Outlaw Berlin Biennale Curator Stages Daring Escape From Russian Jail Cell

Outlaw Berlin Biennale Curator Stages Daring Escape From Russian Jail Cell
Leonid Nikolaev whistling in protest of illegitimate elections, shortly before his arrest
(Courtesy Free Voina)

For a short time this weekend, the Berlin Biennale lost one of its associate curators. Last week, it was announced that the Russian collective Voina ("War") would help organize the event. Amid the recent mass protests against perceived corruption in the Russian elections, Leonid Nikolaev, a member of the group was arrested, abused, denied a lawyer, and — in a near-unbelievable feat early Sunday morning — escaped from the police station where he was being held.

According to a journal entry worthy of an action hero, the entirety of which can be seen at Voina's Web site, Nikolaev reached Pushkin Square for the demonstration 10 minutes late, finding most of the other prominent activists already arrested. Taking out a whistle, he roused the crowd into a rhythmic rendition of  the “Internationale," the socialist anthem, to which the police responded by quickly closing in on the singing group.

Two escape attempts later, one of which almost resulted in Nikolaev being hit by a passing minivan, he claims to have found himself being dragged, spitting and struggling, between police stations, as the authorities tried to identify him (Nikolaev commonly goes by "Vassily from Cherepovets" or "Leo the Fucknut" in such situations). After finally bartering his fingerprints for the abusive officers’ names and credentials — also published in his journal entry — he was deposited quietly, though still without access to his lawyer, in a section of the station for detainees.

Not to be kept from his plans that evening with fellow Voina member Oleg Voronikov, Nikolaev found the magnetic door to his cell area unattended. After slipping his fingers in the doorframe as one of the guards exited, he escaped with James Bond-like stealth and walked briskly outside. The incident inspired "rage" in the artist, who noted that the cops had messed up three times: "By roughing me up during fingerprinting. This is a criminal offense (abuse of authority and batter), by accepting a bribe in my presence, and by letting me get away. This is also a criminal offense (negligence)."

This isn’t the first time Voina members have escaped police detention. Natalya Sokol (also known as Kozljonok or Koza) slipped past the authorities on April 1st as she was being taken to court and Voronikov escaped arrest on October 18th in a daring bike chase. A recent press release from Voina accuses Russian police of trying to trap Sokol by planning to arrest her at a court hearing. 

Though Voina aren’t expected to participate within the Berlin Biennale’s official curatorial program — they are "associate curators" in name only, having been given the title by actual curator Artur ?mijewski —  these subversive antics give the impression that the already highly politically engaged event should be nothing less than revolutionary. The city’s yuppies and the “neoliberal art world elite,” who are said to be Voina's target during the exhibition’s run, better watch their backs.