On the evening of 28 September the artist Anton Belikov doused the photographs of the Ukrainian soldiers of punitive forces exhibited at the Sakharov Center in Moscow with red paint. The IA Novorossia correspondent managed to meet with Anton, who happened to be a very interesting man to talk to. We publish the first part of the interview with the artist, philosopher, art critic and simply a Russian patriot Anton Belikov.
– We welcome you, Anton! Tell us what drove you to this action?
– I believe that that there is an intrinsic value of in some things. It is of course great to talk, however, there are things that must not be done, because they must not ever be done. You must not come to a man’s house, whose relative has just been killed, and hang on the walls portraits of those who directly carried out his killing. Does that make sense? There are people who come to the Donbass like this photographer. He went there, he spoke with the soldiers of the punitive Donbass battalion, he spoke with their families. He demonstrated his correspondence with them: it was a very warm, lively exchange with so-called “fighters”, who are actually soldiers of the punitive forces, and with their families … And then he comes here, to Moscow, receives the award at the Sakharov Museum, by the way, and hangs his photos on the walls.
You see, there in the Donbass they kill us – not someone – they kill Russians there. People are killed because they are Russians in the first place. They are killed not because they are “separatists”, not because they want to secede but only for being Russians. Because they are Russians, because they want to speak Russian and live in a Russian way. People come to them and kill them. After that those people come to us and hang these photos on the wall.
– As a work of art …
– Yes, they say that it is “art”. You see? I wrote a thesis on aesthetics and have a degree. Thus, I am sufficiently qualified to talk about what actually is possible and appropriate to accept as art and what is not; what is not art but a form of propaganda. So, what we see here is an example of such fascist propaganda: shy, intellectual and spectacles-adjusting. That is, in my opinion, shocking.
– They brought all that to Moscow when the Donbass, if not blazing, is definitely alight. Nothing is finished there, there is no peace. What is it: a deliberate provocation or an intellectual act of mockery?
– I have a feeling that the whole our society is being tested on whether there are any steady moral values left. It is worth noting that the society has lost most of them. The society no longer knows what is right and what is wrong, where is good and where is evil. We are all the time poked on one side or another while they look at our response and how we will behave. They will bring and show us smiling murderers and say that they are people too, that they have kids, families, that they are not murderers at all but freedom fighters … So they undermine our understanding of good and evil bit by bit and look at our reaction. Whether we react or there is no indignation in response. Yesterday I at first saw those photos on the Internet… How is that at all possible? I thought we have to react. We cannot just ignore it all. You see? After all this exhibition is not the first one. There have been plenty of such actions starting from Mannerheim plaque’s story in Peter [short name of Sankt Petersburg – transl.]. Over there people pass by the plaque and for majority of them there is nothing special in it. Everything is fine…
That means that the society has huge, persisting psychological problems. In fact, all these exhibitions and the influence they exert on us is a very serious and important point. The way we react to all those exhibitions is an answer to the question “Do we need ourselves?”. I would like to finish my thought. Each one of us needs oneself. I need myself, my children probably need me, my wife as well. And as a whole? Is there such a thing as WE? Are we gathered on one sixth of the land for no reason? Are we united here only by the mining industry? Do we all represent something together? Who are we? All these questions are very important and I think that we have to answer them. In general, it is very bad that I, a scientist, a law-abiding quiet man, should go and put an end to this nightmare. Where are all the others?! Why was it so silent when the exhibition opened? It is not clear at all.
– Do you think it was an attack on the Christian moral principles? They tried to turn everything upside down. The murderers were presented as heroes. The murderers were not soldiers, but as you noted, those from the punitive units.
– Yes, we are talking about members of the punitive squads. I cannot speak on behalf of Christianity. It is subjective. Objectively there is the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. These smiling guys violated the commandment. There is the commandment “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour estates”. These people violated this commandment as well. The New Testament says: “Blessed are the meek”. On the other hand, among the commandments of Christ there is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for shall be filled”.
