This article by Eva Gogol was originally published by Novaya Vkladka on July 27, 2003. A translated and edited version is republished on Global Voices with permission from Novaya Vkladka (The New Tab)
Yekaterinburg is referred to as the capital of street art in Russia. World-renowned street art creators live and work here, and the city hosts international street art festivals. Since the war began, the unofficial status has come into question: some artists have left Russia, while others have been imprisoned for their anti-war works. However, it is too early to bury street art in Yekaterinburg.
If you have some spray cans: guilty as charged
The court sentenced artist Leonid Cherny (real name Yegor Ledyakin) to six months of restricted liberty under the article on vandalism based on political hatred in the Russian penal code. Now the creator cannot leave the city, change his place of residence, participate in mass events, or leave his home from ten in the evening until six in the morning.
But both Cherny and his attorney consider the verdict the best possible outcome. One of the potential alternatives was a three-year prison sentence.
Cherny was detained on March 18, 2022, the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Police found spray cans and anti-war stickers on him. According to the investigation, Cherny allegedly wrote some insulting words about the president on the fruit and vegetable kiosk.
“I do not consider myself guilty, all the evidence was circumstantial. As an artist, in each of my works, I appeal to conscience and humanity. Nothing has changed for me,” stated Cherny.
Artists are in danger
Leonid Cherny is not the sole artist in the Sverdlovsk region accused of making anti-war statements. In May 2022, a court brought administrative charges of discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation against artist Alisa Gorshenina from Nizhny Tagil. On March 25, the young woman conducted a single-person picket using agitational material — a white rose with a ribbon bearing an anti-war slogan in the Chuvash and Tatar languages.
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Several administrative and criminal cases against street artists have been initiated across the country over the past year. Crimean resident Bogdan Zizu was sentenced to 15 years in prison for terrorism and vandalism. According to the FSB, on the night of May 16, 2022, Zizu splashed yellow and blue paint on the facade of the administration building in Yevpatoriya and threw a Molotov cocktail through a window. No one was injured and no fire occurred.
In June 2023, in a court in Borovsk (Kaluga Region) 85-year-old artist Vladimir Ovchinnikov was fined RUB 35,000 [About 500 USD at the time] under a law that criminalizes “discrediting” the Russian armed forces. Last April, Ovchinnikov received the same fine for an image of a girl in blue and yellow clothing with bombs falling on her.
Colors are fading
Due to the increasing lack of safety for their work in Russia, many artists have started to leave the country.
Artist Slava PTRK, who pioneered street art and urban art in the region from the outset, has departed. “I relocated in order to avoid the wave of mobilization during the war, which I have not supported from the very beginning, initiated by the authorities that I also do not support,” he said.
Slava PTRK is known for his artwork that blends pop culture with current news agenda. For example, in 2020, he portrayed Patriarch Kirill as Scrooge McDuck bathing in a pool of money. Currently, Slava PTRK lives in Montenegro, where he creates minimalistic works that often remain untitled.
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‘Pragmatists never perceive emotions’
However, anti-war artwork can still be seen in the city. In particular, artist BFMTH has created many such works on the streets of Yekaterinburg.
The image on on the right: “Pizdezh 1” [Bullshit 1], which in its design references the logo of the state owned TV channel “Russia 1.” On the left, the inscription says: “The country is big, there is enough soil for everyone.” The word soil [земля] is written with a latin Z, which has been a government-promoted symbol of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Another one of his impactful works was a printed image of Vladimir Putin glued onto a transformer in a fenced courtyard, creating the illusion that the Russian president was imprisoned.
BFMTH explained to Novaya Vkladka that, under these circumstances, it’s impossible for him to create artworks unrelated to the war.
“I consider it crucial to continue my work and try to show to those who remain in the country that it is both possible and necessary to unite and speak out against the war. Much like the participants of the ‘White Rose’ movement [in Nazi Germany] tried to fight the regime, I am trying to contribute through street art, caricatures, and stickers. When you leave the country, you [as an artist] lose the connection,” BFMTH emphasized.
Additionally, as street art researcher Alexey Shakhov noted, street artists in Yekaterinburg are inventing new ways to communicate with their audiences. “Artists try to communicate through the language of emotions. This language is completely inaccessible to official structures: pragmatists never perceive emotions.”
Artists, both street and others, continue to work in Yekaterinburg, even in the face of escalating censorship.
However, as Shakhov points out, censorship doesn't stop everyone. “Just look at Leonid Cherny: he went through the court and, despite that, continues to work. This [tightening of laws and censorship] hasn't stopped or silenced people. On the contrary, in Yekaterinburg, I see artists with much more resilient spirits than elsewhere,” he concluded.