Street art against fear, rage and despair – Russian activist Anastasiia Vladychkina fights Putin for democracy

With spray paint in hand, Anastasiia Vladychkina, a lawyer from Russia, became a dissident activist and artist. She fled Russia, but with „Augmented Reality“  she can continue to make art from abroad. An interview about her personal relationship to her homeland, art and politics. By Tomas Marik

Anastasiia Vladychkina was born in the early 90’s in Izhevsk, Russia. She studied law and worked later as a lawyer. In 2015 Anastasiia Vladychkina and Alexander Voronin founded the art group Yav. With street art they fight for democracy, freedom of speech, feminism and for a Russia without fear. In Russia street art with political context is being painted over within short time. As a solution Anastasiia founded the mobile app „AR Hunter”, where everybody can preserve street art. With help of „Augmented Reality“ everyone can see, via App, the street art on the phone, even though it has already been overpainted. After the Russian attack on Ukraine Anastasiia hasn’t ceased to continue her activist art, even when she had to leave her country because of security issues.

Russian activist Anastasiia Vladychkina in Interview

Anastasiia, you studied law and worked as a lawyer. What made you become an artist and an activist?

I was deeply interested in politics since the 8th grade in high school. Even in high school, I began to understand the close connection between politics and everyday life. Since a lot of things in Russia didn’t suit me, I wanted to do something to change it. After the long search for my way of expressing myself, I created Yav.

“Motherland” 2022

In one of your art projects you dug the word “Родина” (Motherland) into the ground. What does this word mean to you now? And which event made you decide to leave your homeland?

Actually the word “Motherland” has always been a painful one for me. Such is the Russian culture, we love to suffer, the Russian person always does everything in spite of himself, everything is made difficult. The writer Fyodor Dostoevsky is the quintessence of this suffering and complexity.
But before, this word was not as heavy as it is now. It’s like a bullet in my body that can’t be taken out and won’t heal. I feel pain all the time. My move out of Russia has been planned for the last year. I started thinking about it after Navalny was arrested in the winter of 2021. Because of the totalitarian regime, you can’t create any cool products in Russia anymore. There are no conditions for that, neither legal nor economic.
It was also dangerous for me to stay in Russia because of the fact that I am the leader of Yav. I was tired of waiting every second to be arrested. It’s scary. After February 24, I realized that I couldn’t postpone the move any longer. And two weeks later, I left Russia.

You, as well as many other fellow citizens, have left Russia. Your art group has published a very touching art video about it. Behind the exiled people, only shadows remain on the wall. Like a shadow after a nuclear explosion. What does your personal shadow in St. Petersburg look like and what did you leave behind?

I don’t think I am competent to answer this question, it is up to art historians and political scientists to evaluate my contribution to art and the political situation. All I can say is that all of our street art is painted over. Only squares of paint on the walls are left after our work. But we continue to make new artwork in Russia, so this is not the end.

“Nuclear Shadows” 2022

What kind of experiences have you had because of your art with the Russian regime?

The first was censorship. Up until about 2020, all the media in Russia, including the pro-government media, wrote about us. In 2020 there were the strongest protests in Belarus, suppressed with the help of Putin and the poisoning of Navalny. This divided society into the government and the opposition.

After 2020, the pro-power media started pretending that we don’t exist. The second thing is the total inability of the Russian authorities to engage in dialogue. Third: total lawlessness. Legal nihilism reigns in Russia today at the state level. The Constitution, the codes, the federal laws- none of this is being observed. Fourth, fear, rage and despair. When faced with George Orwell’s novel “1984” in reality, there is rage because there is little you can do, then there is despair, and then there is fear.

What is your personal experience with the Russian regime?

I have a lot of that experience. I’m a lawyer, and I interacted with a huge number of state institutions: ministries, courts, police, etc. The general conclusion is that stupidity, neglect of one’s duties, terrible bureaucracy and corruption reigns everywhere. People in Russia have been forced into unequal battles with the government for many years, even in their daily lives.

You are now in exile, away from your home, family and friends. Millions of Ukrainians are experiencing the same right now. On one side you share the same fate, all of you left your homeland because of danger coming from Putin’s regime as well your fellow citizens that are fighting in the war. On the other side the greatest difference between you and Ukrainians is that your countrymen invaded Ukraine. How does this feel for you? Do you feel connected to the Ukrainian refugees and what kind of connection is that?

It’s all very scary. Right now it’s hard for me to answer this question. It’s a very painful subject for me. I have yet to figure it out.

When you tell nowadays non-Russians that you are from Russia, how do people react?

Well, personally, I haven’t encountered any Russophobia yet. Although it is possible that some foreign Yavi projects have ceased to exist because we are Russians. But there is no proof and I believe in the best.

The EU, USA, Japan, etc. are imposing sanctions, political campaigns are running against the war, many companies are withdrawing from Russia, and Russian people have experience with propaganda from the time of the USSR. Nevertheless, according to Levada Center surveys, support for Putin’s policy is very high in Russia. How do you explain the statistics and the broad support for Putin?

First of all, polls cannot be trusted now because people are afraid to tell the truth. Secondly, if you isolate Russians from the rest of the world, they will get Stockholm syndrome, and they will become pro-Putin even if they were previously against it. This is a common psychological reaction; anyone would have it. The Russians are no exception.

How than should the rest of the world react on the things, that happens now in Russia and Ukraine?

I am not a competent person to answer such questions. I can only give my personal opinion: it is necessary to help Ukraine, to help refugees from Ukraine, but at the same time it is necessary to help those people from Russia who protest against the Russian authorities. Otherwise people will rally around the Russian government. You can’t be alone against the whole world – people are not superheroes from movies. Right now, I feel that those who oppose the situation in Ukraine are being punished. They are hated by the Russian government and the entire foreign world. And those who are for the government are prospering. It’s strange and wrong.

How has today’s situation influenced your artistic creation and where does the motivation come from to continue? 

We have cancelled many projects that would be strange to do now. The vector of street art has not changed, 90 percent of our work is political or social, nothing has changed since 2015. Now all of our works are either about the situation in Ukraine or the political situation in Russia.

We have enough motivation. It’s a scary time, but it’s as alive as possible, we feel everything very keenly, our nerves are exposed and we can’t help but create art. We have a huge number of ideas.

What do Russian activists from Russia need most and how can they be supported?

Activists need competent legal protection. There are a huge number of political court cases in Russia right now. There are fewer and fewer lawyers, some get arrested, some leave. There is a project in Russia called OVD-Info, which provides free legal assistance to activists. You can support them with donations.

Finally, how could one support you and the projects of YAV?

We have a lot of ideas. We can’t implement many of them due to the lack of resources. When we need any help we write on our Instagram. Everyone can offer their help there. We are also open to any offers of cooperation.

Images: Anastasiia Vladychkina and Yav

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