their own. Koza’s pregnancy meant that she could not accompany Vorotnikov and Nikolayev onto the roof of the luxury house in St Petersburg where they were planning their next protest, moreover as there was security below and statues along the roof itself.

“I won’t tell you all the details as we might still do it someday. But it would have required some pretty nimble climbing, clambering across people’s balconies when those inside could easily wake up and see you,” Vor continues. “It required two and a half hours of climbing to get to the roof, all the while lugging a 40kg gas cylinder and a welding machine and filming everything. That was just getting there. Once we got there, we would have needed to practice and get the equipment ready. For three nights a week over a long period we practiced it. One night we were climbing along the roof. Suddenly I saw that what we thought from afar to be another statue was the figure of a man smoking. Someone had found our storage. I turned around and said: “Lenya, run”. Somehow we managed to get away. But they found our storage, and then we couldn’t even get anywhere near the roof anymore. We wasted all of 2011 on this project, and that’s a lot of time out for an artist. It was at that time the primitive performances and sensationalism of certain ‘artists’ started becoming popular,” Vorotnikov says, referring to the work of Pyotr Pavlensky and Pussy Riot.

Eduard Limonov is a Soviet emigre writer known for his provocative prose, who has, since the fall of the USSR returned to Russia and became a leader of the controversial far-right movement that calls itself National Bolshevik, having participated in anti-government protests before becoming a passionate supporter of Vladimir Putin.

A month later Voina set fire to a riot van in the courtyard of a police station. This was their New Year present to Russian political prisoners in 2012. Vor thinks back to how dissatisfied he was with this protest in comparison to the grand performance they had been planning in St Petersburg. The police were also dissatisfied. They opened an investigation into the incident but never found those responsible.

In 2012, Polish performance artist Artur Zmijevsky invited Vorotnikov and Sokol to curate the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. Voina demanded that their 11-month-old son, Kasper, was also added to the contract and proposed that their contribution to the Biennale would be a film of them illegally entering the European Union with Kasper and their newly born daughter, Mama.

“We wanted to do something really serious: to document our illegal crossing of the border, and then to show the video at the Biennale under the slogan: ‘they wanted to catch us, but it wasn’t so easy!’”, explains Vor. He does not say how exactly they planned to cross the border. Their negotiations with Zmijevksy in Minsk concluded unsuccessfully as the Polish artist talked the idea over with a lawyer and decided not to take part in Vor’s performance.

In the end, five months later, Voina, now down a member (Leonid Nikolayev having returned to Russia), made their own way to Berlin, successfully crossing with their two children into the EU with neither passports nor visas despite being on a national search list in Russia. According to Vorotnikov, certain Ukrainian “eminences” who were fans of their work helped establish a “corridor” for them.

Those who know Vor describe him as the leader of his own cult, a charismatic manipulator and demagogue

Having got to Berlin, they pitched a number of new ideas to the curators of the Biennale. One of them was called the Free Supermarket, where for each day of the exhibition, during working hours from 8:00 to 17:00, 20 activists would tour around the supermarkets of Berlin stealing expensive alcohol, caviar and elite food, and then lay their ill-gotten gains out in a special pavilion of the exhibition for anyone to come and take.

“Zmijevsky liked the idea at first. But then he decided to speak to his lawyer again. I asked him: ‘why invite us if all you want to do is carry on with your decorative tricks?’ but Zmijevsky just declared that he was a law-abiding citizen. We fought and then left,” says Vorotnikov. Zmijevsky declined to offer his version of events when contacted by the BBC.

They started preparing for the journey back, “but the ‘corridor’ we used to get here,” explains Vor, “was shut down. Our tardiness in leaving Berlin was a tactical mistake. Rather than establishing a new base for ourselves in Berlin, we kept our presence quiet. In the end, people started asking us whether Voina still existed.”

“Vor seemed very keen at the time to plant Voina’s flag on European soil, to engage in direct action with performances even more radical than those the group had carried out in Russia,” explains Maria Shtern, an acquaintance and artist and LGBTQ activist who goes by the name Seroye Fioletovoye (“Grey Violet”). “But he couldn’t find anyone radical enough to work with. European artists think that you can fight injustice by hanging pictures of African children in an art gallery.”

