450×300 cm

installation, fabrics, video, audio

This installation is based on my perception of anti-war protest actions and news article about the project of a superprison which is about to be built in central Russia. It contains a piece made of worn-out mattresses and bed linen, three screens with video, and an audio track of a story that I recorded. The story is about what I saw in Russia after its invasion in Ukraine, how I left Russia after this, about my connections with my family and country, people’s attitudes to the war. The story concludes with the description of the superprison project.

This is the text that I wrote for my installation which was shown during Kulturnatta, Konstnärernas Kollektivverkstad Gothenburg, Sweden. It reflects my perspective on the situation in Russia during the war.

Well I left for Sweden in the middle of April. It’s been 1.5 months of the war. When on February 22nd Putin announced that he wanted to recognize the territories of Eastern Ukraine as independent, it was clear, well, then I told my student that the war had begun. Well, we all, everyone understood that the war was about to start. It was very scary. Well, then the war really began. And at first it seemed that none of this can be serious. Because in this already post-modernist perception, especially in the medium of art, it was impossible to take such things seriously. To feel serious despair.

Overall, my feelings became actually overblown. And it was impossible to get used to that. All the conversations immediately became politicised but also extremely pretentious and heated. These debates took place among family members, I had this kind of conversation with my employer. Before it was impossible to imagine a political clash at work.

Russian society became divided and it didn’t feel the same on the streets. When we went out to protest next day, no, a day after Putin’s speech I though they there will be a lot of people because during that winter demonstrations in support of Navalny when he was put in a prison there had been LOADS. I had never seen so many protesters before, it was my first demonstration, I had been quite agnostic about politics.

On the 24th of February I though that there lots of people would take to the streets and (laughter) Putin would get disappointed and leave. Then we gathered and realised that there are very few, really few people. And also that they, well, the police started to disperse us in a rather brutal way. At first there was an astonishment, I couldn’t understand, why didn’t everyone take to the streets? But they didn’t and I realised that the society got divided and families also got divided. My family, my mother – at first she was listening to us and hesitating – me and my friends were calling her and telling that this is a nightmare what our army is doing in Ukraine, why and how they are shelling people. But then she said that she actually disagrees. And my son, who lives with his father and his family, he also listened what they tell in school, listened to the news, but from different sources and his opinion was also different from mine. We had a phone call on the 24th of February and he told me “mom”… no – no it was before the 24th, before they actually moved forces. He told me, “you know that Ukrainians attacked us and the war has started.” I said, “yes, but it was us who attacked Ukraine”. And it goes on like that, we talk about the war all the time, that the war is bad, that I am not choosing supporting to support neither Russia nor Ukraine, and not picking the one who deserves to win; for me it is important that the people stay alive, that it should be an end to this horrible war.

In school yards pupils were lined up as letter V or Z – a living commercial for so-called “special operation”. And my child was also lined up, their headmaster were sending these photographs to the parents WhatApp chat. All the time I was thinking: mine, 2nd in the bottom right, my child. It is good that it is not possible to see his face on the photo. Well, he agrees with some things that I am saying, with some things he disagrees. I prefer not to talk to my mother about this subject – she’s an elderly woman and I don’t want to stress her out. We already had many rows about this.

And the demonstrations, each subsequent demonstration was dispersed more and more violently, they started to everyone, to use tasers everywhere. Especially they like to taser in St. Petersburg. The riot police have a very good equipment, completely black armour definitely produced outside of Russia, round helmets - that is why they are called cosmonauts. In such uniform they seem like inhumane and invincible beings. And people were detained en masse, so that in the beginning of the war all the police stations in the city were full and they transported people in the suburbs rather far away, were leaving people at the station for several days, humiliating them, were not giving them water and food, were starting to torture. They keep opening cases, first an administrative case and then a criminal case. Now people have really long prison sentences.

According to OVD Info, a Russian independent human right organisation, a branch of Memorial, by 15th of October 2022 in Russia there have been at least 19335 detentions due to anti-war stances, opened 282 criminal and 4033 administrative cases, 115 organisations were declared “foreign agents”. These numbers change all the time. They also find people and practice “preventive” detentions using a facial recognition system. They passed multiple new laws related to the war. For instance, the law about the partial mobilisation, after which around 700000 men left the country according to various sources. Refusing to go to the war can lead to 10 years in prison. At the moment in some Russian regions they have imposed a series of alert levels and declared a martial law in the occupied regions. The laws are so vague that practically they can impose any measures on the whole territory of Russia, and on the territory which Russia considers to be their own.

People were protesting with the banners: “you can’t imprison each and every one of us”. In the beginning of September I have read in several media outlets about the project to build a multi-purpose open prison – a city-like prison in Kaluga Oblast. The article was entitled “Inmates instead of cars – the superprison is going to be built near Kaluga”. A multi-purpose open prison of more than 100 ha that can accommodate 3000 inmates is about to be built to compensate for automotive industry that slipped away because of the sanctions. Before 2022 there had been many factories that assembled cars, Volkswagen for instance. “The Kaluga miracle” will unite on its territory several open and corrective colonies, detention centres, prosecutors and perhaps even courts. In the media one can find impressive 3D renderings of the project.

It doesn’t even matter whether it is a hoax or not but it struck me. The situation becomes more and more similar to a dystopia. It looks like air that is squeezing out of the country.

Anastasia Zhikhartseva, 28th of October 2022, Göteborg