The Russian Protest Art

An artistic jab at war propaganda and the authoritarian. Contact on a war-critical basis instead of freezing all dialogue across the border. These are important counteractions against Russia's regime, believes Russian Evgeny Goman in Kirkenes.

"We need to keep in touch with the Russians, especially independent artists. If they are cut off from the outside world, they are left with propaganda and depression. It will contribute to Putin's project of controlling Russian minds, says Evgeny Goman from Murmansk in Northwest Russia.

Goman is experienced within border-crossing cultural cooperation in the Barents region and is the former Minister of Culture in Murmansk oblast (county). This year, he moved to Kirkenes with his family to continue working in the field of international culture as a producer for Pikene på Broen (the Girls on the Bridge). A month later his home country went to war against Ukraine. 

While Kirkenes is his new base, Goman has an independent theater in his home town which he still risks traveling back to. There, he, as a director and theater manager, and his staff are working on artistic protest work. 

In Pikene på Broen, a collective of curators and producers, he also works to ensure interaction between independent art- and cultural actors in Russia and in new Russian exile communities.

Light in the gloomy darkness

"Art is no gun, it does not provide any immediate great effect. However, it processes memories, attitudes, and opinions long term," says Goman. (Photo: Arctic Theater)

Reach out a hand

An important starting point for the contact Goman advocates for is that it begins with a clear stance against the war.

This way, one can challenge the picture being painted by the 'special operation in Ukraine' on part of the Russian authorities, and connect with war protesters who need support. 

"We should be actively looking for Russians who are against the war, and be creative in our ways of communicating with them. And thereby convey to them that we support them, that they are not alone - and that we understand that they stand for peace and democracy, but are hindered by their difficult circumstances in expressing this," he says and goes on: 

"I know many who are harassed by the police. Russia is a police state now. You never know what can happen to you. It is a Russian roulette – a game that depends on individuals in the police force and FSB, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation."

Spaces of possibility

A hybrid kvartirnik gathers artists in physical spaces in Kirkenes, Murmansk, and different exile countries through a digital bridge. (Photo: Astrid Fadnes/Pikene på Broen).

Sharing of ideas and community

One of the ways Pikene på Broen maintains cooperation with Russian artists is through kvartirnik – a revitalized concept from the Soviet era. 

The name comes from the Russian word for apartment, kvartira. Back then, different musicians gathered in private apartments for concerts and conversations which were not allowed on public stages.

In Pikene på Broen's modern form, kvartirnik is hybrid – and is carried out through a digital bridge between physical spaces in Kirkenes and Murmansk, as well as other places where exiled Russians are located.

A central theme of the gatherings this spring and early summer has been how art can be a tool for protest.

"They wanted to do something but did not know exactly what. Through dialogue and sharing of experiences, Russian artists found inspiration and strength to resist. People began protesting anonymously," says Gorman and continues:

"This is something we can do. Bring people together for sharing ideas on how one can protest. It strengthens the feeling of community. In addition, it is easier to ensure anonymity if you are one of many who spread messages of protest under the same "tab" in different channels, for example through organization accounts without named senders."

Burdened to 'death'

The text of this "dead" person alludes to the Russian forces' symbol of war "Z", and the military code "cargo 200" for the transport of bodies from the battlefield. (Photo: The Party of the Dead).


Deadly serious criticism

Goman gives us an example of how ideas of protest art from "the ranks of the dead" is spread.

"We invited some from the Party of the Dead, an artistic protest group from St. Petersburg, to talk at kvartirnik about their philosophy and their work. The members dress as dead people and convey messages on posters, in opposition to the ruling party United Russia – the country's largest party and one of Putin's platform. The Party of the Dead says "Come join us. We are largest in numbers," and insists that death is better than Russian politics. 

The group's members play on a provocative image of the dead, with elements of sarcasm, irony, and absurdity, to fight the regime.

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, they have, among other things, published a picture of a dead dove and a poster with the text "The dead do not wage war," says Goman.

"A few days after the kvartirnik gathering, a new representative for the "party" showed up in Murmansk. Inspired by the group's ways of protest, the person published an anonymous picture of themself dressed as a corpse with a poster that reads "No to war", "Нет войне" in Russian."

"Many in this group have now fled from Russia because it is so difficult to remain anonymous, even with the masks. But new members are still joining," says Goman.

A careful estimate is that at least 300 000 Russians have left their home country after the invasion of Ukraine, according to the non-profit organization OK Russians.

In reality, they are screaming. But they cannot do it openly with a policeman after them.
Evgeny Goman, Producer for Pikene på Broen, as well as Director and og Theater Manager at the Arctic Theater in Murmansk

Reign of fear

Goman notices that the fear of reprisals is growing among the remaining critics of the war in Russia since objecting against the war is severely punishable by the Russian government. 

Russians risk large fines and up to 15 years in prison for spreading "disinformation" about what the Russian forces are doing in Ukraine, including referring to it as a war – and not a "special military operation".

Since the 24th of February, nearly 16 500 have been arrested for anti-war protesting in Russia, reports the human rights organization OVD-Info.

"At the last kvarternik gatherings, I have noticed that people are more cautious. In the immediate time after the invasion, there was a lot of pain and fear, but the feelings and the community pushed them forward. Now, it is clear to them that if their contact across the border and their protesting becomes too visible and identifiable, they will quickly be persecuted," says Goman.

He tells us about two participants in Murmansk who discovered that they were surveilled by the police. They stopped visiting the gathering place in the city and switched to digital participation.