I do not think these Ukrainian guys left their homes because they “craved the truth”, because they wanted to find it. They went there not for the truth, they went to kill. We see how they do it. Somehow they are unnoticed at the forefront. Somehow ordinary soldiers, who were driven there almost with whips, are fighting there in the forefront. But those “comrades”, who sleep and eat well in the captured cities, assert themselves on women and children, on the elderly, on those are not able to strike back – on unarmed people. Great!
– Coming back to the public evaluation. Having learnt that you are an artist, certain “comrades” will label your actions as being similar to those of Mr Pavlensky [a man who nailed his testicles to the paved Red Square in protest against the government – transl.] and other “artists” of our time. Do you think they will try to impose such an opinion on the society? What is your attitude to such “contemporary art”?
– It will be quite difficult to impose anything in my case because I, unlike those “activists”, create paintings. Moreover, I paint icons and frescoes. It can be easily seen by going to my channel on YouTube and watching what I actually do. Everything is laid out there. It is pretty well known. There are some humanitarian projects that I am involved in. For example, we’d come to the ruins of an abandoned church… It is evident, however, that although the church is ruined, the local people still visit the place. So we come and make a fresco painting – the Virgin or the Saviour – simply for them to have it. Those are our “art actions”, you see? I have not been seen as an “activist” and I think it would be weird if I were. In my view, an artist is a person who picks up a brush and paint and to the extent of his ability creates something on a surface. “Activist” is a not very clear phenomenon. Though at the philosophy college where I earned my PhD degree there is a famous philosopher Podoroga. Last year I asked him at the philosophy college roundtable whether art makes sense, when you pick up a brush and paint and applied them to the canvas. He answered: “No, that is an imitation. The real art looks very differently”. Activism is “media-art” in which the mass media are used in order for people to assert themselves. There are different opinions with regards to it. You see? I am a disciple of Viktor Bychkov, remarkable scientific mentor while he, in turn, was a student of Losev [Aleksei Fedorovich Losev (1893-1988) was a Russian philosopher, philologist and culturologist, one of the most prominent figures in Russian philosophical and religious thought of the 20th century – transl.]. Losev was a student of Berdyaev [Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874-1948) was a Russian religious and political philosopher – transl.] and Florensky [Pavel Alexandrovich Florensky (1882-1937) was a Russian Orthodox theologian, priest, philosopher, mathematician, physicist, electrical engineer, inventor and neo-martyr – transl.]. All these names are in my heritage from the teacher to the student. I am going to hold on to this heritage. That is my life position.
– Have there been some threats in your direction yet?
– Not yet. So far I have received a lot of comments that I was talentless artist who tries to get some PR. As for the lack of talent – it’s probably not for me to judge. Establishing public relations for the artist who does not sign his creations (as you know, in the Christian Orthodox art artists never sign their icons and frescoes) is absolutely meaningless. For contemporary art where, again, not the canvas is sold but the signature on it, PR is absolutely a necessary thing. I absolutely do not need any PR. As for the threats, again, there has not been any so far.
I think I am ready for consequences will inevitably come to me. I have something to lose. However, what to do if besides me no one came there to stop it? My great-grandfather had three daughters. In 1941 he was no longer fit for conscription, however, he went and took up the arms and died near Yelnya, near Moscow, defending the capital. Perhaps he was afraid, and he had something to lose. There were threats and dangers. Although his life was much greater. I live in a well-fed, fat Moscow and I am well-fed, fat Muscovite. I am not afraid, I beg your pardon, I am not. It was much more scary for my great-grandfather than it is for me. Those people who took up arms and went to defend the homeland, they were all scared. They all had wedding rings, they all had children. But they knew if they did not go, enemies would then come to their homes. That is my position on this matter.
– You have come to the exhibition openly without slogans and cries and just expressed your accusations to the face of the organisers. How did they react?
