A Survey of Russia’s Most Radical Contemporary Artists

On Friday, Pussy Riot’s verdict will be read. We’ll find out whether the angelic trinity will go to jail for three years after performing inside of the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow for 40 seconds, or as the persecutor dubs it, “hooliganism with the intent to incite religious hatred.” While Patti Smith, Madonna, Björk and most of the world refers to them as a “band,” the Russian public doesn’t. In reality, they’re far closer to interventionist performance artists, even sharing members with Voina. As Yekaterina Samutsevich clarified in her powerful closing statement, the dangerous stunt was a deliberate interruption of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s mega-produced visual culture that is supported and sanctified by the state.

This is Russia’s highest profile contemporary trial where artists are being persecuted. The whole world is watching. But it’s far from an isolated incident. Russia has a rich history of dissident creative culture, radical happenings, and provocative, dangerous, subversive art. Here’s a little primer.

Elena Kovylina

One of the most fascinating figures of the radical Russian performance art scene of the ’90s, and still active today, Elena Kovylina may look like a gentle beauty, but she shows no mercy to her audience or her own body. Commenting on feminism and beyond, she’s pinned medals to her bare chest, invited audience members of all genders and sizes to box with her, and waltzed until she dropped, literally. During one performance in Belorussia, she stood wavering in heels on a stool, her head in a noose, allowing anyone to knock the chair out from under her. One drunk visitor did. Her life was saved by a faulty rope.