On May 6, a blogger named Aslan Sagutdinov was arrested for holding a blank poster in a public square in Uralsk, Kazakhstan. Aslan Sagutdinov’s action was an experiment in crossing the line of public demonstration in the country, despite his lack of an obvious political message. He was released some hours later, but individuals on social media supported him with a wave of selfies holding blank papers.

On May 1, mass protests took place in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan (formerly called Astana and renamed after the country’s former President Nursultan Nazarbayev), and Almaty, the country’s largest city. The marches resulted in the arrest of around 80 people. The protesters gathered in opposition to an upcoming June election to replace Nazarbayev, saying that civilians are not provided sufficient political diversity in their choice of candidates. Nazarbayev stepped down on March 19, and his political ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is now the nominee of the ruling party. Nazarbayev stayed in power for 30 years, starting in 1989 (initially as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR, and then from 1990 as president). It is possible that his successor will attempt to stay for a comparable time.

On May 1, the protesters demanded the cancellation of the elections, labeling them as unconstitutional, as they lack real competition, opposed the renaming of Astana to Nur-Sultan, and demanded the release of the political prisoners, many of whom were arrested at the previous marches and actions. For example, on April 21, Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov were jailed for 15 days for violating Kazakhstan’s public assembly law after hanging up a banner along the Almaty marathon route which read “You can’t run from the truth.” Then, on April 29, artist Roman Zakharov hung a banner over the main highway in Almaty reading: “The people shall be the only source of governmental power” (a direct quote from Kazakhstan’s Constitution). He charged with “petty hooliganism” for littering and sentenced to five days in prison. However, that same night his sentence was changed to a fine on appeal.

Sagutdinov knew that his demonstration, which took place a week later, could not avoid being seen in the light of the recent anti-governmental protests, predicting that these political statements would be ascribed to his own action. His protest and arrest, however, demonstrated that seemingly empty expression, when placed in the correct context, sometimes means more than a political statement. “I want to show that the idiocy in our country has gotten so strong that the police will detain me now even though there are no inscriptions, no slogans, without my chanting or saying anything,” he said in a video of his arrest.

On Facebook, Sagutdinov wrote in a post (translated from Russian): “People are surprised that someone was detained for a quote from the Constitution. I showed you today that you can be with a blank poster or even without it and if you are filmed by a camera in the square, then you will be detained. They [police] were long thinking what to do with me, even argued between themselves, and at the end, they released me.” Bolatbek Beldibekov, a press representative of the local police department, told the newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya that Sagutdinov’s offense was his claim that “there is no democracy and free speech in Kazakhstan.”

The blank posters of Sagutdinov and his Instagram followers propose a symbolic opposition to the absence of choice, granting total freedom to the discretion of the viewer. Protests using blank posters have become a staple in the post-Soviet nations, especially in Russia. Activist Ilya Tkachenko was arrested in St. Petersburg in January 2019 for demonstrating a blank poster. Five years ago, in 2014, the protesters in Moscow’s Manezh Square picketed with “invisible” signs that they pretended to hold in their hands. The police detained them all.

YouTube video

The “blank poster” protesters, on one hand, hint to the isolation of the political space where the freedom of speech occurs. On the other hand, they signal their belonging to the world overloaded with the information and hypertext, the world where saying nothing means more than any statement. It is especially crucial in a Kazakhstan, a nation emblematic of the post-Soviet space, where the social networks, as a relatively unregulated communication media, provide a powerful tool for the discussion of social policies, state of human rights, and justice. Meanwhile, it is impossible to address these issues via controlled mass media or the official bureaucratic system.

The intersection of Sagutdinov’s political action with art is the place where emptiness meets meaning. The blankness of the poster is comparable to the statement that John Cage made in his famous work 4’33” (1952) when he allowed the listeners to interpret a perceived silence. Cage then emphasized, however, that what is typically understood as silence in his piece, are actually the sounds of the environment. Similarly, Sagutdinov’s blank poster highlights the social unrest in Kazakhstan as the predominant context for public expression and the limitations on the freedom of speech as the moving force behind the repressions sanctioned by the ruling party.

Svitlana Biedarieva is an artist, curator, and a PhD researcher in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art.