Guerrilla Art And The Subversive Soul Of Russia's Protest Movement

If you like Banksy, the now rich and famous UK street artist and activist, you'll love P183, the Russian graffiti and guerrilla artist. A member of no party, whose identity remains a mystery, P183 is emblematic of the country's growing a

(P183/Rex Features)
(P183/Rex Features)
Céline Zünd

MOSCOW - We meet P183 in Winzavod, an old winery in the heart of Moscow, converted into a maze of galleries and designer boutiques. We follow his light but quick footsteps into a studio, far from the bustle of the city's trendy cafes. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes before entering the small room where chairs hang from the ceiling.

He introduces himself as Pavel, his real first name. That's about as much as we'll learn, together with the fact that he is a descendant of the famous Russian poet Sergei Yesenin. When a photographer points his camera at him, he puts on his black balaclava and starts serving tea. P183 wants to remain as anonymous as possible so that he can continue his flirtations with illegality. At night he walks along the streets of Moscow armed with cans of spray paint, covering the city's walls with huge political and poetic frescoes.

He also produces guerilla art installations, which are the talk of the town: a girl hangs Christmas ornements on barbed wire, big black eyes scan passersby from behind a wall, surveillance cameras are adorned with machine guns.

In a graffiti inspired by a Soviet-era poster, a bomber hovers over a grandmother and a child holed up in a shelter. In the distance, the black buildings of the city look like thorns. That's P183's take on the March 4 presidential election that is sending Vladimir Putin back to the Kremlin for another term.

"Russia is in a permanent state of war between different factions trying to seize power," he says. "There's nothing ordinary people can do. Grandmothers, children, workers… They have no choice. "

Pavel began drawing when he was 11, using pieces of charcoal to scribble poems on the walls of his neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Moscow. He's 28 today, his work has been published in Russian underground magazines born from the counterculture, and foreign media like to call him "the Russian Banksy" a reference to the anonymous rebel British street artist and activist.

"I respect Banksy's work, but I don't draw inspiration from it," P183 says, distanciating himself from the now rich and famous artist.

Soviet past

P183 studied design at university but was left with the bitter feeling of having only learned how to turn art into something commercial. "I grew up at the crossroads between two eras, but I feel closer to my Soviet past. Today, money means everything. Good ideas are turned into financially profitable ventures. "

He chooses to exhibit his work on Moscow's walls, because they are "the best place to reach people directly and create personal atmospheres." Not to mention being chase through the streets by local authorities – P183's nights often end in the police station.

The police in his neighborhood know him now, and they even let him paint. But his political frescoes are quickly painted over. His installations tend to have a lifespan of several months, sometimes years. "Things get more dangerous when I get closer to the city center," he says.

He only went to jail once, when he spray-painted a colorful rainbow on a passing subway train. His romantic gesture earned him a brutal arrest.

He was thrown into a cell where he spent two days without eating, before being transferred to a mental institution. After two more days without food or water, utterly exhausted, he tried to escape through a window, clinging to the branches of a nearby tree, falling in the snow four floors below. With a broken pelvis, he couldn't move anymore. "I spent two hours on the ground, swallowing snow, before a guard found me," he recalls.

His last coup dates to before the presidential election. Moscow was seething with anger after an unprecedented wave of protests against Putin. Police patrols were everywhere. On the doors of the capital's subway, P183 glued images of riot officers armed with helmets and shields, forcing commuters to – symbolically —push the policemen.

"Anti-Putin protests are the best thing that has happened to Russia in recent years," Pavel says. "Those who take to the streets are not afraid of anything. It's the birth of a civil society in Russia. "

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo – P183/Rex Features

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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