“They couldn’t find anyone radical enough to work with. European artists think that you can fight injustice by hanging pictures of African children in an art gallery”

Vor and Koza were invited to come to Austria. “They wanted to make a big thing of us. I think they expected us to come, break down and start pouring shit on Russia,” says Koza. A human rights campaigning group found them a two-tiered apartment in the centre of Vienna. “We lived in the kind of apartment that someone like Evgeniya Vasilyeva [a Russian business woman prosecuted for embezzling funds from the Ministry of Defense] would stay in. Fuck!” laughs Vorotnikov. “We had no idea what to do with a five-room apartment and a jacuzzi, so we used one of the rooms to store our bikes and one for our coats, not like a fancy cloakroom but just a pile of stolen clothes from the floor to the ceiling.”

Voina were invited to Amsterdam in the spring of 2014, to participate in the OpenBorder festival, which was to be held in one of the city’s largest churches. In a letter the organisers explained that the theme of the festival was the imminent descent of a new iron curtain following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the increasingly repressive atmosphere for independent journalism in the country, which, according to organisers, would separate Russia from Europe. Voina answered with a categorical “no”.

Vor sent the organisers a letter outlining the reasons for Voina’s refusal to participate in the festival. As a former National Bolshevik and supporter of the nationalist firebrand Eduard Limonov, Vorotnikov said: “Voina maintains a very different position on the question of Crimea. We are happy to see Crimea returned to Russia, and happy for Crimeans. For the first time in many years, I find myself proud of my country. Moreover, I have often spoken of the unprofessionalism of Russia’s liberal media, in particular outlets such as Lenta.ru and Dozhd. I welcome their long overdue suppression.”

The festival organisers declined to comment to the BBC on their correspondence with Voina, saying only that they found them to be “particularly unpleasant people”.   

Their former neighbour and friend Chapaev recalls a performance in which Voina attempted to shoplift a chicken by hiding it, whole, in one of their activists’ vaginas. “Voina was increasingly feted by Russian liberals, and this was a way of sending a signal to this group that Voina had no intention of pursuing any agenda other than their own. It’s the same with Crimea,” says Chapaev, “and Vor was bound to feel sympathetic to the referendum. The annexation of Crimea is Leninist in its ambitiousness, it fits Vor’s slogan that ‘action is always better than stability’.”

“Why,” I ask Vorotnikov, “do you support the Russian government position on Crimea?”

“We woke up in Vienna and it was a sunny morning. I read the news about the referendum, and I was overjoyed. Then I started reading what liberals were saying on the subject, and I had no fucking idea what they were on about. I couldn’t picture myself on that sunny morning feeling any other way than the way I did. I liked it.”

According to Sokol, on the 30 April the curators of the festival in Amsterdam forwarded Voina’s letter on the subject of Crimea to their colleagues across Europe. When the BBC asked the curators of the OpenBorder festival whether they would like to confirm or deny this, they refused to comment. Sokol and Vorotnikov were informed that the owners of the flat in Vienna wanted to refurbish it and were asked to leave. A week later Voina were already on a train departing for Venice.

Two years before this journey, an exhibition had been held in Venice that was dedicated entirely to Voina’s work; Vor’s photograph still hangs in the permanent exhibition of contemporary art gallery S.a.L.E Docks. When Vor and Koza got in touch with their admirers in the city, they were quickly offered a flat.

The artists’ first engagement in Venice was to deliver a lecture. After making good on this promise, they moved into an anarchist squat in an old palace. Within a couple of months it was clear that Vor and Koza were not the easiest of neighbours. The sticking points, as in all the subsequent cases, were three of the pair’s most cherished principles: theft, free-living and children.

Theft is one of the core pillars of Voina’s ideology. According to the group’s foundational myth, Vor began thieving in his student years, after spilling a bag of rice he had bought with his very last money. For Voina, shoplifting from the major chains is a form of struggle with the capitalist system, in which, they allege, prices are artificially inflated to increase profits and keep the masses compliant. Such anarchistic ideas are rarely seriously considered in Europe, where artists, like everyone else, risk prison sentences for shoplifting, ranging from a week to eight years.