– Indeed, I was alone. I did not hide my face. I almost immediately introduced myself because it was an expression of my civil position. How did they react? I will say this – it was funny. There were several men, 6 or 7, who were very frightened. Their hands and lips were shaking even though I was alone and in my hands I had nothing but a canister with paint. They were really scared. That looked even more comical. They opened a dialogue with me and I was ready for it. Those were people who describe themselves as the “elite of Russia”. They were confused and could not bring up an argument. Those are people who say: “We are intellectuals. We are now going to tell you where you have to go, what to do. We are the mind, honour and conscience. We will tell you about freedom”. That is simply ridiculous.
– On the video one can see that you say to your opponents: “You wanted a civil society – you received it!” What did you mean?
– I meant that these people consistently pursue a right of a person to demonstrate to the mankind strange manifestations. They defend the right of a person and an artist to show this very strangeness. “He is an artist, so he is allowed”. Even when the public does not like it. A person comes, let’s say Pavlensky, nails his genitals to the paved Red Square and says that it is a piece of art. Ever-memorable “pussy riot” come to the church and perform there what they usually do. They, by the way, like all their gang, consider: “Oh, that’s art”. The talking heads, PhDs, I am not going to say their names, come out and say: “We are the experts and responsibly declare – that is art. You, the society, are obliged to listen to it. After all, they are artists, therefore, they are allowed”. They talk about these “activists” as if as a civil society you should bear it, you cannot impede them.
By the way, the society silently bears it. The church is silent as well and puts up with it. Not everyone knows that “pussy riot” did not come to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour at first. At first they were in Elokhovka, in the little church where I was baptised. I saw how they were quietly shown the door of the church and were told: “Go away in peace”. Then they came to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Elokhovka’s church is a special place for me – I endured looking at what all these girls have done…
By the way, Tolokonnikova [a member of notorious punk group Pussy Riot – transl.] also graduated from Faculty of Philosophy, as did I. They presented some of their arguments. I just listened. Notice, I did not come to Tolokonnikova with a sick in my hands. And now it turns out when I came to them in my hometown, I came as a human being and a citizen. I did not come as an artist but as a citizen of Russia. I came to them and engaged in a dialogue with them.
– Are you afraid of some legal consequences. Of subpoenas, maybe fines?
– Fines? I live on my teacher’s salary, I have no other money. Prosecution… If I will be prosecuted, I’m ready for it. Naturally, I do not want to go to jail, do not want at all. But if the society and the judicial system as the whole are ready put in jail a person who acted as I did then it is the diagnosis of the society itself. In general it is the diagnosis of all of us. It is rather the answer to the question “Do we need ourselves?”
– You, by your example, showed people the way that they have to fight back in their homes. To not just sit on the couches, but not to allow such abominations to be exhibited their city and to be called “art”? Will people follow you?
– I do not want someone to follow me somewhere. I am a professional philosopher. A professional philosopher is always a loner. A philosopher always acts in accordance with his comprehension. Socrates, who is a very important person for me, when his high-rank friends in Athens informed him that he would be tried and proposed to organize his escape, said: “If I run away, then I surrender all what I have been saying”. What Socrates was saying was that there is always only one truth. As a result, he was forced to drink poison and die. He died accountable for his words. I really do not want, of course, to either drink the hemlock or go to jail. Therefore, I am not calling anyone to follow me. I am alone, I am a philosopher and I act as philosophers have always acted. In the conventional sense a philosopher is a being wearing glasses who sits somewhere and tells some unintelligible nonsense. In fact, it is not true. Since ancient times, philosophers are people of action, almost all of them. And I act as well as philosophers acted since ancient times. So I do not call anyone to follow me.
– Many caring people have regarded your act not only as a fight against manifestations of fascism unconcealed by any conventions but also as solidarity with the events that took place in Odessa on 2 May 2014 and have been happening in the Donbass. What do you think about current events in the Donbass, about those people who are out there now?
