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Ukrainian Artist Still Missing After Lampooning Separatists

The most famous installation by Donetsk artist Serhiy Zakharov doesn't leave the viewer in much doubt as to his feelings about the separatists' onetime military leader.
The most famous installation by Donetsk artist Serhiy Zakharov doesn't leave the viewer in much doubt as to his feelings about the separatists' onetime military leader.

A string of street artworks mocking separatists in eastern Ukraine has landed their author in hot water with the insurgents.

Donetsk artist Serhiy Zakharov has been missing for more than a week after adorning the streets of his hometown with pictures ridiculing local rebel leaders.

He is believed to be held by insurgents in the basement of the former Ukrainian Security Service building in Donetsk.

According to information obtained by his friends and relatives, the rebels have placed him "under investigation," fuelling fears for his life.

"It's totally unclear what he is being accused of," says his friend, Serhiy Marzurkevych, a Ukrainian writer who helped circulate photos of his work online. "All he did was display his work in the streets of Donetsk's city center, which can be considered an administrative offense at best. There is no basis for holding him in a de facto prison."

Zakharov's brother Andriy says the artist was abducted by a group of armed men during a raid of his home late on August 6. Neighbors describe the men as wearing insignias of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR). His computer and artwork were also seized.

Zakharov's installations, painted figures cut out of plywood, first appeared in the streets of Donetsk on July 11.

One of them represented Sharikov, the foolish hero of Mikhail Bulgakov's cult novel "Heart of a Dog," wearing a uniform of the DNR. The others featured separatist fighters wearing various ominous masks.

A caricature of separatist commander Arsen Pavlov, known as "Motorola," then appeared outside the registry office in Donetsk where he had gotten married several days before. Pavlov was depicted as a horned devil flanked by a zombie-like bride.

"These installations were his form of protest," Marzurkevych says. "Many people in the city have similar sentiments but not all can speak up. With his installations, he sought to show that these feelings existed."

Perhaps Zakharov's best-known installation targeted the DNR's then "defense minister," Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov. The picture, which showed Strelkov holding a gun to his head with the caption "just do it," quickly went viral on the Internet.

Although Zakharov worked alone, he cast himself as a member of the art group "Murzilki." He initially chose "Murzilka" as his artist name. But on Marzurkevych's advice, he later began using the word's plural form to give the illusion more people were involved in the project.

Today, Marzurkevych wishes he had never suggested that change. "These men are now trying to find out from him who the other group members are," he says. "They don't believe that a person can do what he did of his own free will, they think he is acting on orders from headquarters."

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    Oleksandra Vagner

    Oleksandra Vagner is an editor for RFE/RL's Russian Service, based in Prague since 2006. Born in Kyiv in 1979, she graduated from the Kyiv Institute of Journalism with a master's degree. She studied English at City College Brighton and Hove in the United Kingdom. She has worked for Ukrainian newspapers and been published in the analytical weekly Zerkalo nedeli and several European publications. She was an employee of the Czech Republic's foreign broadcasting service, Radio Prague.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues.

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