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Fugitive Russian Protest Artist, Now Putin Supporter, Seeks Asylum In Europe

  • Tom Balmforth
  • RFE/RL's Current Time TV

A Russian performance artist who built a career thumbing his nose at the authorities now says he supports President Vladimir Putin -- even as he seeks asylum in Europe and fears arrest if he returns home.

Oleg Vorotnikov, a founding member of the Voina (War) street-art collective, says he was detained on September 18 in Prague for not having correct papers and was then arrested when authorities discovered that Moscow was seeking his extradition through Interpol over hooliganism charges.

Vorotnikov was released from custody on September 21 after promising not to leave Prague until a final decision is made on his possible extradition. His lawyer, Radim Kozub, says Vorotnikov intends to appeal for asylum in Europe, while Czech authorities have implied he will not be handed over.

Voina is known for such stunts as daubing a giant phallus on a St. Petersburg drawbridge facing the local Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters and organizing an orgy in a natural history museum in Moscow to mock the youth wing of Vladimir Putin’s ruling party.

Vorotnikov left Russia in 2011 after he and his wife, fellow activist Natalya Sokol, were detained while taking part in an opposition march in St. Petersburg. He was subsequently charged with hooliganism in connection with the march -- unfairly, he says.

But while Vorotnikov is seeking asylum in Europe, the rebel street artist has had what might seem like an unlikely change of heart: He says he is now a supporter of President Vladimir Putin as Russia’s national leader and approves of Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

In an interview with RFE/RL’s Current Time TV on September 22, Vorotnikov said his views changed during the spate of anti-Kremlin protests that broke out in big cities in late 2011 and early 2012 as Putin, then prime minister, campaigned for a return to the Kremlin.

"In 2012, I revised some of my positions after what I saw as a fairly inept attempt by the liberal intelligentsia to enter politics from the street,” Vorotnikov said. “I realized these people should not be allowed anywhere near politics.”

He praised the Russian authorities for "tenderly and gently" destroying the protest movement and described Vyacheslav Volodin, the influential deputy chief staff whom Putin tapped on September 23 to become speaker of the State Duma, as "extremely intelligent."

Vorotnikov added that he and his partner, Sokol, would like to leave Europe and move back to Russia but are wanted by the authorities there and do not know what they would do with their three children.

“We would both like to return, but it’s unclear how to do this. The Russian authorities have also dug in,” Vorotnikov said.

“We are in Prague only because we found accommodation here,” he said. “The city is beautiful, but I don’t see myself here.”

Czech Justice Minister Robert Pelikan on September 22 said he had not yet read Vorotnikov’s case file but suggested he would probably not approve his extradition to Russia.

State-run Russian news agency TASS quoted him as saying that “from what I know about this case, it seems to me unlikely that I will find something in this dossier on the basis of which I would decide to hand him over.”

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