Nevertheless, none of the activists of Voina have ever been prosecuted for theft. There were some sticky situations in St Petersburg where they were forced to fight their way past security guards, but nothing of the kind has ever occurred with the group in Europe. Who would suspect that the young couple, with their stony expressions and designer clothes, are armed with an expensive pram and hoods that are good for hiding expensive things?  

On a winter’s evening in Berlin earlier this year, Vor and Koza chose to answer my questions by way of a practical demonstration. “Come with us,” they said, pointing to the entrance of an expensive-looking wine shop. I declined, but promised to wait for them outside with the pram. Within a minute they had returned with a bottle of Italian red.

“The secret to Voina’s elusiveness is our speed,” Vor explains in response to my surprised expression. “It took us 23 seconds to draw the penis on the bridge, and nine seconds to burn the riot van. In the first two minutes the security guards don’t even see you and you can do whatever you want. The principle works the same whether we are performing one of our pieces or stealing from a shop.” On a typical supermarket raid “we get about 400 euros worth of food, and that’s without the wine.”

The children want to ride on a double-decker bus, so we get on the 100, all the while looking around to check for ticket inspectors.

“I don’t understand what everyone is so afraid of. Performances, activism, stealing,” muses Vorotnikov, “It isn’t rocket science. Everyone thinks that we must be fucked in the head. But we steal every day: being fucked in the head isn’t an option. We have to stay cool and focused, we have to concentrate and pay attention. Everyone would steal if they could, but most people would shit their pants if they tried.”

One of their favourite foods is the expensive ice cream brand Movenpick, which they stole several litres at a time until the freezer in their squat had room for nothing else. Their youngest daughter, Troitsa, developed such a taste for seafood in Switzerland that now she eats Russian pelmeni like mussles, peeling off and discarding the dough to get to the filling inside. Kasper has perfected the trick of skating into Adidas outlets to grab expensive accessories before skating out without even removing the tags.

Voina display their stolen goods perfectly laid out in photographs which they upload to Facebook and Instagram, together with detailed explanations of the region of origin of a particular fruit, the price of a particular goat’s cheese, or the name for a rare type of berry. Some followers read on to the end, others can barely get through a few sentences without exploding in anger, but no one is left indifferent.

“This is what modern art is about,” says the artist Alexei Knedlyakovsky. “Expensive or organic products are the best: the more inaccessible they are for common people the better. Voina come along and free these products from their expensive prices by laying the food out on the pavement, and taking simple photographs with the flash on, with their children running around. They record the advertising slogans beneath, all the mystique surrounding the products simply vanishes. You could make an exhibition of their Instagram account.”

“I don’t understand what everyone is so afraid of. It isn’t rocket science. Everyone thinks that we must be fucked in the head. But we steal every day: being fucked in the head isn’t an option”

 

The Venetian anarchists who had to share their squat with Voina were less inclined to philosophise about their kleptomania. Worried about their standing in the community, they confronted Vor and Koza in the summer of 2014, who responded by calling the squat a crack den and accusing its inhabitants of drug dealing.

The Venetian squatters were also fed up of Voina’s unceasing documentation of their lives. For Voina, this recording, on camera, smartphone and dictaphone, is an essential part of their art. Their archive is their life — their soul, even, as they treat it like something sacred. During their travels, it is the loss of this thing which frightens them most of all.

In the end, Voina’s eviction degenerated into a fist fight with the anarchists which began in the palazzo and spilled out onto the famous Fondamenta delle Zattere in front of it. A group of tourists had to call the police, and Vorotnikov was detained and taken to a hospital, where a nurse stitched the wounds on his head before he was arrested on Interpol’s request: Vor was still wanted for a performance in 2011 in which he sprayed a policeman at a protest march in St Petersburg with urine.

