‘You can’t do anything useful in jail,’ says leading Russian street artist
Timofey Radya talks to openDemocracy about anti-war resistance in the streets and his love for his country
It’s not an easy time to be a political street artist in Russia.
This week, artist Pavel Krisevich was sentenced to five years in prison for a political performance on Moscow’s Red Square in June 2021. Earlier this year, another artist, Alexandra Skochilenko, was detained (and is now on trial) in St Petersburg after having allegedly replaced price tags with anti-war messages in a supermarket. And authorities are cracking down on those protesting the war in Ukraine
And yet, leading Russian street artist Timofey Radya has, so far, chosen to stay in his home country – despite the increased repression.
Radya, who doesn’t show his face and works with a team, is known for installing provocative words or phrases in urban spaces, by painting them on walls or placing them on buildings.
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Some of Radya’s work is light-hearted, such as the iconic 2014 installation entitled ‘I would hug you, but I’m just a text’, which became a meme. But Radya’s pieces, which tend to appear in his home city of Yekaterinburg, are more often deeply political.
In 2020, he added the word ‘Not’ to a large billboard promoting a constitutional referendum – subverting its meaning so that it read: ‘Not - Our Country, Not - Our Constitution, Not - Our Decision!’ The following January, a photo of another of his artworks juxtaposed to a photo of protesters in the snow became a symbol of the protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny. He had installed a series of questions (‘What are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?’) in large illuminated letters on top of an old factory in Yekaterinburg.
In June this year, on Russia Day, an annual national holiday, Radya and his team mounted the words ‘Live – In the past!’ in giant letters on the top of two Yekaterinburg buildings, where there had once been Soviet slogans.
He spoke to openDemocracy about urban anti-war resistance, how to continue working and his love for Russia.
openDemocracy: Tima Radya is not just one person, is he?
Tima Radya: No… It just so happened that my name became the name of our team, but it wasn’t a conscious decision, more like an accident.
oD: How do you structure your work? Tell us how you worked on your last action, ‘Live in the past!’
TR: First, I notice a place and think of what could be there. Then I speak to people around me, show them a sketch and ask their opinion. A few years ago, everyone told me [the project ‘Live in the Past!’] was too stupid. I accepted it, but then it became clear that this is our new reality.
oD: Why did you choose these particular apartment buildings, on Cosmonauts Avenue in Yekaterinburg, for ‘Live in the past’?
TR: I’m interested in places that store fragments of time. These buildings are unique because elements of Soviet propaganda – punctuation marks and symbols – have been preserved on them. The [Soviet slogans] themselves were removed, but the skeleton [of the text] remained.
And it seems to me that this is similar to what has happened to our society in the past 30 years. It seemed that something had changed, but in fact the old skeleton had simply been filled with new muscles, albeit weak ones.
oD: Did you choose Russia Day to install the piece on purpose?
TR: Of course. It’s important to use the calendar if you deal with social and political issues in your work. And [Russia Day is] a strange holiday, fairly empty. If you can fill this void with something, as we filled these empty [ex-Soviet] frames on the roofs, then you should do it – the chance won’t come again.
oD: Two days passed between the installation and dismantling of the work. Did you watch the local residents and their reactions?
TR: For this particular piece, no. I was exhausted so I had no time to go and watch passers-by. But I understand what takes place. Once I did a piece [the ‘Landmark’ project, featuring writing on a wall] in Moscow and arrived in the morning to film it. And I saw a young woman: she was walking along the opposite side of the street. She saw the wall – her eyes were drawn to it like a magnet. She crossed the road and got closer to the wall to read the text. And at that moment I got it: ‘Wow! What an impact!’ I’ve always understood [a piece can have a great impact] but it’s something else to see it.
oD: The videos of council workers violently dismantling the letters speak for themselves.
TR: Yes, only the videos will remain. You know what they say: “We will be forgotten by the era, well, fuck it!” [A lyric from a song by Belarusian hip-hop band UNNV, ‘Killed, But Not By You’].
oD: What are your influences?
TR: Music influenced me a lot. I started listening to bands like Rage Against the Machine and Contra la Contra when I was at school. This led me to anarchist ideas.