– I believe that it is important to call a spade a spade. People who were killed and burned in Odessa are victims of genocide. They were burned because they were Russians. Or because they did not want to support the fascist rule that is being planted out there. They were killed not for “separatism, but for the above. People, who are in the zone of Ukrainian artillery in the Donbass, are killed not because they are up in arms to defend something. Whose who are being killed are civilians. The mix-up of the definitions is carried out continuously. Targeted mixing of one thing with another. In Syria, as soon as militants who are chopping off the heads are attacked it turns out that they are a bunch of “peaceful victims” who are poor and miserable. However, when Donbass civilians are being killed it turns out that it is a fight of the small independent Ukraine against the great Russia, despite that nobody has proven that there are our troops over there.
People in the photo demonstrate “sieg heil” and put on a certain symbolism thus saying: “There is no Nazis in Ukraine”. The streets of the central cities are named after Bandera, who were marked by the massacres of the Poles. It hurts me as a philosopher. Guys, have you got any logic? Violations of the logic causes me almost physical pain. I wish a spade was called a spade. I came to this show and called a spade a spade. In an era when guidelines are smeared, it is very important to have someone who comes and says that fascism is fascism, that cutting people’s heads is bad, that those who do it are criminals and must be held accountable for it, that those who support them are not creative people, not artists or photographers but accomplices of the murderers.
In Nuremberg, those who did evil were called the fascists and Nazis, while those who were not with guns but ideologically supported the Nazis were named as their accomplices. Those guys who come to us and shyly smiling tell us what wonderful guys are fighting in the punitive battalions are explicit Nazi collaborators. I went to that show and called a spade a spade.
– Photographer and organizers mumbled at the camera something about “the tragedy on both sides” and so on. Did they answer why at the exhibition there are no photos of the residents of the Donbass, the Militiamen and volunteers?
– He (the photographer – corr.) replied that he had no money to travel to the Donbass for taking photos of the other side of the conflict. Frankly, I think it is cunning. For me, everything here looks pretty transparent. Perhaps it would be correct to present facts of the war on both sides. You see, before I did what I did I was talking for more than an hour with that photographer. I asked the photographer if the photos pictured the army, the regular Ukrainian army, the conscripts? He said that they are the soldiers of the punitive (he said territorial) Donbass battalion. We know very well what these “fighters” do on the ground. He presents them as ordinary, as “humanised”: look at a smiling man – he is a fireman. He presents them as cute “guys next door”, cool lads, freedom fighters and so on. Only a freedom fighter does not cut people’s heads off. While on his photos are exactly those who did cut and do cut, who cut off prisoners’ fingers, who torture with an iron, burn swastikas on the bodies of the prisoners, gouged out their eyes. And all of that crimes they, in their unsoiled uniform, commit for some reason far from the front line…
– Would you like to arrange an exhibition of your works in the Donbass, to communicate with people, to see everything with your own eyes?
– I would like to communicate with people and am going to go there. A year ago I made an icon I would like to donate to one of the Donbass churches. People need it to find their solace. In war it does not matter if a man is a believer or not. All pray at death’s door. There are no atheists under fire in the trenches. I would just like to give my icon as a gift. It is not the kind of PR at the forefront of topics.
Icon is mosaic, I put it together in a few months from tiny pieces of natural stones. It is not something that can be done in half an hour. I have long wanted to pass it to the Donbass, I just had no contacts there.
– It will certainly come true…
I created it; it is in my home. I would like to exhibit it first at the upcoming show and after I would like to bring the icon myself to the Donbass as a gift.
As for my solo exhibition, I am not so prolific an artist to organise a personal exhibition. There are a group of artists engaged in new Christian art. That art is Christian, canonical but it is also contemporary. These people will be able to support the idea of arranging an exhibition to support not one of the belligerents but the people whose relative are being killed. It seems to me to be the most important. That is such a story.
– So, see you soon in the Donbass. Thank you for the unexpected depth of the interview. We will surely meet and talk again.
– Thank you, all the best and good-bye!