Conference reports Art in protest. Pussy Riot in Mordovia, Russia

Lusine Djanian and Alexey Knedlyakovsky at the Bakhtin workshop shared their experiences from the art protest in 2013, in the Russian Republic of Mordovia, the historical place for those serving sentence or being exiled. And it was in this region where Bakhtin spent many years of his life when he was not allowed to live in Moscow. The protest was a direct action to support the demands of Pussy Riot-member Nadezda Toloknnikova, who was serving her sentence in prison for the action in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3:2017 p 26-27
Published on balticworlds.com on november 7, 2017

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Lusine Djanian and Alexey Knedlyakovsky at the Bakhtin workshop shared their experiences from the art protest in 2013, in the Russian Republic of Mordovia, the historical place for those serving sentence or being exiled. And it was in this region where Bakhtin spent many years of his life when he was not allowed to live in Moscow. The protest was a direct action to support the demands of Pussy Riot-member Nadezda Toloknnikova, who was serving her sentence in prison for the action in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The letter Tolokonnikova sent from prison became widely known. She wrote about the horrors of everyday life in the colony and the exploitation of the prisoner’s work by the administration of the colony.

“It is important to notice that her case is not particularly unique, it rather reflects ordinary practice in prisons in Russia: tortures, psychological pressure and work under exploitative conditions,” Lusine Djanian notes. “At the end of September 2013 we got to know that Tolokonnikova had announced a hunger strike. Next morning we all jumped in the car to go to Mordovia, 1,250 kilometers away.”

The artists had simple “weapons”, pencils, paint and paper. Lusine Djanian describes how she painted on everything she could to gain the attention of the administration, media, the broader public.

“Our tactic showed its effects already during the first days. The media got a nice picture from the place and started to distribute information on our demands. Also our action provoked a response from the prison administration. They came out and tried to intervene. They seemed very puzzled and nervous.

“They were filming what we did, and also they started an account on twitter in order to follow what kind of information we were distributing.

The next move was to expand the attention they were getting, so they put on an artistic performance.

“I put on one of the coats that the prisoners of that colony produce and started to draw a large portrait of Tolokonnikova on a red background. Unofficially the Russian prisons are divided into ‘red’ zones (where the administration has all power) and ‘black’ zones (where the administration shares power withinmates). All prison colonies in Mordovia are ‘red’.”

The prison administration stole their banners and attempted to attack Lusine Djanian and even run over Alexey Knedlyakovsky with a car.

“The administration of penitentiary institutions of Mordovia were not ready for such performance and art actions, and they started to make mistakes, so we soon transformed them into art objects”.

Lusine painted a big portrait of the head of the colony, Kupryanov, and quoted his threats towards Tolokonnikova there. The portrait could be seen by the inmates, and this informed them of the actions that were taking place. Kupriyanov became a laughing stock.

The artistic action lasted four weeks.

The results were that Tolokonnikova was transferred to another colony. The Head of the prison colony, Kupryanov, was also transferred to another region. The inmates got their salaries raised.

Today the two artists Lusine Djanian and Alexey Knedlyakovsky are seeking asylum in Sweden because they can no longer perform as artists in Russia and fear for their own safety. ≈

About the Bakthinian workshop>>

About the Bakhtin Special Section.>>

About Pussy Riot>>