Vor was cuffed and taken by gondola to a court in Venice. His procession — bound, bloodied and bandaged — along the canal must have proven an unexpected sight to the boatloads of Japanese tourists he passed along the way. What ensued was something of an international scandal. In light of the media attention, the anarchists felt compelled to issue a press release stating: “it became increasingly obvious that their lifestyle was incompatible with the principles of trust, respect and mutual assistance which our community abides by.” The squatters refused to comment when approached by the BBC.

While Vor was in the mosaic-frescoed cell of the former palazzo which now houses one of Venice’s jails, Koza and their two children slept together under a tree near a church. Such was Voina’s first, but by no means last, experience of homelessness.

They spent the last days of 2014 sleeping on a bed of rags in a barn near Rome, which they had broken into after illness and high fevers made the family desperate to secure a roof over their heads. The barn’s owner, an Italian pensioner who took pity on the young family, came to check on them at 8am every day in her old Buick.

“She took all four of us around the local shelters trying to find a room for us, but as soon as they saw Koza’s late-stage pregnancy, they turned us away,” Vor recalls. “We were writing letters to everyone we knew to try and find somewhere to stay. One of the places we wrote to was the Cabaret Voltaire, the legendary club and cafe in Switzerland where the Dadaist movement is said to have begun, in Zurich, and thus began the Swiss chapter of our lives.

While Vor was in the mosaic-frescoed cell of the former palazzo which now houses one of Venice’s jails, Koza and their two children slept together under a tree

Voina’s story bears striking resemblances to the biographies of the leading members of Dadaism, a provocative artistic movement that emerged in response to the horrors of the First World War. Indeed, when speaking of Voina, contemporary art enthusiasts often make this connection, particularly with the early Dadaists, such as the artist Marcel Duchamp and Europe’s first radical performance artist, Artur Cravan. The latter was often referred to as an “artist without works” and a “master of mystification”, descriptions which could easily apply to Vor and Koza. Seroye Fioletovoye claims to have spoken with Vor about these artists on numerous occasions.

Seroye Fioletovoye recalls a pamphlet written by Kazimir Malevich in 1921 entitled Laziness as the Truth of Mankind and the writings of Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, in particular The Right to Laziness, published in 1882, in which Lafargue unfavourably contrasts the exhausted European worker with the calm and unoppressed “noble savage” of less developed societies. According to Seroye Fioletovoye, Russian performance artists and actionists, Voina included, have reintroduced the original and untamed spirit of modern art to Europe — the artful laziness of direct action art. “Their laziness is a refusal to strike that bargain with the capitalist system that the European art world seems to have struck, of material comfort for quietude, of the gentrification of anarchist communities. It is, instead, a conscious and broadcasted readiness for confrontation,” writes Seroye in an article for the Russian online magazine Nozh.

Seroye compares Voina’s art with the appearances of the Russian artists Oleg Kulik and Alexander Brener at European exhibitions, in which they fought furiously with the organisers. But Voina, Seroye argues, are even more radical: “They have refused refugee status, ignore national borders and bureaucracies, steal expensive food… They are the real thing, genuine practitioners of laziness and the refusal of compromise. They have made their entire lives into a work of performance art.”

Troitsa, Voina’s third child, was born in April 2015 in Basel. Koza has always given birth outside of a hospital and without a midwife, and each birth is treated as a performance piece in itself as it is recorded through video and photography and uploaded to the internet. The placenta from Kasper’s birth was kept for five months in Chapaev’s freezer — in the end he threw it away only because he decided to rent his flat out while travelling in Asia. “They were very attentive towards Kasper, I’ve never seen such loving parents. They are devoted to him, always teaching him something or telling him stories. I don’t worry for the kids at all; even if they never go to school, the parents will make sure they get a great education at home,” insists Chapaev.

It is true that the children of Voina do not look like they want for anything. They are happy, extroverted, and speak articulately in Russian, which they have learnt entirely from their parents, and have not yet had the opportunity to pick up bad linguistic habits from other children. Swearing is not forbidden in the family, and the children speak an intriguing mixture of the cute and the profane. “Please turn on a cartoon for me,” two year-old Troitsa asks. “You massive bitch,” screams the six-year-old Mama when the pedal on her bike gets stuck. “If a girl your size gets on someone’s fucking nerves, she might get punched,” Kasper explains to his little sister after she visits a playroom.

