Aleksey Yudnikov was closely monitored by police during his performance in front of the Russian pavilion. (all images courtesy Artists at Risk)

Ukrainian actor Aleksey Yudnikov was escorted away and questioned by police after staging a guerrilla protest performance in front of the Russian national pavilion at the Venice Biennale on Friday, April 22. The Russian pavilion is empty this year; artists Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov and curator Raimundas Malašauskas withdrew from the show in February after Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

For the first part of his performance, Yudnikov placed a cutout photo of President Vladimir Putin’s face over his crotch and dressed like Fantômas, a villain in classic French comedy films who became popular in the USSR.

“His character is fictitious, and the president of modern Russia is a very real person who carries a serious threat to the world,” Yudnikov told Hyperallergic in an email. “I wanted to show that there is a difference between abstract evil and real, personified evil, but there are also similarities, since people do not live by themselves but are formed within a culture.” 

Yudnikov then went back into the bushes in front of the pavilion and emerged dressed as a gopnik, a pervasive Russian stereotype that melds American stereotypes of “hicks” and “thugs.” Yudnikov wore a tank top, a gold chain, Adidas track pants, and the same cutout of Putin’s face, this time over his face.

“What is important is that this subculture is also popular among the so-called elites, since Putin often, in his appeal to the people, allows himself to use speech characteristic of this social group,” Yudnikov said. “He often uses this style of speech in a populist desire to be ‘closer to the people.'”

Throughout the performance, Yudnikov tied in elements of Ukrainian-born Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 satirical short story The Nose. In the surreal tale, a low-ranking Russian official wakes up one day to find that his nose has separated itself from him and taken on a life of its own, surpassing the protagonist’s rank to become State Councillor. 

Yudnikov wearing the black coat and mask of Fantômas
Yudnikov dressed as a gopnik and wearing a mask depicting Putin’s face

Yudnikov was born and raised in Ukraine and moved to Russia to pursue theater. He was a member of the provocative Moscow theater group Teatr.doc, which stages performances and discussions that are often critical of the government. Teatr.doc has been repeatedly evicted and persecuted by city officials.

In March 2022, Yudnikov escaped Russia for Helsinki, where he is now a resident artist for Artists at Risk, a nonprofit that helps cultural workers facing political persecution and oppression.

“As a person who found himself in exile, an immigrant, due to my political convictions, I will use the means of art and culture available to me, and to the greatest extent possible, try to declare my civic position and fight for peace,” Yudnikov said.

According to a statement from Artists at Risk, a troop of police in riot gear stood nearby during Yudnikov’s performance, and when the piece came to an end, he was escorted to a police department and “held for more than 40 minutes in a closed room without recourse to a lawyer.” Officials reportedly questioned Yudnikov about what he was saying during his Russian-language performance.

“Interestingly, they followed up by asking whether he had criticised Italy or Italian politicians,” Artists at Risk co-directors Marita Muukkonen and Ivor Stodolsky said in the statement. “When he answered in the negative, they quickly let him go. Is NOT criticising leaders a condition of artistic freedom in the EU today? In preparing this performance, we thought this was a Russian problem.”

At the end of Yudnikov’s performance, he was escorted to a police department where he was held for questioning. (photo by TAN)

Muukkonen and Stodolsky told Hyperallergic that Yudnikov is not facing any fines. They added that plain-clothes police officers blocked their exit from the fair after Yudnikov was taken into custody.

“They had no right to stop a visitor from leaving the biennial area,” Muukkonen told Hyperallergic. “I had to force myself through their blockage in order to follow Aleksey, and see where they took him for the questioning. The police used unnecessary harsh force in the context of the art performance in the biennial.”

Last week, another artist staged a protest in front of the Russian pavilion. Russian-born Vadim Zakharov held a sign denouncing Russian propaganda and the invasion of Ukraine, handed out leaflets, and was also escorted away by Italian police.

Days before it opened, the Venice Biennale added an open-air exhibition of work by Ukrainian artists, presented in addition to and separately from the country’s national pavilion. The show features primarily works created since the Russian invasion.

As of April 25, there have been 5,718 civilian casualties in Ukraine. On April 24, Russia struck five railway stations and continues to encircle the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, where hundreds of soldiers and civilians are sheltering without an evacuation route.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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