I grew up in anti-fascist circles, with the zines and publishing house of Ilya Kormiltsev [a Russian poet, translator and publisher, most famous for having worked as a songwriter for popular rock band Nautilus Pompilius], which was very active and published good books, now banned. I managed to absorb them. And when I started studying philosophy, it allowed me to understand ideas in depth.
Plus there’s the charge that music and anarchism gave me.
There is an expression: “people with a heightened sense of justice”. I think it's not an entirely correct description. This sense of justice is either there in a person, or it is not. And I have it. Everything I talk about comes from this feeling.
It’s actually quite useful, because when you think about justice and society, you think about those who, let's say, are weaker, poorer, less educated, or have some serious physical problem. And supporting all these people, in my opinion, makes a society successful, humane and advanced. I work as an artist, but one way or another, these are my values.
oD: How did Yekaterinburg become known as Russia’s capital of street art?
TR: It’s important to understand that the concept of ‘the capital of street art’ was created by people who wanted to come up with something that the authorities would like. I learned about it quite recently and have always been repelled by this wording.
If we have a street art capital, should we make a street art Kremlin and a street art tsar?
oD: Tell us how the street art community works in Russia. From the outside, it looks like a close-knit institution that has its own festivals and speaks out regularly and loudly.
TR: It's definitely not an institution. These are people who work and are engaged in creative practice. They don’t work inside [a structure] but outside. I wouldn’t say that they share some kind of strong, ideological affinity. Rather, they are small groups, so they’re always effective.
Small teams appear in Russian cities. They are independent of each other. But even a small team can do a lot. New creators are constantly appearing. This is a movement that can’t be stopped. Its fragmentation plays an important role. If you have some kind of structure, it can be subdued, led and beheaded. If it's something horizontal, then it flows through your fingers – you won't catch it. That matters.
oD: You and other artists participate in auctions and donate the earnings to human rights activists. What percentage of revenue do you give them?
TR: Half to human rights activists, and half to us. We’re in the same boat. We live in a police state, which is going through a moment critical for its existence. Citizens are under maximum pressure. Yet we still, much to my surprise, have some kind of support system. This means we must support the existence of these organisations. They’ve helped me and my friends.
oD: How have they helped?
TR: When I was detained, I was assisted by a lawyer from the Apology of Protest [an organisation offering legal help to detained protesters].
Without that lawyer, of course, it would have been more difficult. [In April 2021, Radya was sentenced to 39 hours of compulsory work for taking part in a pro-Navalny protest in January.]
oD: What’s the highest sum one of your pieces has sold for?
TR: Tens of thousands of euros [for the piece ‘If only I could embrace you, but I'm just a text’]. Not some fabulous sum.
oD: Depends how you look at it.
TR: Depends on what you compare it to. How much is a tank worth?
oD: Where do the texts you use in your pieces come from?
TR: Mostly from me. Sometimes the team makes suggestions, but I have developed a sense for words and phrases that sound poetic. I read and listen to everything around me carefully. And there’s so much that it’s impossible not to find something worthwhile in it.
For me, language is an investigation, a big expedition. I’m very concerned about the idea that language limits thoughts. And I often think about the words of Martin Heidegger, who said that language is the house of being.
It seems to me that this definition is quite sensible. I think that if language is a house, then poetry plays the role of a master key that can unlock this house. This is what it’s for. By transferring poetic text to the urban environment, one can achieve strong chemical and electrical reactions, existential discharges.
oD: Is the Russian language essential to you?
TR: No, I’ve done many pieces in English and French. But Russian is important, because I very much feel the connection between reality and the city, soul and one’s vocabulary.
oD: Do you pay attention to graffiti in the city?
TR: Yes, because if you don’t look at what’s written on the walls you become a person who looks at his feet. I read the walls carefully. All the people who write something on the walls of the city are my allies.
That’s what we see in the streets: people write on the walls not because they want fame and money, but to make their voice heard.
oD: Your work focuses on politics. Do you ever get tired of it?
TR: No, that’s like asking: ‘Do you get tired of breathing?’ For me they’re synonymous. What I understand by politics is that it’s not just some people’s jobs, but how the world works, how we interact with each other. I think that people really lack this understanding.
oD: You’ve been active for 12 years. Have you become less radical? After all, you started under Dmitry Medvedev [Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012 and then prime minister until 2020] – in liberal Russia, one might say.