Regardless of their extreme anarchism, Sokol and Vorotnikov are attentive and caring parents. One of the conditions they set before agreeing to give me an interview was that I take them on a family outing to the Museum of Natural History. They say it’s impossible to sneak in there without buying a ticket but they want the children to see a real museum.

“Art of direct action” is a term first introduced into Russian art to describe contemporary artists that exist on the border between art and activism. The term overlaps with actionism but is often used to describe the intersection of art with politics and social issues, whereas actionism also often addresses issue of philosophy and art itself.

“Mama, you should become an artist, think up a cool performance, and journalists will take you wherever you want to go and pay for you,” Vorotnikov teaches his eldest daughter, while she examines dinosaur bones. Kasper sets off for the geology exhibit, while Koza explains that their past efforts to grow a crystal at home failed because their constant moving around disturbed the fragile molecules.

“Some in the media wrongly believe that we use our children as props, but our kids are full members of the group,” says Vorotnikov. “We are Voina! We are Voina!” chant the children as they leave the museum, before breaking into a song of their own composition about Russia. According to Koza, Kasper, Mama and Troitsa consider all Russians to be their best friends.

For the children of Voina, Russia is like a land from a fairy tale. The first time Kasper saw snow in Germany, he took some home with him and stored it in the freezer. The children long for two things: a mobile home, and the return of their friend Lenya (a former Voina member and close friend of the Nikolayev family who stayed behind in Russia and died in 2015 while working as a tree surgeon in the Moscow Region).

“We want seven children. Nothing else in life gives me any more joy. My children are my life.”

“What about me?” asks Vor.

“You I just exploit,” smiles Koza in reply.

In May 2015, three days after Troitsa’s birth, the family found accommodation in Basel, thanks to the intercession of the director of the Cabaret Voltaire, Adrian Notz, who managed to find them a place in the attic of a house on the Wasserstrasse in a local anarchist and leftist squat. But soon, in addition to the standard neighbour’s judging glances in relation to a freezer bursting over with Movenpick, the family started experiencing problems because of their children. “When they saw us with our children on the street after 8pm in Switzerland, people would stop us to ask what had happened. Sometimes we saw them gesticulating behind our backs like we were mad,” says Koza.

Back in the squat, the expectation was that the Russian refugees would stay for a couple of days and then go to the authorities and seek asylum status. The Voina activists, true to form, had no such plans. As detailed in the subsequent police report, after a year the Swiss squatters had realised that the Russian artists had not the slightest intention of integrating and had decided they had had enough. Voina’s children were accused of stealing toilet paper, and the family were castigated for making too much noise and leaving the kitchen in a mess.

Vorotnikov is not the easiest person to live with, his Moscow acquaintances maintain. The Voina founder knows how to humiliate people and seems to take great pleasure in it, repeating the oft-heard phrase that such-and-such a person is “poor biological material”. “I’m not rude to people, I evaluate them according to what they deserve,” Vor says in his defence. “Of course they do some pretty shitty things,” recalls Chapaev. “I remember they had some old potatoes that rotted so much the floor started to rot below them. Vor parades around in his underwear and dries his socks in the kitchen. He pisses off the balcony. I shouted at him for it but he just politely, poetically ignored me. We lived on.”

In Switzerland, Voina yet again proved to be too anarchistic for their anarchist neighbours, who they considered the dullest of conformists. “Voina have created an absurd situation,” wrote the local newspaper Schweiz am Wochenende. “They have occupied an already occupied property. They have created a squat within a squat. Their neighbours, who until recently considered the police their greatest enemies, now threaten them with calling the police.” At their next meeting, the squatters decided to forcibly evict the migrants. Vor and Koza were given notice and advised to leave with their children and turn themselves in to the authorities.

