Russians and Ukrainians these days are trading a lot more than bullets and bombs in the conflict over Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatists believed to have Moscow’s support have waged a war against the young government in Kyiv. Last week, someone in Munich desecrated the grave of Stepan Bandera, Ukraine’s most celebrated nationalist. This week, a group of agile youngsters climbed one of Moscow’s “Seven Sister” skyscrapers, planting a Ukrainian flag and painting the old Soviet star atop the building in Ukraine’s national colors, yellow and blue. The authorities quickly repainted the ornament and charged four people, who deny any involvement, with an act of hooliganism. (All four suspects are now under house arrest.)
The race to desecrate national symbols seems to be taking its toll on Moscow city officials, who recently found it necessary to arrest a group of painters for coating an electricity tower with the colors yellow and blue. Muscovites awoke August 21, a day after vandals struck the Seven Sister structure, to learn that the Ukrainian yellow and blue had appeared on a new building in the city—an electricity tower.
The power company that manages the tower, however, soon revealed that the paintjob was an accident. The corporate colors of the Moscow United Electric Grid Company, it turns out, are yellow and blue. According to statements in the Russian press, the electricity tower was supposed to be painted yellow, blue, and either white or gold. (Reports about the intended third color are inconsistent.) The yellow and blue paint job, in other words, was just a mistake—not a political statement.
Moscow’s police apparently didn’t agree. They detained the painting crew, charging them with a still-unspecified misdemeanor. The colors yellow and blue, it seems, are no longer welcome in the skies of the Russian capital.
Many Russians online have had difficulty understanding how the painting crew can be charged with a crime, if the yellow and blue pattern was a mistake. Indeed, others still have wondered what the crime would have been, if the color scheme had been intentional. According to news reports, city authorities first became aware of the electricity tower’s provocative color thanks to phone calls from concerned citizens. That ordinary people were the catalyst for the criminal case led some RuNet users to lament that the Soviet custom of “informing” on one another is alive and well in contemporary Russia.
Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was none too pleased:
— Надя Толоконникова (@tolokno) August 21, 2014
Detained for painting an electricity tower yellow-blue. “Concerned citizens called the police.” Narks.
Liberal politician Stanislav Yakovlev thought citizens’ apparent “concern” was a reminder that Josef Stalin didn’t accomplish the Great Terror on his own:
По перекраске ЛЭП: мы без конца проклинаем товарища Сталина и все же я хочу спросить – кто написал четыре миллиона доносов?
— Kreutzwald (@Kreutzwald) August 21, 2014
About the repainting of the electricity tower: we always go on without end about Comrade Stalin, but I’ll ask again all the same: who squealed on each other four million times?
Others online have been in a lighter mood about the power grid’s new colors. Some have even found humorous ways to connect the mishap to the never-ending saga of Russia’s humanitarian aid to Ukraine, which a convoy of freshly painted white trucks has carried westward for what feels like eons. The food and emergency supplies gifted to the suffering people of eastern Ukraine are aboard hundreds of KamAZ military trucks, recently painted white, presumably to avoid looking like an invasion force.
Oleg Kashin, one of Russia’s most prominent journalists and social media users, shared on Twitter a joke by one of his Facebook readers:
Про недокрашенную ЛЭП у меня в комментах шутят, что вся белая краска на гуманитарный конвой пошла.
— Kashin⚓Kashin⚓Kashin (@KSHN) August 21, 2014
About the not fully painted electricity tower: people are joking in the comments on my Facebook that all the white paint got used up on the humanitarian convoy.
Alexey Navalny, once the undisputed leader of the Russian street opposition and now a prisoner in his own home, has called attention to the yellow and blue corporate colors of the Moscow United Electric Grid Company (MOESK). On his blog, Navalny posted photographs from MOESK’s company events, announcing facetiously that a new front against the “Bandera” Ukrainian threat is now open.
Whether it’s a war of symbols or a war against symbols, none of this is terribly new in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In December 2013, before the fall of the Yanukovych regime, Maidan protesters toppled a monument to Lenin in Kyiv, bashing the statue’s head into little bits. In March 2014, Moscow suddenly became home to curious graffiti welcoming the annexation of Crimea. For months now, different photographs of Ukrainian flags planted in the cracks of Red Square have bubbled to the top of trending tweet lists.
Whether it’s atop a Moscow Seven Sister or down in the dirt outside Saint Basil's, people are fighting to stake a claim on sacred space. This makes for a broad warzone, of course, and Moscow has waged a tireless information campaign against the “fascist enemy.” Russia fights this battle as much at home as abroad. The authorities show their fatigue, however, when they arrest a crew of hapless painters.