Voina mounted their most provocative project yet: painting a 60-metre penis on St Petersburg’s Liteiny Bridge just in time for it to be raised in mocking glory over the town’s FSB (ex-KGB) headquarters. Entitled Dick Captured By the FSB, it remained in raised position for hours. Improbably, the action has just been awarded the 400,000-rouble (£8,700) 2010 Innovation prize by the National Centre for Contemporary Arts in Moscow, demonstrating the Russian art world’s current appetite for protest.
“It took 23 seconds to paint, timed to perfection between the bridge being closed to traffic and it being raised,” says Sokol. “You’ll have noticed the left bollock is rather malformed. That’s because the police targeted the smallest girl we had with us, and Leonid had to rush over to save her before it was finished.”
She nods to her friend Leonid Nikolaev. He is deep in conversation with his lawyer, Dmitri Dinze, preparing for a court appearance. “It’s only an administrative charge – taking part in an unsanctioned demonstration,” he tells me. “But I can’t afford to lose it.”
If he does, he’ll end up back in jail. Last November, he and fellow member Oleg Vorotnikov – Sokol’s partner and Kasper’s father – were arrested when police raided the Moscow apartment where they were staying. They spent three months in prison, awaiting trial for overturning two police cars and charged with aggravated hooliganism and incitement of hatred of a “social group” – the police. Only when Banksy intervened, raising £80,000 for the group he approvingly calls “art terrorists”, were they granted bail.
The pair face a sentence of up to seven years. But, although Russia’s acquittal rate in trials by judge is around 1%, Dinze thinks the prosecution’s case is unravelling. Emboldened, Voina are using the remnants of Banksy’s grant to hire lawyers for other artists and political activists facing trial. “Banksy is financing the next generation of Russian revolutionaries,” Vorotnikov says. “And I think he’d be pleased.”
The next day, Nikolaev is outside St Petersburg’s 199th district court for his hearing. Days before, on 31 March, protests were held across the country to defend the right to demonstrate. Voina blocked St Petersburg’s main road. When the police tried to stop them, Voina sprayed them with urine, a strategy prepared in advance. In the ensuing violence, Nikolaev and Sokol were detained; Vorotnikov was knocked to the ground, Kasper taken into custody for a night.
In court, we are asked for cameras to be switched off. Nikolaev is told the case has been adjourned and will be taken up again in Moscow, where he lives. He is delighted. “They need to get this to court within two months, and when cases are transferred to different towns, it takes ages. More often than not, they just get lost.”
As we leave, Nikolaev and Dinze notice imposing men they recognise from the police. “They try to keep tabs on us, but they’re not much good at it,” says Nikolaev. He takes a back route from the court and, with extraordinary ease, seems to lose the agents. He jumps over the barrier at the metro station and disappears into the crowd.
When I next see Sokol, Vorotnikov and their son, Kasper, it is on the banks of the icy Neva. “Time for a time-honoured ceremony!” announces Vorotnikov. By a hole in the ice waits another arrestee from Voina’s latest action, the political activist Maxim Gromov. The men strip off, Gromov revealing a tattoo of a hand grenade. Then they leap into the freezing water.
“It’s a way of washing off time spent in jail,” says Sokol. “Our lawyer says we should prepare for more trouble. He thinks they might now try to prove my lifestyle means I am not able to be a proper parent.”
Vorotnikov and Gromov emerge invigorated. “St Petersburg – cradle of the revolution!” says Vorotnikov, ironically repeating the Soviet-era slogan. He laughs. But for how long he is able to keep his freedom while mocking the Russian state – bucking the fate of generations of Russian revolutionaries – is anyone’s guess.