As it turned out, around that time Voina were also finally coming round to the idea of seeking asylum status. But Vor and Koza did not want their children to end up in a migrant camp. According to Seroye Fioletovoye, who lived at the time not far from them in Basel and was in regular communication, Vorotnikov’s mother arrived in the city in March. The artists wanted her to look after their children in Switzerland while they turned themselves in to a camp and waited on the authorities’ decision. But Vorotnikov’s mother refused. Vor was furious.

The nocturnal shouting match between Vor and his mother turned out to be the last straw for Voina’s neighbours. On 16 March, a group of ten anarchists broke into the attic in which Vor, Koza and their children lived. Experienced rioters who had taken part in many street clashes with the police, they had come prepared with wooden shields, sticks and cans of mace. What they did not know was that Voina also had prepared for such an eventuality, and had set up a camera in the corner of the room. The footage from this camera would be the key piece of evidence in the subsequent court case.

The attackers began with Vorotnikov, spraying him with mace and tying his arms and legs. Then they dragged Sokol by her hair out of the flat. The children were hiding, terrified, in a play tent, into which the anarchists first threw a rubbish bin before pulling the distraught children out one by one and sending them out onto the street. Nine-month old Troitsa, who was naked after having just taken a bath, was put into a pram. The other anarchists went through the family’s possessions, gathering laptops and tablets. Someone, meanwhile, had already called the police.

The anarchists were arrested and went to court. Seven of them received suspended sentences of up to a year; the other three were acquitted. Following their eviction, Voina found themselves in a migrant camp.

The camp in Switzerland turned out to be an underground bomb shelter with three-tiered bunk beds in windowless rooms measuring four-by-four metres. People were only allowed to leave the room between 9am and 6pm and those coming and going, including children, were routinely searched. Voina were informed that they would have to stay in the camp until a decision on their status was reached, a process that can typically take up to a year and a half. Koza, who suffers from claustrophobia, later referred to the place as a concentration camp. Within three days Voina were on the run.

Vorotnikov is not the easiest person to live with, his Moscow acquaintances maintain

Their first stop was Nuremberg, where friends had managed to put them in touch with a lonely 40-year-old Nazi who had agreed to take them in. But on the first day they did not get on well with their new host as Vorotnikov announced that he was an anti-fascist and refused to talk or shake hands. Their new landlord tried to forbid them from stealing, and became offended when the Russian artists refused to accompany him on his nocturnal sojourns to throw fascist salutes at the Nuremburg Rally Grounds, the famous site where Hitler addressed the subjects of the Third Reich.

The artists next moved to the Czech Republic, where they lived in seven different towns. It was not long before they had succeeded in fighting with the most famous contemporary art group in the country, Sto Goven, whose more liberal members could not comprehend why Vorotnikov insisted on stealing the choicest most expensive cut of pork from the same shop with which they had an agreement to collect recently expired food.

The leader of the Czech group also complained on his Facebook page that Voina had continued their routine shoplifting even after he had given Vorotnikov money. Voina once again found themselves on the street. Sto Goven were approached by the BBC but declined to comment on their relationship with Voina. When reaching out to those who have had past altercations with Voina, a sharply delivered “no comment” seems to be the near universal response.    

By the autumn of 2016, lively discussions about Voina and their latest antics were frequent in Czech media. Following yet another detention by the border police on 21 September, one of the country’s most popular liberal politicians, the former minister of foreign affairs Count Karel Schwarzenberg, interceded on behalf of the Russian artists. “It would be a crime to extradite them; better that I hide Oleg Vorotnikov and his family away with me,” he told a journalist at the time.

Within 24 hours of this invitation, an interview with Vor appeared in Czech newspapers. Among many other scandalous opinions, Vor mused: “What a wonderful country Czechoslovakia used to be! What a shame that America has turned the Czechs into currency whores. There was a time when your country was famed for its high culture and kind humour. What remains of that? The Czech Republic is stuck in the 1990s.”

“I’ve really said some crazy things there,” laughs Vorotnikov. “The translator, shocked, asked whether I wanted to take my words back. I told him I can’t do that, that I put a lot of thought into it. The article was published the following day, and then all hell broke loose. We were refused everything, lawyers stopped answering our messages, we received messages saying we couldn’t be the real Voina, that we were just thieves and murderers.”

