Katrin Nenasheva is a performance artist who belongs to the so-called Third Wave of Russian actionism. While earlier actionist artists presented their own heroic, often suffering bodies as provocations for the state to reveal its repressive nature—the strategy of Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky’s performances—Nenasheva explores the way state institutions routinely damage bodies and psyches in decidedly non-photogenic settings: orphanages, prisons, psychiatric wards. Nenasheva’s work turns away from the practice of earlier Russian actionists—which art historian Angelina Lucento describes as the “direct confrontation with the masculine spectacle of state power”—toward a form of protest that is guided by the aesthetic of care. In 2016, Nenasheva walked around Moscow with a metal frame tied to her back for twenty-one days, the same length of time for which children in Russian orphanages are forcibly committed to mental hospitals if they misbehave. Her other projects sought to bring attention to the everyday experiences of female prison inmates and torture victims. (Nenasheva was herself tortured in 2018, while visiting a family member in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a separatist-controlled region of Ukraine.) She is the founder of Teens and Kittens, a community group that provides psychological and social support to teenagers. The group’s motto, “To support and not punish,” applies not only to this initiative, but to all of Nenasheva’s artistic actions.
This interview was recorded a few days after Nenasheva was released from the Sakharovo jail in Moscow, were she had spent two weeks for organizing an antiwar support group. Through friends, she was able to report on conditions and everyday life in that jail, which she says is now packed with people arrested for opposing Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Anastasiya Osipova: You were recently in prison for fourteen days. What were you imprisoned for, and what were the conditions there?
Katrin Nenasheva: As soon as the war began I got involved with different forms of antiwar activism. I offered to host traveling antiwar exhibits in people’s homes, which got a pretty enthusiastic response. I also decided to host an event called a Peace Dinner. I’ve been involved with various practices related to psychology and psychological activism, so it seemed important to me to create support groups where people could discuss all the worries they’re feeling right now. I think it’s important to form communities where people can get together and somehow reflect on this reality. So the idea of a Peace Dinner was very straightforward: it was a community practice within which people could cook together and discuss what was happening, discuss the stress and worry we’re all encountering right now. And also maybe discuss some actions we can take through our collective efforts, with other people.
The police showed up to the event. At first they were just interested in what it was we were up to. We told them that this was something like a support group—which was accurate, as it happens. They left and then returned with officers from the Criminal Investigation Department. There were three CID and two or three police officers. They started checking everyone’s passports. I was told that my passport was in improper shape—it was ripped, allegedly—and I needed to go see the police station so they could confirm my identity. I asked if this meant that I was under arrest, and whether I could not go to the station. They responded that I couldn’t not do that. So they took me in. I didn’t resist, I got in the car immediately. They took me to the department. At first they promised to let me go but then they said that they want to charge me with article 19.3: disobeying a police officer’s order. I wasn’t expecting this at all because I hadn’t done any disobeying of any kind. It became clear that there was a clear political motive here, that they wanted to lock me away for a while so that I wouldn’t be involved in any political activity. At that time the statute about discrediting the Russian Armed Forces—article 20.3.3, or whatever it is—didn’t exist. And I hadn’t gone out to any protest. That’s why the police pulled a statute out of thin air and decided to send me away.
The following day the judge sentenced me to fourteen days, and I went off to do my time at the detention center in Sakharovo. Conditions there were pretty tricky, since there were thirteen people per cell—it’s very hard when you have twelve strangers around you and you have to establish some kind of relations with them at all times. Plus the daily routine there is idiotic and awkward: the lights go on at 6 AM every morning so you can’t sleep any later, and the guards kept encouraging us, stupidly, to stand up every time new arrivals entered the cell. So they had their weird jokes. But it’s important to say that when I got to the detention center I realized that over the past year Sakharovo had become a particularly political place: since the winter of 2021, they’d started sending political prisoners there. In my cell there were girls who’d been arrested for a repost, or for attending a protest, so we connected pretty quickly and organized support groups for one another, lectures, master classes. We organized a cool union for ourselves—it was communism, in the best sense.
AO: I reread an interview with you from 2016, in which you say “they’re going to put us all in prisons and insane asylums soon.” I know that you’ve worked a lot with various repressive institutions—orphanages, psychiatric hospitals—and you started talking, pretty early on, about political prisoners and conditions in prisons. What was it about working in these institutions that gave you a strong sense—back in in 2016—of what would be happening now?
KN: Above all that had to do with my own personal experience, because I would often be detained not for some kind of sharp-edged political acts—I never uttered the words, say, “Vladimir Putin” or “FSB”—but for some kind of social activity. But of course I also saw—sorry, could you give me a minute? I just have to pay for something.
AO: Yes, of course.
AO: Let me clarify the question, actually. To what extent did the conditions in Russia’s repressive institutions during the post-Soviet period carry within them the imprint of the punitive, Soviet approach to institutionalization? Working in those places, how much could you have predicted what’s happening now?
KN: Well, I was a person who often spoke about the repressiveness of these systems, and I was very frequently detained and was even once sent to a psychiatric hospital. So, already, given my own experience, you could say that directly articulating these things was absolutely unacceptable for the authorities.
