July 15, 2022

With Mouths Sewn Shut

With Mouths Sewn Shut
Nadezha Saifutdinova, who sewed her mouth shut. Yekaterinburg.

A solitary picketer stood in the center of Yekaterinburg on May 4, 2022, carrying a sign that read “War Is Not Peace! Silent No More!” Her name was Nadezhda Saifutdinova, and her lips were stitched through with red thread, her mouth sewn shut in protest. From where the threads entered the skin hung tiny drops of congealed blood. Saifutdinova was arrested by police and carted off.

People have also been detained for doing other, less shocking things, such as tying a green ribbon of peace on a fence, wearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag, or standing on the street dressed in mourning and holding a rose. And this is because the current context, dangerous yet simultaneously absurd, is poised to elevate practically any form of expression into performance art. A new kind of protestor, wry and sarcastic, has appeared and seems to be competing to find the most elegant way of underscoring this anti-utopian reality. There have been arrests for holding up a blank sheet of paper or for wrapping sausage in packaging that has the word “peace” as part of the brand name. There have been arrests for wielding signs featuring antiwar quotations from Lev Tolstoy, Putin, and Leopold the Cat (once a beloved Soviet-era cartoon character, now a meme, whose tag line is “Guys, let’s all just get along!”). But all that might have gone unnoticed had there been no arrests, because the arrests were the very thing that transformed the brandishing of those quotes into works of conceptual art.

Yet no one remembers these protests for more than a couple of days. Not only the tamer ones are soon forgotten: a blank piece of paper is one thing, but surely a blood-smeared mouth should have an impact? However, in the week of Saifutdinova’s demonstration, the headlines on antigovernment blog sites were all about the fighting, while the social media mavens were eagerly parsing the anti-Semitic statements made the day before by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Virtually no one had anything to say about that bloody mouth in Yekaterinburg. By way of comparison, when Piotr Pavlenski sewed his mouth shut in support of the Pussy Riot members arrested in 2012, literally everyone was talking about that. It happened, though, in a completely different country, where the machinery of repression had barely begun to function, the independent media outlets hadn’t been annihilated, and, most important of all, there was no war.

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