Street art as political protest is nothing new to Kirill Kto. For the past fifteen years the boyish, bespectacled Kto has been roaming Moscow’s streets armed with spray cans and paintbrushes. He lifts slogans from Kremlin-friendly youth organizations and paints them on luxury cars as a way of spotlighting the connection between money and power. He writes mini-manifestoes on the walls of Moscow that assail political apathy and institutionalized crime. When the powers-that-be abruptly decided to replace the long-time Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov with a Kremlin insider named Sergei Sobyanin in 2010, Kto used the city’s walls to send the new mayor a message: “Sobyanin, you’re just a baby,” Kto wrote. “Don’t disappoint me."
Kto may do most of his work alone, but he isn’t exactly working in a vacuum. An extraordinary upswell of public protest in recent months has flooded the Russian streets, shaking assumptions about the stability of a political culture dominated for the past 12 years by Vladimir Putin, the former president and current prime minister. The overwhelming majority of these protestors -- young, educated, and self-aware -- are newcomers to politics, recently galvanized into action. But while their appearance on the scene may have caught political analysts off guard, the style and symbols of their protest have been many years in the making -- forged by street artists like Kto and his ilk, often operating in plain sight of the authorities.
A sarcastic appreciation of the absurd has marked this new generation of protest ever since it reached critical mass last year. While demonstrators braced for a subzero protest in December, journalist Anastasia Karimova, adorned in nothing but a blue bikini and high heels, posed for a now-iconic photo in the snow, holding a sign urging her fellow Muscovites to turn out in defiance of the freezing temperatures. (They obliged.) Recently activists in the Siberian city of Barnaul filled public squares with demonstrations attended by Lego protesters -- a sly commentary on the mayor’s ban on public protests. (The mayor thereupon issued a decree prohibiting the use of toys in political demonstrations.) And when Putin declared that the white ribbons serving as the opposition’s emblem allegedly reminded him of condoms, protestors responded by pinning actual condoms to their jackets in a wry display of unity.
It’s not hard to understand why politics and performance seem to be joined at the hip in modern-day Russia. Putin’s reign has gone along with a steady tightening of state control over the media. The Kremlin re-asserted its supremacy over national television and radio, as well as most of the country’s newspapers, and cracked down on business tycoons who attempted to use their billions to promote their own political agendas. The authorities were quick to suppress anything remotely resembling an unsanctioned political demonstration, clamping down on even the most minuscule protest marches in Moscow.
But Putin and his entourage have never believed in the wholesale Soviet approach to censorship, so they were happy to leave a few choice niches of relatively free expression. Some activists, like the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, carved out spaces for themselves on the Internet. This is not to say, though, that the Web is a haven of free speech. Political institutions and hacker-for-hire groups easily navigate locked portals and IP addresses to threaten the security and privacy of these basement activists.
Undeterred, counterculture radicals have still found plenty of places to indulge in provocation. Recently, for example, it’s the alternative music scene that has proven fertile ground for protest. The feminist punk band “Pussy Riot” has taken a public stand for free elections and Putin’s hasty expulsion. In December, wearing miniskirts, balaclavas, and wool tights, the band serenaded Navalny outside the prison where he was jailed after leading a series of well-attended rallies against rigged parliamentary elections. Another performance by the group in Red Square skyrocketed the group to viral fame (and earned some of the band members brief stints in jail). A few weeks later they invaded Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow’s flagship Orthodox church, for a loud, impromptu, and stridently sacrilegious rock show.