Russia: massive raids targeting artists

Protest artwork, created from mandatory reports to the Justice Ministry of Russia by the founding member of the Party of the Dead, designated as a “foreign agent”. PHOTO: THE ARCHIVE OF THE PARTY OF THE DEAD
Contemporary artists throughout Russia were targeted by Russian officials. They were interrogated about connections to Pussy Riot founder, which they deny having.

Oksana Chelysheva

Published 19.03.2024 2:10

Updated 20.03.2024 10:02

On March 12, Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB) raided the apartments of some thirty contemporary artists, the Russian independent media reports. According to Mediazona, Meduza and various Telegram channels, the raids took place in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Perm, Voronezh, Ulyanovsk, Yekaterinburg, Samara and other locations. Raided artists were detained and interrogated, but later released. Their equipment, including computers and mobile phones, was seized. 

Since not all the people are willing to discuss even with the independent media, the number of raids can be higher than reported. For instance, Aleksey Zhitkovsky, a theater director from Nizhnevartovsk in Western Siberia, has written about raids in his hometown on his Facebook account.  

Some artists alerted about the raids via their social media pages as they were happening. One of them was Katrin Nenasheva, who lives in Saint Petersburg. She is known for her visualizations of the most marginal people, including women in prisons and psychiatric facilities in Russia. Nenasheva is also one of the leading people in the project I am staying , which unites artists, who are critical of the authorities, but who either can´t or don´t want to leave Russia 

In early morning of March 12, she wrote on her Facebook: “The FSB are bursting in.” She continued by describing that as she and her partner demanded to wait for their lawyer’s arrival, the agents responded by threatening “to shoot the door open”. 

When she opened the door, one of the police officers pointed a gun at her, but later explained that it was because of a barking dog in the apartment. Nenasheva was detained and interrogated but released later the same day. 

The FSB demanded to sign a paper of non-disclosure 

Another Saint Petersburg-based artist told Satakieli that they were interrogated for 1,5 hours by the FSB. The person wanted to remain anonymous in the article, because the FSB had demanded them to sign a paper of non-disclosure. 

The person told Satakieli that the FSB questioned them especially about their alleged connections to Pyotr Verzilov, who is one of the founding members of the political pop-art project Pussy Riot, and about a Saint Petersburg based art collective The Party of the Dead

Verzilov is currently charged in two criminal cases. He is accused of state treason after he told in the video interview to YouTuber Yuri Dud that he had joined the Ukrainian armed forces. One day before the raids, Verzilovs another case, sentence of 8,5 years in prison for “war fakes”, was overturned and sent to a new hearing by the Moscow city court, because of numerous violations in the investigation. 

The detained person denies having any connections to Verzilov. With regard to The Party of the Dead, they tell Satakieli that most of the members of the group fled Russia already in 2022 and after that, there has been almost no connection. Still, the FSB released them with the status of a witness. 

According to Russian independent media, in multiple other cases the artists were also questioned about their connections Pyotr Verzilov. Most of the artists have stated that they are not even acquainted to Verzilov.  

Verzilov himself has not commented the March 12th raids. His current whereabouts are not known, but he is expected to have left Russia. 

The law enforcement is running out of state enemies, a reporter believes 

Alleged connections to Pyotr Verzilov are nothing but a pretext, Yan Shenkman believes. He is a reporter, who formerly worked for the Novaya Gazeta, and now lives in Armenia.  

Shenkman also doesn’t believe that the raids would have been conducted to smoothen the way to the March 17 presidential elections on, as some have suggested. 

“Even if all these artists would have come out to protest on the day of elections, it would not have changed anything”, Shenkman says. 

Some of the targeted artists are widely recognized and award-winning, such as Artyon Filatov and Nailya Allahverdieva. But large number of them are underground artists, who aren’t very well known. 

 “Their audiences are rather small. Some of them have only some dozens of followers in Instagram.”  

Shenkman believes that the main reason for targeting also not-well-known artists is that the law enforcement needs to produce a list of new “foreign agents” every Friday. They are simply running out of “state enemies”. 

The idea of Verzilov being the cause of the attacks, is far-fetched, says also Nikolay Olejnikov, a Russian contemporary artist, who is now a political refugee. Also The Party of the Dead art collective is pretty much non-existing, he reminds.  

The collective was initially targeted already in autumn 2022 and its founder Maksim Yevstropov fled Russia. Another co-founder of the Party of the Dead, Daria Apakhonchich, was one of the first people to be named as a “foreign agent” and has also left Russia.  

Oljenikov believes that the raids on March 12 might have been a warning to those who “are still in Russia to force them to leave the country”.  

The interrogated artist from Saint Petersburg, who Satakieli has been in contact with, believes the purpose of the raids is just “to threaten them and deepen the trap they’re in”. According to documents seen by Satakieli, the person has been detained by the police already before. Back then, the reason was participation in a counter-culture antiwar street action.  

“I do not have any illusions about the attitude towards us from both authorities of Russia or liberal opposition or the West as such”, the person says. “They do not understand us, and they do not understand Russia´s reality.”