“But didn’t you foresee this reaction?” I ask. “We really don’t give a fuck,” answers Vorotnikov.

But Count Schwarzenberg was good to his word, and Voina lived in relative peace in his castle for a few months. The 18th-century castle, known as the Orlik nad Vltavou, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the south of the country. Half of the castle was open to tourists; Vor, Koza and their children lived in the other half. The count allowed the artists to set up a studio in another castle owned by his estate, in the nearby village of Cimelice. The view from the window was of peacocks wandering on a manicured lawn. For once, Voina kept themselves quiet. The nearest thing to an altercation during their stay was a note left requesting the artists clean their dirty dishes. Nevertheless, in January they moved into the centre of Prague, so that, they say, Kasper could go to school.

According to Vor and Koza, their flat was constantly watched, and when, in March 2017, it was announced that Vorotnikov was wanted by the authorities to facilitate his extradition to Russia, Voina moved into an abandoned house in a Roma community. Soon after they left the country. “That was the beginning of the really fucking tough chapter of our wanderings,” says Koza.

Voina’s reputation had caught up with them. Their former hosts, the Italian anarchists, Swiss human rights campaigners and multiple leftists had circulated an open letter warning of the family’s “irredeemable dysfunctionality” among their colleagues and contacts throughout Europe. Even those who had previously promised to help no longer responded to their messages. Their last more or less fixed address was a squat in Berlin which they reached after an exhausting walk through the forests surrounding Leipzig. Within a month they had been evicted.

In December 2017, the Russian artists visited a cafe in Berlin to inquire whether anyone could help them find a place to stay for the night. It was a woman in this cafe who showed them where there was an unoccupied boat moored up nearby. They stayed there until they were forced by the frost to find somewhere warmer.

While on the boat, the Russian artists slept under a theatre curtain. Vor washed by diving into the river every day. During this time in Berlin, an American director was making a film about the Russian artists. He helped Vor and Koza break into an empty caretaker’s lodge in a nearby block of flats, and here together they celebrated the start of 2018.

A few days later the caretaker came back, but, seeing the three young children, did not chuck the family out. He did, however, warn them that they would have to leave by the end of January when inspectors were due to come and check the property. But for now, they still live there. And here we are, wandering in the frosty January Berlin zoo. “Oleg,” I ask, “why don’t you go back to Russia and serve your time? You said you liked it in prison last time. They won’t put Koza in prison: she has too many children.”

“Do you know what the wannabe artists in Russia don’t understand? An honest, real prisoner yearns for freedom. Going to prison when you’ve been caught is one thing, but giving yourself up is wrong. Freedom is more important than anything else. No one will catch Voina. Voina is un-fucking-catchable.” We walk past an enclosure of goats, then an aquarium with seals.

“Those whores went to prison purely for the media attention. It was a revolting thing to watch,” adds Koza, referring to the two members of Pussy Riot who were given prison sentences. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova declined to comment on her former comrades-in-arms to the BBC, justifying her decision by saying she didn’t want to “do any harm”.

When reaching out to those who have had past altercations with Voina, a sharply delivered “no comment” seems to be the near universal response

Vorotnikov and Sokol are obviously proud that they have managed to maintain the ideology and lifestyle of their youth. Seven years after the group first broke apart, it was obvious that Voina did not split into a Moscow faction and a St Petersburg faction, but rather into an anarchist one versus a commercial one.

“Do you still have friends in Russia?”

“At the end of the day, Voina is just two people, and both of them are absolutely fucked in the head. Everyone else we had to constantly boot up the arse to make sure they took part. Very few were able to stand more than one performance, many couldn’t even stand that much and left half way through their first. Unbelievable, right? So we’ve never really had friends in Russia or anywhere else. We don’t try and talk to anyone, we just tell everyone to fuck off.”

We arrive at the panda bear enclosure. “You try to live like prophets, or holy fools,” I venture. “No, it’s more complicated than that. We are great artists. European anarchists live in social housing and take government handouts. We, on the other hand, are Makhnoites [followers of the Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno], buccaneers.” We look at the house where flamingos spend the winter.