TR: I would say that Medvedev started with me. But I think that radicalisation is exactly what I, and Russian citizens in general, lack.
oD: Out of fear?
TR: Due to fear or lack of preparation and organisation. There are many people who are not afraid. But it’s one thing not to be afraid, and another to act together in an organised manner. That requires a lot of work.
I try to listen to the public atmosphere. You can’t always understand things from the inside. Usually, it all becomes clearer after a few years: you look and think – so that's what it was!
Take the winter of 2021 in Yekaterinburg [after the return of Alexey Navalny to Russia]. The atmosphere is tense. There’s a big protest planned for the next day. I felt it’d be a good moment to do something and, looking at my notes, I found a lyric from the band I.F.K, which had been with me for 15 years: ‘What are we going to do tomorrow if there is no one to trust today?’
I thought: ‘It’s very powerful and if you put it up the day before the rally, you’ll encourage everyone to take to the streets.’
oD: Are you attached to the news cycle?
TR: It’s what I work with. Sometimes it’s important to use the news cycle, calendar dates and so on. My work is based on reality itself.
oD: During the first months of the war, you didn’t speak out about it through your work?
TR: I spoke out in the early days, publicly. I said everything I thought about it. And then I looked for the most effective statement, something that could touch a person. For this, direct and widely used formulations won’t work. You need to think in a more subtle way.
Well, the rules of the game now are such that if you stay in Russia and speak directly about the war, most likely you will end in prison. And there’s no point to that. You have to look for an opportunity [to say things differently].
oD: It means you are careful.
TR: What else can I do? I think of Pavel Krisevich [a Russian protest artist who was sentenced to five years in prison in October 2022], who I really appreciate as an artist. He was one jump ahead. It's a shame that he’s in jail. We’re missing his voice.
oD: Have the war and subsequent bans on protest damaged the Russian art community?
TR: No, rather the opposite. This is a very specific situation. You need to work carefully. And the bans are serious limitations. Doing something big is hard. Even to change price tags in a store [as artist Alexandra Skochilenko is said to have done], you should at least cover your face and not use your bank card to pay after. Not all people understand this, but they learn quickly.
oD: And what about legality in terms of art in Russia: what can be called legal today and what cannot?
TR: That’s not relevant anymore. I won’t pretend that the law works and that we live in a state of law. We are [experiencing] something else. What’s possible and what isn’t? Well, obviously, there are direct triggers [that can lead you to being arrested]: references to ‘the king’ [Putin], to wars and, perhaps, using anti-war slogans. But then everything depends on the situation and is decided based on how loud and impudent a statement is, and whether it has gone viral in the media.
oD: You said you have always believed that there is an antidote to war: honest journalism, works of art and civic solidarity. But don't you think that in the past six months everything has collapsed to the extent that there is no one left to tell the truth?
TR: I think it's an illusion that it’s all collapsed. It's just that the conversation is now held in the language of weapons and fire. It’s very loud and drowns out other voices. But the war will end, and these people will no longer have the opportunity to speak. They will listen to what we say.
oD: Have you felt resistance to the war in cities?
TR: Of course, much more often than supportive statements.
oD: How have you felt this resistance?
TR: In life. In what people say to each other, how they look at each other. Signs of protest are visible in the street, and they are real: words on the street weigh much more than words on the internet. So when I see anti-war signs, I feel like I’m meeting allies.
oD: Have you seen any anti-war rhetoric that has grabbed your attention?
TR: A crossed-out swastika and the inscription: ‘Boys against garbage.’ I would like to hang it on the wall of the Kremlin for 9 May [Victory Day].
oD: Where do you draw the line between a post on Facebook and going out into the streets?
TR: This is something everyone should ask themselves. I go outside. In my opinion, going out is important and necessary.
oD: You’re not going to leave Russia. Why not?
TR: I’m interested in Russia. I love this place and I want to live here. These are dark times, of course, but we can do things differently. If I left, I don’t even know what I’d do. There are, of course, people who work from afar, but the possibilities are limited.
oD: And what would be the last straw?
TR: Well, the choice between emigration and prison is not easy. You can’t do anything useful in prison.
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