Kirill Medvedev and Nikolay Oleynikov: Protesting through art

Kirill Medvedev is not shy about his political opinions. At Bozar, just days before elections in his country, the Russian poet and musician read poems fantasising about killing the president and condemning police violence.

Together with Nikolay Oleynikov, he founded the band Arkady Kots, and they are among the most outspoken of left-wing activists and artists in contemporary Russia.

Kirill Medvedev and Nikolay Oleynikov
Krill (right), Nikolay (left)

Asked if he was comfortable defining himself as a communist in the light of Russia’s past, Medvedev said that it was only as problematic to be a communist as it was to be European or Christian. All belief and all political systems have some violent or oppressive history. What he wants, through his art, is to reclaim the original ideal of communism: equality between people. Looking at the oligarchical state of Russia and at the increasing inequality under Western capitalism, that ideal still needs to be fought for.

As well as writing his own poems and music, Medvedev runs a publishing house and has translated important left-wing writers like Pier Paolo Pasolini into Russian. Spreading ideas through art is as important as direct political action, he said. It is a risky thing to do, as Russia under Putin is increasingly repressive towards dissenting artists.

In 2012, members of the punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to years in prison after they performed an anti-Putin song. When Arkady Kots went to support Pussy Riot at their trial, they were arrested as soon as they started singing. Earlier this year, five antifascist and anarchist activists disappeared and then surfaced in police custody, where they said they were tortured. Medvedev and Oleynikov dedicated one of the songs they performed at Bozar to those activists of the “Penza Case”, who are still imprisoned.

Pussy Riot
Pussy Riot

There’s nothing beautiful in the future,” Medvedev said, reflecting on the fact that Putin is likely to win again in rigged elections this Sunday. But that is precisely why he and his “comrades” insist on staying in their country and will keep up their activism until it is a decent place to live for the majority of fair-minded Russians.

Oleynikov said that fifteen years ago (not coincidentally, the time when Putin was in his first term as President), people in Russia saw art and politics as diametrically separate. That is changing. Oleynikov and Medvedev insist that they are not propagandists and believe in the true value of art, but they are also subjects in a political situation that cannot be ignored.

So, what about the elections on Sunday? Medvedev and Oleynikov will not vote, since the system is a sham, but they say that what happens will nevertheless be important – for all of us. In fact, Europe is facing many of the same problems as Russia: the rise of far-right nationalism and the capturing of political and economic power by the richest elite.

The shared fate of Russia and Europe is explored in Bozar’s series Russian Turn, which has here shown the activity and energy of dissent in Russia today.