“Russians don’t realise or don’t want to accept that Europeans have raised modern art to the status of a new religion. They build new art galleries at no less a pace than shopping malls, and when the galleries open people queue for them like they would at a shopping mall. As a rule, the exhibitions are of works that no one, least of all the artist, really understand, like thousands of bicycles or mountains of sunflower seeds. But still people go and see them, believing it to be good for their souls. As for the amount of money being invested into modern art, it’s already getting comparable to Hollywood.”

“Vor takes for granted that people will be found to help him, yet at the same time he pushes those same people away and despises them. The children have no boundaries, and can do whatever they want,” recalls the journalist Pavel Grinshpun, who once worked with Voina. “Anyone who expects gratitude from them is quickly disabused. This is partly a result of the material and legal hell in which they choose to live. Theirs is a mixture of rudeness with an unshakable belief that the world is in debt to them, all carried off with undeniable magnetism. There is something religious in it, something of the crusade.”

“They live as if they’re being watched by an eternal being to which they have to answer for all their actions,” agrees Voina’s former neighbour, Chapaev. “They revel in the shit-storm that their life frequently turns into. It’s difficult to tell bluff from reality. And Vor would undoubtedly question whether such a distinction exists. It’s much more fun to read about them than to have to deal with them.”

As we say our goodbyes after our meeting in Berlin, Vorotnikov informs me of a troubling premonition: “I have this feeling that something bad is going to happen me.” Two weeks after a confrontation with the police that followed a call made by a resident of the block of flats where Voina were staying, Vor went missing. When one of the group’s few remaining supporters tried to track Vorotnikov down among the jails of the German capital, the ten euros he tried to get delivered to him were returned with a note stating that the “addressee cannot be found”. Koza remained with the children on the boat in Berlin. They sleep in their overclothes, warm up every morning in McDonalds, and spend their evenings at a nearby laundromat. Koza continues to upload photographs of her daily struggles to her Facebook page. A week after Vor’s disappearance, Russian expats living in Berlin began discussing among themselves whether it would be best to alert the state and child protection services.

Koza assembled these comments into one text which she published as a separate post under the heading “denunciation from a Russian emigrant of the fifth wave to the kinder-gestapo concerning the Voina group.” She also appealed to Russia’s Presidential Children’s Rights Commissioner, Anna Kuznetsova, and gave interviews to German and Russian journalists, including the popular Russian talk-show host Andrei Malakhov.

Koza has friends in high places who assure her that powerful people have taken up her case. The office of the children’s rights commissioner has informed journalists that Sokol’s appeal has been received and that discussions are underway with the embassy.

Back on that day in the zoo in Berlin, I asked her whether she could ever picture herself with another man.

“No,” she replied, “he is the love of my life.”

“Of course,” Vor added. “I’m a lovely guy. And one of the greatest artists alive.”

 


“Do you know what the wannabe artists in Russia don’t understand? An honest, real prisoner yearns for freedom. Freedom is more important than anything else. No one will catch Voina. Voina is un-fucking-catchable”

Following the publication of this article on the BBC website, Koza appeared on several Russian news and talk shows, and published a picture of a row of 50 euro notes that she said she had received as a fee for appearing on the Andrei Malakhov show. On 4 March Koza posted that Vor and the family had been reunited (“The mission of freeing Vor from captivity in Switzerland has succeeded”) and were together in Graz, Austria, where they were taking part in Elevate festival. During the festival, Voina showed a video of anarchists attacking the family and throwing them out of their Swiss squat, stating: “Every time you say ‘Refugees Welcome’ and talk all the shit that you people discuss here, remember this video.” Vor then explained where he had been and how he escaped: he had been arrested on 27 January in Berlin and spent a month in a Swiss ‘concentration camp’ (this is how Voina refers to refugee camps) before being broken out of it by Koza and the employees of the camp. Recent social media posts indicate that Voina still live in Austria.

Text: Olesya Gerasimenko
© BBC 2018 text translated and reproduced by permission

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