"Ensuring safety is getting more and more difficult. From the outside, without further knowledge of current conditions in Russia, one can get the impression that Russians are servile and uninterested, but in reality, they are screaming. But they cannot do it openly with a policeman after them," Goman points out.

The catch

"Although there were many great aspects of life in Russia, this insecurity gnawed: Whatever you do, you can be persecuted," says Goman, here performing on his own stage in Murmansk on an earlier occasion. (Photo: Arctic Theatre)

Looking over one's shoulder

For Goman, the increasingly extensive censorship, with a hidden threat for anyone who defied it, contributed to him applying to Norway. 

"I enjoyed life in Murmansk with my little, commercial, theater called Arctic Theater. From the start in 2014, it was both my livelihood and passion. The catch of my existence, however, was that I never knew what would happen the next day," he says. 

"To illustrate: in May 2021, we put on the socially critical Henrik Ibsen play "An Enemy of the People". During the applause, one of my friends, a leader of a cultural organisation, came up to me on stage with flowers and said: "You are so brave." That made me really fearful. Putting on a 140-year-old play had apparently become a brave act, and I did not like that at all. 

As former Minister of Culture in Murmansk oblast, Goman is also a public person and has felt the tentacles of censorship from Kreml. 

"When the opposition politician Aleksej Navalnyj returned last year from Germany to Russia after treatment for poisoning and was promptly arrested, I posted on Instagram. In the post, I protested against the behavior of the authorities and advocated that he should be set free. An hour after the publication, I received a phone call from the governor of Murmansk. He called me into his office and was harsh in his use of words. The presidential administration had asked him to give me, as a former minister in the region, a clear message not to publish such posts," says Goman.

"I noticed that I began holding myself back from doing this and that based on the thought that it could lead to something bad. I am now very happy to be based in Norway. I would be very scared if I still lived in Russia," he adds.

How does it feel to walk the streets with protest posters?
Evgeny Goman, Producer for Pikene på Broen, as well as Director and og Theater Manager at the Arctic Theater in Murmansk

Wants to awaken the feeling of freedom

Although dangerous, Goman and his family have ventured back to Murmansk. Originally, the plan was to travel frequently across the border to visit family, friends, and the theater. Instead, only a few necessary trips are made.

"I go there because I understand that I have to do something to fight Putin's regime and because I have things there to take care of."

As mentioned, Goman works with his colleagues at the Arctic Theater on new productions with protest leanings. Underway is, among other things, the performance Feelings (Чувства), which the theater manager hopes can be put on in October.

"The performance plays on our five senses: smell, taste, hearing, vision, and touch. It will be based on the acting method of American Lee Strasberg, a great teacher in the field. He taught the actors to use the senses to evoke feelings."

Structurally, the play will be built up of several layers, from fundamental, individually emphasized sensory experiences to a composition of sensory impressions to evoke feelings of being situated in socially relevant situations.

"Many of us have never experienced what it is like to be in an apartment which the police want to enter to search and to question you. But acting can convey an experience of how it is by playing on the senses. For example, it can be relevant to have light shined in your eyes, to hear the sound of a drill in the apartment next door, and to feel a toothache. When you put these sensory experiences together and feel them, it can provide you a sense of actually being placed in the situation," says Goman and goes on:

"Finally, we will explore the feeling of freedom. How does it feel, for example, to walk the streets as a free person with a protest poster? The majority of Russians do not participate in protests because they are scared. Through acting, we can give them the feeling of freedom."

Goman established the Arctic Theater (Арктический театр) in Murmansk in 2014. He and his staff are currently working on performances that cleverly problematize the Russian regime's warfare and domestic power moves. A few of the colleagues have plans to leave Russia later this year. The rest are currently determined to stay, but are always faced with the dilemma of leaving or staying, he says. (Photo: Arctic Theater)

Hope and bravery

"My hope is that such a performance can help the audience and ourselves to understand that the feeling of freedom should be as natural as the feeling of lemon on your tongue or the smell of cucumber. We should all have an understanding of what freedom feels like," says Goman.

Throughout the theater's eight years, he and his co-workers have treated political questions in different ways, including addressing issues that normally have not been addressed on public stages in Murmansk.

"So it is a free theater, as free as it has been possible to be," says Goman and looks seriously ahead:

"In today's Russia, I realize that this could be the theater's last performance. But if we do not put it on, the theater should not exist anymore. If we cannot address these topics on stage, we should shut down the business and do something else."

The features of Norwegian-Russian interaction will also be significant during next year's Barent Spektakel in Kirkenes, which is organized by Pikene på Broen. Here we see a glimpse from the 2022 festival. (Photo: Ksenia Novikova/The Norwegian Barents Secretariat)

Awaits Russian artists to Kirkenes

The fall thus offers a variety of artistic work which cleverly speaks up against the Russian regime's war and strict power moves. 

As High North News has previously reported, Pikene på Broen is also keeping the bridge of art over the Russian border open through an international residency program for artists. This facilitates for artistic exploration of the Barents region, and thereby the production of new art and stories. 

Russian artists have stayed in Kirkenes both in the early summer and now in August. One of them is also a scientist and works with interview data on the first reactions to Russia's warfare. 

"By the end of the year, three additional artists from Russia will be residing for over a month or perhaps even for six months. Obtaining a visa is challenging, but still possible," says Goman.

The collective in the border city is also well underway with the planning of their regular big production: the border-crossing cultural-political festival Barents Spektakel 2023.

"We will have a great selection of artists from different countries, including Russia, who will explore the theme of trust. We are now feeling that the program is close to being fully booked. I think it will be brilliant in many ways," he smiles.


This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.