A Ukrainian artist-activist and blogger Alexander Volodarsky (internet pseudonym Shiitman) is facing a trail in Kiev criminal court that can lead to a serious jail sentence. In November 2009, Alexander Volodarsky organized an action of protest against The Law of Protection of Public Morals, a legislation issued by Ukrainian Parliament in 2003, which laid out the foundation for further cultural censorship in the country. The brainchild of this legislation, National Expert Committee, has banned the circulation of newspapers, books and films, among which there were “Hostel”, “Saw,” “Bruno,” and others. The Committee also shut down the biggest Ukrainian file exchange service infostore.org and popular blog proza.com.ua.
Despite that the law had infuriated many journalists and cultural practitioners (especially in the period 2007-08, when it was used in the most aggressive way), and affected the internet as an important zone of freedom in Ukraine, the protests against the National Expert Committee were scarce and didn’t get enough coverage by national media. At this point, Volodarsky made a decision to organize a performance involving local youth and members of artists’ communities – an action, which he thought would bring more attention to this issue from national press and Ukrainian lawmakers. Thinking of the most possibly radical way of expression, Volodarsky came up with the scenario when he and a female member of the local theater, naked, imitated sexual intercourse in front of the Verkhovnaya Rada (Ukrainian Parliament), while simultaneously, another artist and friend from Poland, pretending to be a foreign filmmaker, was publicly addressing his frustration over not being able to show the film his crew brought in Ukraine because of the censorship. He stressed that while the film is extremely popular everywhere abroad, local bureaucracy doesn’t allow showing this film to Ukrainian people, and that’s the reason why they were doing this action in cold weather in November in front of the Parliament.
Exactly at this moment the members of local religious groups, who lived nearby in the park, intervened, trying to attack – with the steel sticks in their hands – the performers and journalists, who came to cover the action, and this apparently had attracted police attention (a usual scenario in Russia and Ukraine when religious fanatics first attack the artists, then file law suits against them, or initiate the “witch-hunting” campaigns leading to the shameful trials.) Police immediately arrested Volodarsky’s female partner, and later, the artist himself. While the girl, who didn’t identify herself, managed to escape during the ruckus, Volodarsky, whose passport was ceased by police, remained in their hands.
The further development was dreadful. In police precinct, the artist received his portion of humiliation and threats when police promised to incriminate him in rape and drug possession, prevented him from contacting his own attorney, forcing him instead to accept a former police as his attorney. Contrary to the expectations that he would get away with paying fine, Volodarsky ended up in custody for 1,5 months on charges of malicious hooliganism. He was released from there only due to the massive media campaign (http://free.shiitman.net/lang/eng/actions/ ), organized by local artists and journalists; protesters even broke through police security of President Yuschenko to deliver him a petition. In hearings on January 4th, 2010, the judge admitted police violations and denial of legal defense in the artist’s case. Nevertheless, Volodarsky still faces the trial with the possibility of jail sentence up to 5 years.
Criminal law suits against artists became frequent in post-Soviet countries (smac already reported about similar case in Russia: http://www.smac.us/2009/05/21/artem-loskutov/ ), which have gone dangerously far away from establishing democratic institutions protecting freedom of speech and human rights. While Ukraine, thanks to Orange Revolution, has been considered as the most vibrant civil society among the former Soviet republics, the censorship still exists there. Yuschenko’s government and the cabinet of prime-minister Timoshenko, when plunging the country in deep financial and political crisis, didn’t do much about bringing the malicious Law of Protection of the Public Morals down and protect artists and journalists against prosecution in criminal courts. The freedom in Ukraine may essentially decline after the new elections, which have brought more conservative and corrupt administration that will likely implement harsh pro-Russian style of governing. International solidarity and support are needed in Ukraine as never before.