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Artist Loses University Post Over Anti-Kremlin Protest

Russian artist Yelizaveta Savolainen with the banner she used to protest against a lecture by a pro-Kremlin activist at the Russian State University for the Humanities.

Russian artist Yelizaveta (Liza) Savolainen knows how to make a statement even when she is not exactly protesting.

When Savolainen was summoned by the administration of the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU) to be dismissed from her job as an instructor, she showed up in a crown of barbed wire and a dress made from a potato sack.

"I thought about it for a long time and decided that the best thing for me would be to get out of this situation with my honor and not to provoke any more scandals or harm the people in my department," she tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "But since I'm an artist, I couldn't just go silently, so I made a little performance."

Her dismissal -- which was officially registered by the university as "at her own request" -- comes after several weeks of online persecution following her participation in a May 21 protest against a speech at the university by Nikolai Starikov, a leader of the pro-Kremlin Anti-Maidan group.

Starikov was speaking about the danger of a "color revolution" -- a Kremlin term for popular uprisings that have toppled governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan -- in Russia.

While other faculty and students obstructed Starikov's speech and shouted him down, Savolainen merely hung up a banner with a symbol indicating "no vatniks," using a slang pejorative term for people with Soviet mentalities.

Upon reflection, Savolainen feels she was wrong to protest within the walls of the university.

"That is why I went to the director and apologized, saying that it was not right of me to bring some sort of protest or banners into an academic setting," Savolainen says.

"Outside the walls of RGGU, I can do what I want, whatever comes into my head," she adds. "Inside RGGU, such things shouldn't be done and I apologized for that -- that I protested inside RGGU."

She says she made the decision to display the banner spontaneously, and that she made the banner "10 minutes before I left home."

Nonetheless, she has become the first person to pay a price for the May 21 protest. She says she was a convenient target for Starikov and his supporters -- whom Savolainen describes as "trolls."

Liza Savolainen with the crown of barbed wire that she wore to her disciplinary hearing.
Liza Savolainen with the crown of barbed wire that she wore to her disciplinary hearing.

"Starikov looked through my old archives [online], found my performances from 2013 in which I wore a provocative crown of pink rubber," she says, describing a performance in which she wore a wedding dress with a veil prominently featuring sex toys. "So they made an example of me -- saying I was the organizer of the student protest."

Activists in Russia suspect that Starikov's appearance at the university was supported by the Kremlin and was one of a string of similar initiatives seemingly aimed at bolstering support for the policies of President Vladimir Putin.

Other prominent Anti-Maidan figures have addressed universities, including Aleksandr Zaldostanov, the leader of the Night Wolves, a pro-Kremlin motorcycle club, and Oleg Tsaryov, a leading separatist figure in Ukraine.

For her part, Savolainen is fairly sanguine about what has happened and said she will continue to work with RGGU on an informal basis and move ahead with her career.

"Now the name of Liza Savolainen is known, albeit in a rather negative way," she says. "It is working and now it is just a matter of how I will develop my art strategy."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague
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    Mark Krutov

    Mark Krutov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service and one of the leading investigative journalists in Russia. He has been instrumental in the production of dozens of in-depth reports, exposing corruption among Russia's political elite and revealing the murky operations behind Kremlin-led secret services. Krutov joined RFE/RL in 2003 and has extensive experience as both a correspondent and a TV host.