KN: And on the topic of the institutions themselves, certainly a huge number of them, like psychiatric hospitals and orphanages, they have the Soviet approach at their core. Practically nothing has changed there. This was a system that emerged under totalitarian conditions, and the relationship to any individual there—particularly in a psychoneurological hospital—is inherently repressive. A person in one of these facilities is locked up for life, by default. They’re deprived of all kinds of rights and deprived of these rights illegally. There’s a huge amount bribery in play, so that someone who happens to be undesirable to their family can simply be deprived of their agency and put imprisoned forever. And of course this is also connected to a very high degree of violence—violence that occurs not only among adults in psychoneurological hospitals, but in orphanages, too. Already in 2015 and 2016 I discussed this in explicit terms, in the context of my performances and acts. I spoke about extreme violence in orphanages, particularly toward children who are diagnosed with oligophrenia. In truth this totalitarian essence, the repressive essence of these institutions, it never went anywhere. So there’s nothing particularly surprising about all this in my opinion.
AO: You began your actions against militarism and war immediately after the war in Ukraine began in 2014, right?
KN: We did a pretty big project with artists from Ukraine, Belarus, and a few other European countries—this was a traveling exhibit called NOT PEACE, because it wasn’t clear at the time what was happening: some events were happening and, like now, no one could call it “war.” So we decided on that name. The exhibit featured statements and artists from a number of countries—it was a space that brought all of us together, that made it possible to speak out and also improve connections and relations with our neighbors, which was important to us because the government was pretty actively depriving us of these connections with its aggressive politics. We conducted this action over the course of half a year—we went to different cities and countries with it. It’s important to say that the exhibit was a street exhibit—back then in 2015 and 2016, there weren’t really any institutions that were willing to talk about the war and what was happening, so the exhibit was on the street. But for us artists it was still important to express ourselves in public space, which we did. And of course we were detained, just like now. The situation wasn’t so different from what’s happening now, but of course there was a lot less intimidation and a lot less violence. Still, we were already seeing arrests back then and right now I feel very bad and upset that at that time antiwar statements were being made by a very small number of people, because back then it would have been worth it for us to direct more attention to what was happening, to speak about it in more active terms. But it seemed like it was all far away, like it wasn’t really our story, so it all kind of faded out.
AO: Has that feeling changed? Do you have the feeling that the war in Ukraine is present in the cultural climate in Russia, that something has to be done about it? Has the feeling of urgency—of urgent reaction and action—taken shape?
KN: I’ve felt that sense of urgency, urgent reaction, and action since 2015, when I started going out onto the street and started talking about what was happening in my own country, here and now, both in an antiwar context and with people who were isolated and institutionalized. This has been happening for seven years, and I can’t say that in my experience any obligation to speak out has really changed. It’s become much sharper, but also much harder to reckon with, because now I get fourteen days in prison for the organization of a support group, which is the most harmless action anyone can take. For me it’s a political act, because I think uniting people is very important and necessary. The government didn’t used to pay attention to support groups as a form of mobilization, but now it’ll probably start turning in this direction. Some mechanisms of mobilization are very important in Russia, like community practice, because people, including artists and activists, are acutely separated from one another. And that, as it happens, is why there’s no coordinated, united, legible protest action.
AO: My last question: could you comment on your relationship with DOXA and the work you were doing with them? And could you say something about the general resonance of their case, and the meaning of the case for the cultural and political situation of Russia’s youth?
KN: The DOXA case is shocking to me in its absurdity. And of course those people can’t and shouldn’t be in prison. The fact that their house arrest and the ban on certain actions has been going on for over a year is absolutely unfathomable. I have a lot of anger and disappointment about this. But I don’t feel powerless because I can see how much the DOXA community and the people themselves behave with consistency, how much they continue to manage to do in spite of everything, in spite of all these difficult circumstances. Among students there are a lot of people who take consistent, rational actions. Knowing that we have that kind of community in Russia makes me less afraid to live and less afraid of the future. We were going to make an exhibit together that was going to accumulate the four DOXA defendants’ experience and their support groups—the important links in this chain, the community around the story of DOXA. We wanted to make an exhibit and for some time the guys and I were meeting about it. We had an idea of an open working group in which all kinds of people could participate and present their ideas. But when the war started we all had to get involved with different things, each of us started doing what they could do in the antiwar context, so for now we’ve paused this work, but I hope that in the near future we’ll be able to reestablish this connection.
AO: The horizon of prison has always been present in your work, the feeling that prison is intertwined with the life of Russian society—that has always been present. Has that horizon gotten much closer for students and young people, or does it remain a kind of abstraction?
KN: Well with DOXA matter, and with the huge number of different kinds of proceedings, including for antiwar protests, the huge number of cases that have to do with political prisoners, the huge number of arrests of teenagers, they’ve started to arrest and imprison people in their teens here—not for different kinds of activity, but for actions pulled from nowhere. So prison has become a reality for a huge number of young people, and this is especially painful right now. But seeing how people who are younger than me—who are 22 and 23—are continuing to fight no matter what, organizing communities around themselves, making media, going out onto the street no matter what, even today, they really give me a lot of hope. Because of people like that, I’m not ashamed to live in Russia.
—Translated from the Russian by Mark Krotov